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Article posted: July 30, 2001

"I Enjoyed All The Memories"
By: Ryan Taylor, Biography and Archived Articles

Is researching your roots a bad idea? Will it only lead to trouble?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal seems to think so. With a suggestion that the hobby has gone 'haywire', reporter Elizabeth Bernstein catalogs a list of unhappy people and situations.

When I lecture on genealogy, I often warn my students that there will be unexpected facts which turn up. Any experienced researcher knows that every family has illegitimate children, babies born soon after marriage and unhappy couples. I also say that every family in Ontario has at least one man who ran off to the west with a red headed woman.

However, every family also has tales of valiant soldiers, brave pioneers, men who worked for forty years at the same factory and women who could produce delicious meals almost out of thin air.

Bernstein wants our families in the past to exist in some Disneyfied world where every child is cute, every parent caring and everybody sat around in the sunset drinking lemonade.

Families are people, and people are varied. The tales we hear when we do research tell us more about ourselves and enrich us in many ways. That includes the sad stories as well as the sunny ones.

Longtime readers of this column know that a few years back I got a shock when I found that my great-grandmother, long seen as a victim of tragic circumstance, had in fact been an alcoholic who neglected her children to the point that she was put in jail. My grandad, at five, went to an orphanage.

I was shaken, but I worked it out by visiting her hometown and thinking deeply about what happened. And my final conclusion was that my grandad was a hero. He overcame a terrible childhood to become a model father, grandfather, uncle and friend.

I suspect that if the writer from the Wall Street Journal heard this story, she would stop after he went to an orphanage.' She would ignore the profound spiritual experience I had as a result, and the uplifting story of my grandfather's heroism.

I think that this attitude is highlighted by a chart Bernstein includes of prominent genealogical websites. After each she makes a comment. For those interested in Ellis Island, the place where many thousands of immigrants arrived in America, she says, "It's fun to see where relatives came from and where they were going. But you won't find much more than that."

Every researcher I know would be overjoyed to have their immigrant ancestor's own version of where they came from and where they were going.

In fact, the Ellis Island comment amounts to whether you see the glass as half empty or half full. Genealogists know how valuable these two facts are. People who are uninformed do not understand.

Bernstein was offered the run of the National Genealogical Society's conference in Portland, Oregon last May. She was told how genealogy can bring joy and excitement to both researchers and their families. She chose to ignore this and winkle out sundry disgruntled people with sad tales.

Every hobby offers the chance for someone to cheat. There are forged postage stamps, counterfeit money, high sticking in hockey. I suspect there are people who slip extra money under the Monopoly board when other players aren't looking.

I also suspect there are a great many more happy philatelists, numismatists, hockey players and throwers of the Monopoly dice.

My fear is that articles like this one will frighten people away from the pleasures that can come from family research. I recently showed my mother the result of some of my work. She replied, "I enjoyed all the memories." That's the real truth about family history.

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