The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly




Family Secrets and what to do with them?


When we set off on our Family History journey and start delving into the past and the lives of our Ancestors, I’m sure that we all envisage some idyllic moments mixed in with some harder times, but are we really prepared, for when we actually find out something awful in our past?

I think that there is a little part of all of us, that likes the idea of a bit of a scoundrel or a loveable rogue in our past, it all adds to the colour of our tree and is actually also a part of the fabric that makes up you and me. A convict transported to Australia in the dim and distant past seems an exciting line of Research to explore, but of course although it’s part of our History, it’s far enough removed from our current stories that we feel distanced enough from it. A Skeleton in the cupboard all seems rather exciting doesn’t it?


But what if we discover something more recent, more painful, that affects some family members that are still alive today, how do we deal with a situation like that?

I don’t think that there is a definitive answer to the question, each and every situation will be different and personal to each and every one of us, our reactions and responses therefore will be different to each other.

We could of course be talking about a verbal testimony from a living relative regarding another living relative, it could be a paternity issue discovered from DNA testing or it could something revealed in a paper trail discovery, either way the consequences can and will be potentially life changing.

So what can we do to protect those involved and more importantly, what can we do to protect those that discover and hold the Family Secret? If you are the “keeper” of the secret, the burden of responsibility can consume you.

Questions you will continually ask yourself will include; should you reveal it and when? Is there ever a right time to do this, in many cases these secrets are taken to the Grave. Equally is there ever a wrong time to reveal? Only you will know the answer to those questions.

Taking this revelation to the next stage, how do we record this in our trees and should we even record this Family Secret? There is a school of thought that suggests we should leave this subject out of our tree completely, but there is a school of thought that suggests, that we should record all aspects within our tree, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Of course every case will be different and individual and personal to you. We could record the bare facts in the trees we have online, for example, and keep our personal notes, exactly that, for our eyes only, this would obviously include privatising that individual on your tree. What if you left them completely off your tree? There is also an issue then with fellow researchers who follow on from you. They might see a gap in your tree and immediately want to investigate it further. Are there likely to be newspaper reports revealing the story or even court cases and trials, depending on the circumstances of the event.

You might think you are the only person “in the know”, but could others already know the secret. How do you approach the subject without revealing the secret?

There are no real answers to any of the questions that I raise in this blog, all the blog will do is give you things to consider and further food for thought. Every case will be individual. We do however have a duty of care to protect the living and this should always be at the forefront of your mind when you are reaching your conclusions.

Sadly you can’t “Unknow something” and once you have opened Pandora’s Box it’s too late.


So enjoy and embrace your Family History, it’s all part of the fabric that makes you who you are today, but just be careful of those Skeletons in the cupboard, some might be bigger than you expected!


19 thoughts on “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

  1. Paul, my approach is to not reveal the secret (or only a bit of it) and write the complete story for my genealogy files. Some day, when I join my ancestors and anyone who might have known the person in question is long gone, my heirs will open the file and see the real story. I don’t want some long-buried story to be lost forever, nor do I want to hurt anyone living now. That’s my humble opinion!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I found a new Grandfather, I am an only child but I did tell my now late mother on the grounds that I would want to know if I was in the same position. I have only told one close relative on that branch but I have put the connection on a public tree as I’d like to connect with this new branch, I do worry that I may shock someone but also I may have a half aunt still living and I’d love to connect with her.


    1. if we could all go back in time and capture these moments……if only. My Dad sadly died when I was just 3 years old and I have no memory of him whatsoever, I would give anything, absolutely anything just to have one memory of him


  3. Lots good questions to think about in your post. If you haven’t read it, I strongly recomment Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro. It focuses on just this kind of family secret. She also has a great podcast called Family Secrets.


  4. My sentiments exactly.I came across a dodgy character in my tree, who was still going strong. I warned immediate family lest their paths should cross and left it at that. In the course of my research for somebody, I was contacted by their sister with whom they were not in contact. I just ran things by them first and then sent on the information.


  5. I should probably mention that I was also confronted by a particularly vicious 150 year old murder case. I managed much to people’s dismay initially to make contact with the great grandson of one of the victims. So glad I did. We wrote for months and then we met up. I think it helped to bring a measure of closure all round.


  6. I was shocked when I first uncovered the murder. A double murder no less. It was not family. It was my in-laws and they had not really wanted to know. We met up with the great grandson of the victim once. He had told me his great grandfather(the victim) had also been a bit of a rogue. The goldfelds were Australia’s Wild West.
    There are some issues in my own family I find hard to look at too but I do make a conscious effort to face them. My dad’s ancestry seems to have its fair share of tragedy as well as success. I find it interesting that for several generations there were almost the vast majority of childen born were male. Why? Dad was a bit disappointed I had not held onto my maiden name. When I looked back through his family tree, I could see many of the women had managed to incorporate their maiden name somewhere. In a way I had wanted to break with the family name, as there had seemed to be so much sadness there, So I guess I ran from things too.


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