Do family secrets make your genealogy research more difficult? More intriguing? Here’s how one listener feels about the secrets in her husband’s family history (and a nice resource on adoption in Ireland).

brick wall family secretsRecently we heard from Kate, a longtime Genealogy Gems Premium member. “Our first visit to my husband’s family was in 1998. I was eager to learn about who is who in the family. We were told that a woman was raising her sister’s child who was born out of marriage, but we can not talk to anyone about it. The daughter supposedly did not know she was adopted. SHH! We were told other things we must keep quiet about. We did our best to do as they wished.

Today on Facebook an old photo was posted with my husband’s paternal grandmother. Again, curious, I asked who is ???????. Was messaged in a private message. ‘(She) was adopted by my husband’s grandparents.'” Neither Kate nor her husband had ever heard of this person. Her father-in-law had never mentioned this person.

“My husband’s father left Ireland in the late 1920s,” she explains. “This may have happened after he left but he communicated with his family. He did not go back to visit until about 1956. Maybe that is part of this.”

But she thinks “there must be more to this” than just a secretive family culture. She “looked up Irish adoption and found legal adoption is relatively new to Ireland.” She shared this overview of Irish adoption policy and hopes it will be helpful to others.

“This secrecy is so difficult to deal with.  How do you deal with this issue? This was very common in my mother’s generation. How long do we maintain these secrets?”

Unfortunately, Kate’s frustration is all-too-common. Family secrets can feel like brick walls our own families build that keep us from understanding them. My experience is that it’s not usually about us as researchers. I think pain or protectiveness toward a loved one are often behind someone’s desire to keep a story out of the limelight.

Everyone’s perspective may differ slightly–there is not “one right answer” to this issue. And the need to reveal secrets for someone’s safety or well-being may at times trump all other considerations. But generally, here’s what I do when someone trusts me with a secret from the past. First, I thank them. Then I ask what I may do with that secret. Are they ready for me to help tell the story now (even to a small audience)? Are they ready to write it down (even in a sealed letter to be opened at a later date)? I try to understand and show respect for their reasons and feelings, even if they’re different than my own.

Over time, my respect and patience will pay off: in my relationship with that person, in my ability to understand the family better, and maybe–eventually–in that person’s willingness to let the story be more widely known. Many people reveal stories in stages. Telling it to me may be an important step toward full disclosure. I may continue to encourage (but not nag) them to share the story.

That may never happen. If that’s the case, I have to redirect my interest to family stories that can be told without risking relationships with loved ones. It’s hard sometimes. As descendants, we want to know the truth. As researchers, we are hungry for answers. I’m glad the “fruit” on my family tree ripens at different stages. There’s always a ripe family story or memory ready to be harvested. Meanwhile, I’ll keep an eye on that family secret–the unripe fruit–so if it does ripen, I’ll be there to harvest it.

Additional Resources

Family Secrets in Genealogy: Crystal’s Story in the free Family History Made Easy podcast (episode 44)

Annie Barrows Talks Family History and “The Truth According to Us

Family Tree Etiquette: Online Private v. Public Trees

thank you for sharingThank you for sharing this post with others who care about family stories, family secrets and what-to-say-when. It’s one of our trickiest challenges, that’s for sure!



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