In 1853, my great-great-grandmother, Charlotte, died giving birth to her 13th child in a tent on the banks of the Yarra River in what is now South Melbourne—then a crowded, muddy hellhole called Canvas Town. The baby William died shortly thereafter.
Researching Charlotte’s story made me both sad about her loss and angry about the powerlessness of women’s lives at the time.
I’m not the only one who has experienced intense emotions—both negative and positive—while researching my ancestors.
On Facebook pages, in media reports, and on TV, you’ll find a spate of amateur genealogists discovering shocking things about their ancestors—or even their own identities.
My most recent research found that about two-thirds of family historians have experienced strong negative emotions, such as sadness or anger, through their hobby.
And almost all respondents had strong positive emotions such as joy or pride.
In 2019, Doreen Rosenthal and I surveyed 775 Australian amateur family historians to explore their motivations.
They were adults between the ages of 21 and 93, but most were older and the median age was 63. The majority (85 percent) were women. This seems typical of amateur family historians. Women often assume the role of ‘nanny’ – and have the time to devote themselves to this task once they have finished raising children and retired from paid work.
Respondents described why they are passionate about their hobby – and how they felt about it. About 48 percent felt strong negative emotions related to what they found “sometimes,” while 15 percent did so “often.”
There were five common stress triggers.
1. Ancestors misbehave
The first and most common emergency trigger was the discovery of ancestors who had misbehaved – either as individuals or by taking advantage of unjust social conditions. When family historians found these ancestors, they were confronted, shocked, and sometimes embarrassed.
They said things like:
[The worst thing was] Find the Bigamist! He was awful!! Very confronting to think that I have some of his blood in my veins!
[It was] It is difficult to establish that ancestors may have been involved in unsavory behavior or events. The problem is understanding the context of how they were able to do things that are socially and legally unacceptable today and of which I cannot be proud.
2. Ancestors were treated cruelly
It was also unsettling to discover ancestors who were treated cruelly. This prompted disturbing, even “heartbreaking” feelings – and, implicitly at least, outrage at the injustice. Many were deeply touched by what their ancestors experienced.
As one survey participant put it:
What is unexpected are the relationships that can be formed with those who are no longer with us. That I can be touched by the plight of my paternal step-great-great-grandmother, who was incarcerated in a psychiatric institution from 1913 to 1948 without being assessed, with no visitors to put her out of the way.
3. Sad stories
Sadness was often explicitly mentioned. As in the case of my great-great-grandmother, who died in childbirth, sadness was usually a response to the hardships and tragedies faced by the ancestors in difficult times.
Women typically did not survive childbirth, neonatal deaths were common, and people died from diseases that medical science has now overcome. Poverty was widespread and war a constant threat.
[It was difficult] I discover the tragedies of my Irish ancestors who came to Australia and their struggles and heartbreaking stories of survival for the next three generations.
[It is distressing] to uncover particularly sad and desperate times in the lives of some ancestors. For example, a penniless widow who took her child into an orphanage for three years, only to have her child die of typhus two weeks after returning home.
The fourth stressor was the family history researcher’s belief that he had been betrayed by other family members: through secrets, lies, and feeling that his lived experience was ignored or denied.
This is particularly likely for those who discover “secrets” about their parentage — for example, discovering late adoption, parental infidelity, or previously unknown siblings.
Trust is damaged. If family members can lie about these important things, what else could they lie about?
As one woman commented:
My mother’s half-sister did not accept that she shared a father with my mother. My great-grandmother lied about who my grandfather’s father was. My great-great-grandmother lied too. All these lies were very distressing.
5. Moral dilemmas
Finally, several respondents expressed doubt and confusion about the moral dilemmas they faced in discovering information that could be of great concern to other living relatives. Should they tell or not?
Withholding potentially incriminating information of this type is emotionally draining. However, there is also a sense of guilt and fear of the possible consequences of sharing.
I knew that an aunt had an illegitimate child before her marriage. I found her granddaughter through DNA. I have yet to tell this girl who she is. I don’t think it’s my right as she has absolutely no idea her father could be adopted.
A truly disturbing discovery was that my great-aunt’s husband had committed a horrific murder. I couldn’t talk about it with the descendants of the couple.
Healthy outcomes from bad feelings
Sometimes these distressing feelings can lead to healthy, growth-enhancing outcomes. After the initial shock, some traumatic genealogical discoveries lead to a better understanding of the past and its influence.
Placing ancestors’ inappropriate or distressing behavior or unhappiness in a historical and social context can promote acceptance and forgiveness and promote emotional healing and personal growth.
Initial feelings of despair at past injustices and tragedies are sometimes replaced by admiration for the strength and resilience of one’s ancestors. This can have a positive effect on personal well-being and resilience.
I processed my great-great-grandmother’s story by writing it down and sharing it with family members. We turned our sadness at her fate into a positive family narrative, highlighting her courage and the strength of her surviving children.
Support can mean simply sharing these stories with family members, friends, and other family historians. However, for some, discussing these issues privately with a counselor or therapist can be helpful, especially if they have led to a breakdown in family relationships or an attack on one’s sense of identity.
Counselors and psychologists should develop strategies to support clients affected by genealogical insights—and encourage them to use their new knowledge for personal growth and a better understanding of family dynamics.
Should providers of genealogical research products (especially DNA tests) educate their customers about the stress potential of their products?
Trigger warnings might be exaggerated. However, they could issue lists of helpful resources for those who are upset or disoriented by their findings.
As more people gain access to more genealogical data — with the potential to question their identities and uncover family secrets — it’s worth pondering.
Susan Moore, Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Health, Art and Design, Swinburne University of Technology
This article has been republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.