Family tree research can open Pandora’s Box of rifts

April 10th, 2010 - 4:31 pm ICT by IANS  

London, April 10 (IANS) People researching their ancestors can open a Pandora’s Box of secrets that may cause conflict and widen rifts in the family, says a new study.
While most people derive pleasure and satisfaction from researching their ancestry, for some it brings to light “secrets and skeletons”, the study said.

Anne-Marie Kramer of the University of Warwick said of the 224 people who gave her details of family history research, around 30 mentioned conflict.

The main causes were: uncovering unwelcome information, wanting information from relatives who didn’t wish to give it, giving relatives inaccurate information, spending more time researching than with loved ones and coming into contact with hostile relatives.

Kramer analysed responses to questions about family history research put to people taking part in the Mass Observation Project, based at the University of Sussex, in which people volunteer to write about their lives as a record of everyday life.

Of the 224 replies, 140 were from women and 83 from men (and one gender unknown), aged between 16 and 95 and based across Britain. The accounts are from people researching their family history or from the relatives and friends of those carrying out the research.

Kramer noted that in most cases people wrote positively about researching their family’s history. However, not all experiences were entirely positive.

Kramer, while presenting her findings at the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Glasgow on Friday, said: “Along with the US, Canada and Australia, contemporary British society is immersed in a seemingly unprecedented boom in the family heritage industry.”

“The public is enjoying unparalleled public access to historical records in archives both material and digital, while social networking genealogy websites such as Genes Reunited facilitate the publication of virtual family trees alongside the rediscovery of long-lost cousins,” she added.

“Meanwhile, the media has been flooded with celebrity genealogy stories, with the BBC TV flagship programme, Who Do You Think You Are? reaching audiences of over five million.”

“But in investigating their family history, researchers could open up a Pandora’s Box of secrets and skeletons, such as finding there are family issues around paternity, illegitimacy or marriage close to birth of children, criminality, health and mental health and previously unknown humble origins,” Kramer noted.

“The rifts are not confined to the historic past — bitterness and resentment towards siblings or parents can result where information is not disclosed,” she added.

Kramer gave some examples: One 56-year-old woman wrote: “After my father died in 1999, my brother actually fought me over the (family) tree, despite his previous total lack of interest. He insisted my grandfather’s WWI medals be split between us, and took photocopies of all my letters to dad that dad had kept.”

A 31-year-old man wrote: “It is something of an annoyance to my mother that her own sister can travel to (places abroad) to speak to a distant cousin she never knew existed but cannot get on a train to come and see her own sister as it is deemed too far.”

“Such is family life: spoonfuls of love but bubbling beneath lots of grudges, bruised feelings and massive chips on shoulders — none of which are ever discussed with the offending party!” he added.

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