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Should You Share Unflattering Facts Uncovered About Your Family?

Every now and then family history research uncovers less-than-flattering information about our families. When that happens, we have to make a decision. Do we share that information with other family members? Or do we keep it to ourselves?

You would think the answer would be obvious, but certain lines are easy to cross. For example, you probably wouldn’t want to hurt other members of your family. But you might not understand the way certain information could hurt someone, and therefore you could do so unintentionally.

I’ve come across a few things in my research that gave me pause:

  • I found out about an infant death that no one knew about on one side of my family. In that case I did bring it up with family members. It’s was an interesting fact and simply something no one talked about in the previous generation. But everyone directly involved had already passed, so there wasn’t any risk of opening old wounds.
  • I found out about an out-of-wedlock conception that was a bit of a surprise to some family members (though again, I believe everyone directly involved had already passed when I found out). There were a few jokes made (nothing malicious), and now it’s simply old news. And in this day and age, that’s hardly as shocking as it might have been a few generations back.
  • I found out we were related to a particular historical figure who was the one person my mother hoped we’d have no ties to. Again, in this case I told her, and I teased her about it a little bit (all in good fun). But at the same time, she was relieved to find out he was a distant uncle rather than a direct ancestor. And in either case, it wouldn’t actually have harmed her to know. No harm, no foul, right?

There have been other things, but I’ve generally learned them from other family members so they weren’t secrets. For example, there was a situation where a female ancestor killed her abusive husband. Not a good thing. But it’s also not something anyone feels particularly awful about given the circumstances.

So far I haven’t come across anything truly despicable where I felt like I had to shelter members of the family. And honestly, I don’t know that I feel it’s my place to do that. So my own policy is pretty simple. If I find something I think is going to hurt someone, I won’t tell them about it on my own. But if they ask directly, I’m certainly not going to lie about it. And if they ask more generally if I’ve found anything, I’d give them a heads up that I found something they may prefer not to know. At that point, whether or not I tell them is completely up to them.

How would you handle a situation like that? What would you consider too awful to share with family members, if anything? Murder? War crimes? Infidelities or children outside of their marriages? Where is your line exactly? And under what circumstances might you consider crossing it?

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