We all have them – ancestor stories that tend to be hushed up: illegitimate children, desertion, abuse, mental illness, etc. We call these life details “skeletons in the closet” because we like to imagine our ancestor’s lives as near perfect and may be tempted to bury these skeletons. What do we do when our family history research uncovers something unexpected? Recording these kind of details can be difficult. How do we tell our ancestor’s story with integrity and kindness?
When we first stumble upon a skeleton in the closet we may feel many different emotions: disbelief, anger, sorrow, and denial to name a few. Should we just bury the skeleton under a multitude of other facts about our ancestor’s life? Or should we take the skeleton out, examine it and put it to rest. In this digital age with records readily available for the masses, these family history skeletons will not stay buried. They will continue to pop up and we might as well figure out what to do with them.
So how do we deal with these family history skeletons? First and foremost, we seek for understanding. Dig deeper into our ancestor’s life. What historical events might have influenced their actions? What family relationships might have challenged our ancestor? Learning all we can about them often brings empathy and resolution.
My great grandfather, Dock Harris spent the last seventeen years of his life in a state hospital. When I would ask my dad about his grandfather, he always just said, “Grandpa Harris went crazy.” A few months ago, I decided to do a little digging and sent for his medical records from the Eastern Oklahoma State Hospital in Vinita. After jumping through several hoops, the state sent me a thick packet describing his condition, reason for commitment, and family information.
Paranoid schizophrenia was the diagnosis, brought on by stress. What could have stressed out Grandpa Harris? Well, the Great Depression of the 1930’s was in full swing and as an older man out of work he struggled to make a living. I learned from census records and family stories that he and Grandma Harris moved around in the Dust Bowl states of Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado trying to find someplace to farm. According to the records he received government assistance at one time and the stress of dealing with government officials pushed him over the edge.
I grew up with stories about the Dust Bowl from my dad, but he experienced it as a child. The fierce sand storms, covering their faces with handkerchiefs so they could breathe, sand in the food, all seemed like a grand adventure to him. To learn more about the Dust Bowl from an adult’s perspective, I read “The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl” by Timothy Egan.
Reading “The Worst Hard Time” gave me perspective on what this time period must have been like for a man in his forties. I gained much understanding and empathy for my Great Grandpa. I still felt sad, though, about his living for so many years in an institution away from his family. When he entered the hospital, his wife went to live with their daughter, Ettie Belle’s family. My dad shared fond memories of Grandma Harris cooking for the family, but he didn’t remember much about Grandpa Harris’s time in the hospital.
Questions kept nagging at me, then a few months after receiving the hospital records, I came across a letter from my Aunt Helen. Over ten years ago Nicole wrote the history of Ettie Belle Harris for one of her Young Women’s value projects. She requested letters from the family about Ettie Belle and her parents, Dock and Allie Harris. What a blessing that she collected those letters since all who knew them personally have now passed away.
In Aunt Helen’s letter I discovered this gem:
We stopped at Vinita, Oklahoma and saw my Grandpa Harris. He was in a beautiful place – big yard – green grass and he was happy. We asked him if he wanted to go home. He said, No it was best he stay there. We always sent him packages – cookies and candy, clothes.
Knowing that his family didn’t forget him and that he was happy made all the difference to me. The tender mercy of finding this letter continues to comfort me and reminds me of the importance of seeking out our family’s stories.
My great grandfather, Dock Harris at the Eastern Oklahoma State Hospital.
Learning about the culture of the place and time your ancestor lived can give much needed perspective. For example, illegitimacy rates were high among the English in the 1800’s. Why? Because a marriage license cost money and many people simply didn’t have the means to pay or chose not to pay. The more you put yourself in your ancestor’s shoes, the better you will understand him.
Once you have discovered all you can about your ancestor, what will be the value if you don’t share the facts with your added understanding? Each member of the family may have their own feelings, but you can respectfully write your ancestor’s story from the perspective you gained from researching the historical events, family relationships, and culture of the time.
Sharing how an ancestor overcame a significant challenge can strengthen families and promote discussion on moral values. Nicole wrote about the the importance of stories for families in her post “Family Stories and Mission Statements.”
If you don’t feel qualified to write your ancestor’s story, consider taking a class or checking out a book to motivate you and give you ideas.
During Education Week 2014 at Brigham Young University I attended Dawn Parrett Thurston’s class series titled: “What’s Their Story: An Adventure into the Lives of My Ancestors”. One of the classes focused on writing about prickly issues. Dawn raised these points:
What is your responsibility as a family historian? Huge, you make or break a reputation; you decide the truth; you deal with the repercussions; you decide what stays in the closet.
What are your options? Say nothing; say everything; prudently tell the truth or a version of it.
What is your purpose? If you’re telling the story of a family, you may have to explain why a situation occurred. Decide if there is a real purpose to putting something in a history.
Who is your audience? Does the family already know the story? Are the readers thick skinned? Will the story be too upsetting to some?
Look for motives. Ask why an event occurred or what brought your ancestor to a certain action.
Be committed to the truth. Your integrity as a writer is at stake here. Make sure anything you reveal is supported by data (on public records). Evaluate if it is a rumor or gossip.
Dawn’s class gave me much food for thought. I realized that there is so much more to writing family stories than I ever imagined. The three hours I spent in her classes motivated me to start writing again!
For a taste of Dawn’s writing helps, see her webpage “Writing Your Story” at memoirmentor.com.
For an excellent in-depth article see “Skeletons in the Closet: Let Them out and Watch Them Dance” by Karen McNeil.
As for Great grandpa Harris, it’s time I wrote his story! I think I’m finally ready.
Best of luck in telling your family’s stories, even the skeletons in the closet.