Ben Affleck has been in the news recently when it was found out that he asked for a part of a show from “Finding Roots” to be taken out. He was embarrassed by a slave owning ancestor. Now that everybody knows, he is happy to admit that he was embarrassed. Much debate has gone on whether it was right or wrong not to included the piece in the show. Well many family historians come to this in their research. To reveal dates that don’t add up to a birth after marriage, to find children that may not be known about, little clues that make you realise that something may not be quite right. What to do?
Do we need to pay for our forefathers mistakes? How do you know that what decisions you are making today could embarrass your descendants? Embarrassment comes from fear, fear of not living up to a standard. Hiding from that fear, doesn’t make it go away. The family history records that are there aren’t going away. Those skeletons in the closest will always be there and someone else may eventually bring them out. Once you know, you can never unknow the truth of your ancestors. I think a lot of people feel guilt as to what their ancestors did. But in reality we have no control over what they did. No-one’s family is without some degree of imperfection.
Feeling uncomfortable and moving through it can be a way of letting it all go. You can dig it all up and find the truth, to acknowledge it, instead of it sinking back below the surface of the records. You feel the pain of your ancestors and acknowledge it. This process is valuable and part of the process of telling the story. Doing the research can be your own way of saying sorry to the world. As with Ben Affleck, his acknowledgement of a slave owning relative could have gone towards a greater good of seeing that the world has changed. His acknowledgement of a terrible time in history helps us remember how far we have come.
I think maintaining a sense of humour about your embarrassing relative is another way to enjoy what you learn. I once told a friend that I had an ancestor got free passage out to Australia as soldier. My friends Facebook reply was that his ancestor got free passage out to Australia too. That was because they were a convict and they had stabbed a soldier. His joke gave me a chuckle at the time. But it does go to show that what was now an embarrassing thing to admit of being related to a convict is now quite acceptable.
Of course they may be times when you should hold off on letting your grandmother know that an illegitimate child of your grandfather has contacted you. But I think we can all work out whether some cases are still too close to the bone and hurtful. But I think if your embarrassed about a family member that went to a mental asylum in the 1850’s like one of my relatives did then you need to work through it. Your most embarrassing relative may be the most colourful and most exciting story you could find.