Outcomes from this project
how to support yourself and others around major family secret discoveries?
I wanted to share some of the recommendations I gave in my talk 'Inheriting the unexpected: dealing with unforeseen family secrets arising from genealogical research' at the Family Tree Live UK conference in London in April, 2019.
These recommendations arise from my research, in which I draw on the lived experiences of my participants, and my reflections on their family secret stories. I hope you find these recommendations valuable whether you have discovered a family secret in your own family or in someone else’s.
1. Preparation and sensitivity are key
a. If you’re a professional genealogist, let people know before you commence work on their family history that major, unforeseen information could be discovered. Don’t tell someone until you’re absolutely sure and have confirmed your records. Further, just because a family secret occurred a couple of generations ago, it may still have a significant impact: these kinds of secrets can actually be a huge shock, disrupting and challenging our ideas of who we are and who we always thought our family was.
b. Same goes if you’re about to have a conversation with someone in your own family: think really carefully about how to have this conversation with them. It could change their life, and the lives of others around you, forever.
c. People deserve privacy. When disclosing a family secret to others, I suggest sitting them down (in person, if you can) and explaining it clearly, giving them space to have a reaction. While it’s true that not all secrets are ‘bad’ and that there can be some positives, family secrets about birth and conception do tend to have significant personal and psychological impacts for those involved.
2. Support is critical
a. Don’t underestimate the impact of this news! For many it’s fundamental and profound, and will change who they are and how they feel about themselves.
b. What does good support look like? It’s different for everyone. There are genetic counselors, there are counsellors, psychologists, therapists, people in the community who can give you support and who will understand that you (or others) are going through something profound. There are also DNA experts and other professionals who can assist in interpreting results or records and giving you clarity.
c. There are some great support groups online, for example, Facebook hosts groups that some of my interviewees have said they found immensely valuable.
3. People usually do want to know
a. Of course there are likely to be some who say they wish they never found out their family secret, however, my interviewees generally wished they found theirs out earlier. The main reason is that they could have developed relationships with family members earlier on in their lives, and their lives would therefore have unfolded differently without the secrecy.
4. If people discover their secret inadvertently, they are probably going to have to deal with the fact that their close family members kept a major secret from them, as well as dealing with actual secret itself
a. My interviewees usually found this quite difficult. In many scenarios, this caused sadness, anger and distrust, and often affected family relationships. In some cases it can also serve to bring people closer: some of my interviewees have really been obligated to keep the secrets of others, and when they discovered the secret, they had such compassion for those in their family who were forced to keep secrets that instead of driving them apart, it actually brought them together in a way.
5. Disclosing family secrets can be hard: let’s look at things from the perspective of the secret keeper
a. Secrets are kept for a whole range of complex reasons. Sometimes people keep secrets out of love, out of genuinely wanting to protect people, usually their children. Some of my interviewees themselves felt anxious about disclosing their family secret to others in the family, since they were afraid of the negative reactions. Having that conversation can be difficult and there is often no ‘right time’ to do it. Generally, my interviewees wished for openness and honesty.
6. Challenge your own assumptions and beliefs
a. If you’re a professional genealogist, I think it’s important to try and refrain from judgment. Whatever someone’s ancestors have done is not a reflection of the client sitting in front of you. It can be difficult to break the news of an unforeseen family secret to a client, and working with sensitivity and empathy is a great place to begin.
7. After discovering a family secret - where to next?
a. Handling a major family secret is hard. My interviewees have suggested a range of ideas, including that people shouldn’t feel they need to rush into anything; rather, it can be beneficial to sit with the information for a while and consider it.
b. Speaking with the secret keeper might be helpful, although it might not. If people do want to speak with the secret keeper, encourage them to be empathetic and remember people keep secrets for reasons. Many long-held secrets began under very different societal conditions (taboos, stigmas, behavioural expectations) than we have today.
c. Whatever happens, recommend that they seek the kind of support that is useful for them, whether professional or from a friend, loved one or group.