The Unspoken in Writing Family Histories
February 11, 2022 § 6 Comments
By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack
Premarital sex. Abandonment. Divorce. A love child. Mental illness. Domestic abuse. Betrayal. Alcoholism. Suicide and other tragic deaths.
Many of these subjects lurk, often unspoken, in our family histories. Yet those of us who want to write our family histories need to decide how to handle these skeletons. I dealt with all of these situations in my family history, If We Can Winter This: Essays and Genealogies, The Gordon Family of County Leitrim, Ireland, and The Norris Family of County Tyrone, (now) Northern Ireland.
I’ve written a dozen family histories in my career as a professional genealogist, both for clients and on my own families. In every person’s family tree, there are bones rattling in closets. But I write only about dead people, never the living. The living have rights to privacy; the dead do not.
If you have solid documentation or reliable sources, you do not need anyone’s permission to write about the dead (public figures are a different story). Consequently, you may have some disgruntled relatives once your book comes out. If you feel you need to ask permission, be prepared to hit delete if someone has a problem with what you’ve written. I had a client who made me cut material. I had written that the average, everyday woman in the eighteenth century, one like her ancestor, was not particularly focused on housework for cleanliness. While historically correct and documented, she felt this cast her long-dead, many-times-great-grandmother in a bad light, so she wanted that taken out. You never know what will upset the living.
If you’re writing your own family history, you decide what to include and what not. I don’t believe in sugar-coating ancestral life stories or asking anyone’s permission to write about dead relatives. My feeling is our ancestors were human, and we need to be honest about their lives. They struggled. And with those struggles comes inspiration and hope for the living.
What makes their stories more compelling and less shocking, though, is putting a person’s conditions into historical perspective. Times may change, but people do not. For example, I have several relatives who suffered from mental illnesses. Not only did I research mental illness for the given time period and circumstances, but I also consulted with a psychotherapist to understand how these people likely suffered. After all, until fairly recently, mental health diagnoses and treatments were considered shocking and rarely discussed.
Thankfully, my health insurance covered mental health visits with a $10 co-pay, so I made an appointment. When I arrived, and he asked me why I was there. I said, “Oh, it’s not for me. I’d like you to help me diagnose my ancestors’ mental illnesses.” Once his surprise wore off, he was most accommodating.
I explained that my great-aunt, forty-nine-year-old Mary (Gordon) Clark, a widow, was afraid to live in her house in Greenwich, Connecticut, which I learned from a newspaper article. In 1908, she told her sister, Annie, someone had tried to break in. Annie, living in neighboring Port Chester, New York, took Mary and her young son in while renovations were done on the house to make her feel safer.
Mary wasn’t always fearful, though. Before moving in with Annie, Mary managed her sewing business well, and she made a comfortable living for herself and her son. But an incident a few months prior triggered her instability. Mary had boarded a trolley car in Greenwich, and finding no seat available, she stood. As she reached to grab the leather ceiling strap, the car lurched forward. Witnesses said she “fell heavily”—she being a “large woman”—and struck the back of her head.
After a few weeks, all the renovations had been completed. Mary and her twelve-year-old son would return to the house in Greenwich. But that afternoon, Annie found Mary in the kitchen, blood seeping onto her shirtwaist.
Mary had a deep wound in her abdomen. A knife on the table had no blood on it, but a can opener did. But the knife had to be the weapon. Had Mary wiped the knife clean? Mary made no attempt to deny or affirm her action.
Annie called Dr. Quinlan, who came to the apartment. He did what he could to dress Mary’s wound, but decided it was best to call for an ambulance to take Mary to Ladies Hospital.
Mary died five days after she stabbed herself. Her death certificate records that her self-inflicted wound became infected. But her chief cause of death was “Burns of scalp, neck and shoulders. Laceration of abdomen.” Contributing was “peritonitis (septic), self inflicted stab in abdomen. Set fire to her hair.”
I showed the death certificate to the therapist. Although ruled a suicide at the time, that isn’t exactly what happened to Mary. Historically, women tended to swallow pills or overdose on laudanum, or they slit their wrists. They didn’t stab themselves in the abdomen.
The therapist also said that a person attempting suicide wouldn’t have wiped clean the knife everyone believed was the weapon. Yet, there was blood on the vintage can opener.
The therapist suspected Mary heard voices. She was already paranoid before hitting her head on the trolley, and we don’t know if that caused brain swelling or bleeding. The injury could have exacerbated her symptoms. Perhaps more likely, Mary tried to cut out of her body her perceived intruders with the can opener. And to silence the voices in her bedeviled mind, she set her head on fire. She wasn’t trying to end her life, but her fear.
By putting Mary’s condition into modern-day light, I was able to remove the stigma of suicide about the aunt no one ever talked about. I was also able to give her illness a probable diagnosis, something that wasn’t likely to happen in 1908.
While we don’t want to take ancestors out of their historical context, we do want to portray them with sensitivity and without judgment as human and sympathetic individuals. So no matter what the unspoken skeleton is in your family history—and I have many in mine—in most situations, you can handle it with care and empathy by researching the context of the times and shedding new light on their circumstances.
Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is a thirty-plus-year veteran Certified Genealogist® with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing. She is Brevity’s copy editor, and the author of twenty-five books in addition to If We Can Winter This, including You Can Write Your Family History, Tell It Short: A Guide to Writing Your Family History in Brief, the biography In Search of Maria B. Hayden: The American Medium Who Brought Spiritualism to the U.K., and her forthcoming memoir, Midlife Medium: A Genealogist’s Quest to Converse with the Dead (Koehler Books, June 2022). Visit her websites, www.TheGenealogyMedium.com or www.SharonCarmack.com.
A fascinating process. This speaks to what I’m working on, too. “My feeling is our ancestors were human, and we need to be honest about their lives. They struggled. And with those struggles comes inspiration and hope for the living.”
Our California redwoods are even fire resistant. No wonder they last so long. Wonderful images, Mitch. Reminds me of Kilmer’s line about poetry and trees. Bob
Great post. I write about my life, and just released my first book Lessons of a Wayward Yogini, a memoir. I just said recently, I wouldn’t have published this book while my mother was still alive. Your thoughts will be helpful going forward, as I still have much to say. Thank you!
Thank you for sharing your experience. I also write about the family skeletons and nice stories, too. Definitely stick to dead people! Mental illness issues can be especially tricky. Your solution was excellent. I will try that, too. The empathy is where I struggle – I’m such a fact-oriented person. It is something I am striving to improve in my writing.
Great post, Sharon! I appreciate how you let us in on your process to learn more about the context of your relative’s life. As I wrap up my own memoir, I see a few places where I could seek out a bit more information about mental illness in other eras. Looking forward to your book!
I really like your blog. I’m glad you shared it with us. Keep it up. Looking forward to the next.😊