Intentional Acts of Genealogy Terrorism

Randy over at Genea Musings posted this piece on October 8th. He then asked if other genealogists had altered records for various reasons.  He asked these questions:

*  Have you ever done something like an IAOGT (Intentional Act of Genealogical Terrorism)?  If so, why?

*  Was anybody intellectually, physically or emotionally hurt by this act?

*  What should Ruth do with the copy of the record that she modified?

*  When should we “hide” family history information that might harm a relative’s mental or physical state?

I can honestly say that I have never altered a record.  I believe that whatever information is recorded should stay as thus–even if it’s wrong.  That doesn’t mean I won’t correct the mistake in my findings (providing proof, of course!)

I can also honestly say that I have withheld information from certain relatives.  I have the original data and then give that person the new and improved family history (though I do not include the document with the information I am withholding).

I’ll give a couple of examples of when I found this necessary.

The first involved my Grandma, the greatest family history revisionist that ever lived.  I found that my Grandma was very tight with information.  In order to get her to answer questions, I had to sort of sneak up on her when she didn’t realize I was probing her.  I had to keep in mind that certain things could set my Grandma off.  If I hit those topics, she clammed up and that was the end of that.

As I said, she revised history–many times.  When I realized that she was doing these things deliberately, it only took one confrontation before I decided that it was better to let sleeping dogs lie where she was concerned.

The first time I confronted her was over the cause of my Great Grandfather’s death (her Father-in-Law).  I found out that he died of leprosy.  When I approached my Grandma, I was not prepared for her rage.  The stigma of this disease was so shocking to her that 70 years after her death, it was almost blasphemy to bring it up in her presence.

I learned from the incidence and later chose my words more carefully with her.  I remember when I got her marriage certificate .  I was surprised to find she was married a year earlier than what she claimed and that she was 5 months pregnant when she was married.  Instead of asking her about it, I kept two versions of her information.  One for her with her revised life story and one for the rest of the family.  In this way, I kept the peace and I was able to get more family stories from her.

Another example of when I’ve kept information to myself was when it threatened the family story of a very dear elderly woman.  This story was the basis of their family history and a story that she took much pride in.

The story was about her Father.  She told me about how he was  a stowaway on a ship to Hawaii.  The passengers hid him.  When he got to Hawaii without papers, someone sponsored him so he could stay.  He was only 14 or 15 at the time.  He refused to give his last name to the officials in case they changed their minds and sent him home.  His hair was very long and unkempt, so they gave him the surname “Jesus”.

Well, the diligent researcher that I am, I decided to see if I could find him on a list of stowaways.  I never did find him because he was born in Hawaii!  It was his Father who was the immigrant and his Father came over the legal way.

I could have told her that her family story was a myth.  But, my distant cousins was in her 80’s and very sick at the time.  How would she feel if the story she had been told by her parents from the time she was a little girl was a lie?  Would she believe me or would she think I was a liar and stop talking to me?  I decided that it did no harm for her die peacefully with her family story intact.  I do have all the information in my binders.  If a descendant ever contacts me, I will pass it on to them.

The last example of my revisionism involved a far more sensitive matter.  I was researching a cousin’s paternal line for her when I came across something I didn’t think she knew.  Her Father was adopted.  I weighed it out many times.  Should I tell her?  Should I not?  I contacted a mutual cousin who was already researching the tree to see if this story was known to the family and just new to me.  She had never heard it before, which left me with a dilemma.

This cousin was also elderly.  How would it affect her to find out that her Grandparents weren’t her Father’s real parents, but his adoptive parents?  It was a common practice among the Portuguese community.  Couples without children took a child from someone who could no longer feed all their children.  Family helped family when a spouse died.  It wasn’t uncommon for these adoptions to happen and for everyone involved to know about it.

I decided to withhold the information until I could test her out some more.  Sometimes a person will reveal the information and then you know it’s no big thing.  She never did.  I lost contact with her, so I never had to decide on whether I should tell her.

If one of her grandkids comes along and wants to know the family story after she has passed away, I’ll hand them the documents I’ve found.  Until then, it stays in my binder, but not in my database.

Although I have never physically changed information on a record, you can see that I have held back facts when I felt it necessary.  I do feel a genealogist must be aware that they have a certain responsibility when they pull up details of another person’s life.  Having this knowledge doesn’t mean we must always blast it all over the world.  We must consider other people’s feelings when we come across sensitive material.  Being right isn’t as important as being responsible.  Showing a little empathy for those who so kindly share their family stories with us is only fair.

Here is the original post from Ruth that started this discussion:

Intentional Acts of Genealogy Terrorism

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Comments

  1. Lots of good reading here, and lots to think about. Me thinks most of us have at least one “issue” like this that we soft shoe around, for all those reasons you stated. I cannot even blog about mine, the parties involved are still alive.

  2. You are thoughtful. Since I am public away from family, and half of them don’t know I blog, I am not conscious of relative pressure in what I reveal. But have been conscious all the same. One guy said he has info, but hasn’t told me anything yet and if he does I will have to respect his wishes to not blog it. I will need his and others trust. Terroism at my ancestry tree holding, yes. I have intentionally left a few errors where they stand and now have to pay for it, but I know who helped themselves, just as I do.
    It comes around to haunt us.

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