Should Every Story Be Told?

Image courtesy of gubgib /

Image courtesy of gubgib /

By now you know that I’m a fan of mysteries. Locked doors, secret messages, forgotten stories. Old photos–maybe with a name on the back, maybe not. Brushing dust from bones, in hopes of finding something beautiful. Yesterday I read of Daniel, interpreting the dreams of the king by the power of God. I love that story and the aspect of God’s character it highlights. He is the revealer of mysteries.

And then occasionally, there are puzzles I hesitate to try to solve, secrets that—perhaps—should stay hidden. If they hold any beauty or hope, any word of instruction or truth, then it can’t be said to outweigh their pain or loss or common vulgarity. Some family stories are whispered if they are ever told at all, or are told once and then mercifully forgotten. Or we try to forget, anyway.

There is a bogey in my family tree, and no one utters a good word about him. Not to suggest that I find injustice in that. If he had a single redeeming quality, it never made the news, was inadmissible as evidence, and failed to impress the record of memory.

He is a “brick wall” as my fellow genies would say. I’m no closer to his parentage than I was five years ago, although I have built quite a dossier on him. You’ve heard the phrase, “You can always tell he’s lying if his lips are moving,” but this ancestor lied in print. His lies continue after his lips have stilled.

Am I being unfair?  I won’t name him here; I don’t want to make trouble for his living namesake, nor toss about accusations, provable or not. Because you know, I do have some proof. A brief newspaper account and a maddeningly unhelpful court record. He was found innocent of wrongdoing, for what it’s worth.

If there is a point of interest, it is sordid and voyeuristic. If there is a cautionary tale, it is to marry wisely. If there is a picture of redemption, I haven’t found it.

And if he cast a shadow over this family, then does “shedding light” on facts combat or perpetuate that?

Spiritual matters so often become evident to me in concrete things. The compelling mystery here is not the fact or legend of any particular bogey, but the moral questions I confront as a result. If I have taken up the unofficial mantle of family historian, then does it fall to me to decide which stories are worth repeating? I’m inclined to think that amounts to assuming too much. Then again, what is my responsibility to the privacy of those injured in the past (once they are gone) or the knowledge of future generations (who may not ever be)? Who is hurt and who is helped by the knowledge?

Should every story be told?

The newest crop of adults in my family are too young to remember this bogey—we have only the stories. In two generations, his memory could fade out completely. Should I throw away my evidence and let it?

Question for You

Have you faced a moral dilemma in sharing genealogical discoveries? What did you decide?

12 Replies to “Should Every Story Be Told?”

  1. I face some of those same issues, in fact I would wager a guess that many, if not most family historians wrestle with that issue at one time or another. Once we discover such things, do we have an obligation to reveal the past sins or mistakes of those that have gone before? To some extent those things tend to trickle down in ways not always readily discernible and sometimes their revelation explains behaviors and patterns not previously understood, yet helpful to future generations as they seek for understanding of the life into which they were born. But what treatment would I hope for from descendants? Such a tough question. Thank you for the thought provoking post.

    1. Thanks Michelle. Your remark, “Sometimes their revelation explains behaviors and patterns not previously understood,” resonates for me, and it is part of the conflict. If identifying the cycle helps to break it, then it gives weight to an obligation to do so… but when you kick up dirt, you’d better expect a mess. I appreciate the read and your thoughtful comment.

  2. I am an historian by trade and training. For me, to suppress history goes against everything I am. But, there is no reason to needlessly inflame old wounds. I would write down the information, leaving my personal bias out as much as possible (and let us not deceive ourselves, we are all biased), but I would not make it particularly public. If, in future generations, someone is interested then you will have given them the information.
    It is interesting to note that certain church records, along with many other types of records, are sealed for eighty years. You can’t edit them, write about them, or otherwise fiddle with them. But they are there for the interested when, hopefully, emotion has given way to reason.
    p.s. I just came to your blog, I am going to enjoy looking at it!

    1. I see where you’re coming from. At one time I wanted to become a journalist, when I understood it as an idealistic, truth-telling profession and not as a vehicle for activism. (Not to get political. You are right. We are all biased.) You make a great point about sealed records. There is a big difference between a footnote on my offline .ftm file and, er, a blog about it.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. It’s interesting to me that you wrote on this topic as I just very recently commented to someone that in all my researching I have yet to come across a negative in my ancestry. My comment also included that I’m not buying it. I must be missing something somewhere. I can’t imagine having such a squeaky clean lineage! Of course, I do still have a long way to go in my research. But in answer to your question, I think if I found something, I would be inclined to not share it if it would or could negatively affect anyone still living.

    1. I definitely agree, Linda. And really, that’s the answer that counts. Thanks as always for reading (and for the Liebster! 😀 I need to get a blog awards page set up…)

  4. Even the negative should be told so others might learn from the mistake. Families tend to omit them in the re-telling, such as my mother kept hidden that her sister walked out on her own daughter and husband when they were young.

    1. I see what you’re saying. My fear is that this particular one lends itself more to becoming a sensationalized scoop than a parable. I’m interested in your discovery about your aunt, though. Have you blogged it?

  5. If you wish to write a true history of your family then you must shine the light in all the corners. That being said I have no wish to do harm to anyone alive. While its easy to say “the truth shall set you free” it still can hurt. For me I will tell an honest family history, but will stop at the last generation of anyone left alive.

    1. I respectfully disagree that a true history needs to be complete. After all, there are endless unknowns that will never be found because they were never written down. Suppose I know ten historical facts about an ancestor. Nine of them suggest an unsavory character and the tenth one proves it. Do I need the tenth?

      Just a hypothetical, though not too far from reality. I definitely agree with respect to the living. In the end, this is a hobby and never trumps anyone’s feelings or dignity. Really appreciate your thoughts. Thank you for reading and commenting.

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