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.
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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.

On Beets, Rice, and Writing Family History

May 3, 2016 § Leave a comment

Cover-Draft-03-68-Corrected-for-DMT-16Feb2016-front-cover-JPEG-FRAMED-01Mar2016-copy-199x300Each issue of Brevity is fueled by generous volunteers and chief among them is our brilliant copy editor Sharon DeBartolo Carmack who tirelessly and cheerfully finds our mistakes and makes them right before readers have a chance to scratch their collective heads. Sharon is a writer as well, and a genealogist, so Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore recently talked with her about her newest book, Tell It Short: A Guide to Writing Your Family History in Brief.

Dinty: When I teach summer workshops for adults, I often meet folks who can’t seem to decide if they are writing memoir or family history. Do you have a simple, clear way to distinguish between these two types of writing?

Sharon: A simple, clear way to distinguish memoir from family history is the focus. Is the story mostly about the writer and the writer’s experiences? Or is it more about the writer’s family or ancestors? I’d call The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls a memoir because the primary focus is Walls’s story. Yes, it’s also about her family, but Walls’s childhood experience is the focal point.

Conversely, I’d call a book like Rebecca McClanahan’s The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change a family history memoir. The focus of the book is McClanahan’s family history. McClanahan is in the story, but her role is to act as the bridge that connects the family history.

A story strictly about family and ancestors without the author’s presence in the narrative is a family history. A classic is Gerald McFarland’s A Scattered People: An American Family Moves West. He’s narrating the story of his ancestors, but he’s not in the story.

Dinty: You are a Certified Genealogist. Some of the regular Brevity blog readers may not know what that is. Can you explain, and how does that role fit with your role as a writing coach?

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack

Sharon: A Certified Genealogist® has had her work evaluated against the set of standards for competence and ethics in the field of genealogy by demonstrating not only the ability to research and accurately document a lineage, but to also reconstruct the lives of individual ancestors. No one wants to hang the wrong ancestors on their family tree, so solid genealogical research involves much critical analysis to ensure each person’s identity from others who have the same name. Genealogists also study the community in which ancestors lived to gain a better understanding of ancestors’ lives.

As a writing coach and instructor who is also a Certified Genealogist®, I specialize in and teach both genealogists and non-genealogists how to weave the specific information about their families and ancestors in with the context of their community or social history to bring the stories to life. Quite often, our ancestors did not leave letters, diaries, or written accounts of their lives to tell us what their motives were or why they acted a particular way. Social history can fill in those gaps.

Dinty: What is the difference between writers adding in disconnected historical details and writers using relevant social history? 

Sharon: Let’s first define social history. Social histories examine the everyday lives of everyday people (the majority of our ancestors) in a community or society, unlike traditional history, which generally focuses on events set in motion by elite, wealthy, powerful, influential, famous, old, dead, white men. Social histories examine the lives of women, children, minorities, and the working class. They can often explain how these people lived day to day and why our ancestors behaved in a certain way.

For example, I discovered that my Italian great-grandfather Albino DeBartolo came to America, then went back and forth between countries two times before he brought his wife and children here. Through social histories about Italian immigrants in the early twentieth century, I learned he was a typical “bird of passage,” someone who had not intended to settle in America, but traveled here to earn money during off seasons of work in Italy. Eventually, however, he decided there were more or better opportunities here and permanently moved his whole family. I wouldn’t have understood that behavior without learning the social history.

This is what I mean by relevant social history; it’s relevant to my great-grandfather’s experience. History that wouldn’t be relevant would include famous events that had no impact on my ancestor or that did not relate to his experience. Say Albino came to America in April 1912, the month and year the Titanic sank. Unless he was on that ship or supposed to be on that ship, that event is of no relevance to my Italian great-grandfather’s life.

Dinty: I love the fact that you spend time examining the importance of food in family memoir or family history.  I think food defines our childhoods more than many are willing to admit, probably because we think of our family eating habits as “normal,” because they were normal for us.  But there is so much variation. What’s your food story?

Sharon: Food played a huge role in my childhood. Through food, I discovered I was half Italian. I wrote an essay about this called “Rectangular Pizza,” which appears in my forthcoming essay collection, Inheriting the Gordon Hips (Scattered Leaves Press). We had left New York when I was five and moved to a white-bread neighborhood in southern California. In that move, someone forgot to pack my ethnic identity.

My Italian-American father, who was a picky eater, had a significant impact on the foods we ate. I guess many 1950s-1960s American kids grew up in a meat-and-potatoes household. Not me. I was an adult before I realized that flank steak wasn’t always stewed in a tomato sauce, and pork chops weren’t always breaded and served with a tomato sauce.

On those rare nights when my dad worked late, my mom pulled out all the gastronomic stops. She fixed for me that heavenly, ooey-gooey, orangey, stick-to-your-teeth, Kraft macaroni and cheese. When Mom felt a stroke of culinary inspiration coming on, she’d even chop up and mix in a boiled Oscar Mayer hot dog. And so I’d get my vegetables, in went a drained, half can of pale peas.

After spending a weekend at my aunt’s, I came home and insisted my mom make “them purple things” I’d eaten there. For the life of her, she couldn’t figure out what “them purple things” were. She called her sister and learned they were beets. Mom wasn’t allowed to serve a vegetable as exotic as that. Canned peas, corn, and string beans were the only vegetables on my dad’s list of approved foods.

I also ate rice at my aunt’s. At home, our usual side dish was macaroni, served with either tomato sauce or Crisco oil (olive oil was too expensive). Mom rarely made rice, and when she did, it was white and like crunching on coarse sand. Aunt Sister’s rice had flavor and a pale yellow hue. Mom asked her for the recipe. She boiled Uncle Ben’s with a cube of chicken bouillon in the water and a tablespoonful of butter, then she stirred in more butter after it was cooked. I make rice the same way to this day, some fifty years later.

These life-changing food experiences made me realize that a whole world of foods, ones without tomato sauce, waited for me. But I credit my father’s picky habits for expanding my culinary and cultural curiosity.
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Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, MFA, CG, is the author of twenty-two books, including Tell It Short: A Guide to Writing Your Family History in Brief, You Can Write Your Family History, and the forthcoming Inheriting the Gordon Hips, a collection of humorous essays. Sharon teaches various online courses in genealogy and family history writing for Salt Lake Community College’s Certificate in Genealogical Research and Writing program. Her websites are www.SharonCarmack.com and www.NonfictionHelp.com.

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