Researching the Forbidden

Growing up I knew our family secret, but I was always told to never discuss it in public. Do we inherit the sins our ancestors? This month, I broke that rule and discussed it with a few of my researching friends. My inquiry to these friends was, “do I try to research this or leave it alone?” Should I be researching the forbidden in my family?

We had some in-depth discussions on my family secret and they both advised that I should look into it. That was exciting because I would like to learn more about this era of my family and to see if it was a multigenerational thing. From what I have been told by other family members, it was. But, as a researcher I need to prove it.

For the sake of my family, I am not going to discuss the particulars of our family secret. But, think about the different scenarios that your family may want to keep secret:

  • A murderer in the family
  • Drug addictions
  • Prostitution
  • Slave Holders
  • Prison time for unintended errors of judgement (which today would not lead to prison time)
  • Dirty Politicians
  • Corrupt Law Enforcement Officials
  • Gangsters
  • Active racism
  • Sex Offenders

Is there anything on this list that happened in your family? Were you told to keep it on the back-burner? Don’t look into it and definitely DO NOT discuss it! It is ok if you do. Most of us have something in the family that has gone wrong. We are only human and so were our ancestors. We need to research these people and the things they did to learn more about our family and how what they did affected the lives of their families and how it affected your life.

How do you handle these situations in your family? Please leave a comment or if you would like to discuss more in-depth.

© Terri O’Connell 2012

Want to know more about researching the forbidden?  Check out Terri’s research guide available in the IDG store for just $2.75 as a PDF download.



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    1. Thanks, Steph. That is the goal educate myself and move forward slowly, taking in the information to see what it will teach me; about myself and about those that came before me. I have. Feeling that there will be a lot of learning on this.

    1. It is tantalizing to want to learn more about someone you have been pushed away from your whole life. I have actually talked to two family members about this subject since I wrote this post and let them know my intentions and it seems they are ok with what I am doing. One evensid they did not care if I named names in the end. Unfortunately I know there are many other family members who would feel differently about this so I will tread carefully making sure not to hurt anyone in the process.

  1. Research? Absolutely! Publish? Use discretion.

    I am fortunate. The adoptions in our lines are in the open. The murder is well documented, if disputed. And frankly, whether we talk much about it or not, I think it is broadly assumed that illegitimate children will show up sooner or later. Criminals and racists are a given. I think the thing that might most upset my families would be to prove someone fought on the ‘wrong’ side in the civil war (I have both Blue and Grey lines).

    You have every right to research to your hearts desire – and your family has every right not to help you do it if they don’t want to. It’s what you do with the information once you find it that has the most potential to harm.

    1. Rorey,
      Absolutely, I will research and have even got my mom to assist me with some of it. Beyond that, I will See how everything goes and what I learn before a decision is made.

  2. My investigation of our family secret (my grandmother was an unwed teen when she had my dad) led to a tremendous amount of healing for everyone involved, both for my dad and for the birth family that didn’t know he existed.

  3. This topic brought something to mind…

    I think as we research our family histories we sometimes forget that we don’t ‘own’ our family. We are connected to far more people then we appreciate. And, therefore, what we discover can reach well beyond our immediate family.

    Our side of the equation knows that grandmommy was adopted. Based on the birth certificate and circumstantial evidence I’m hot on the trail of the birth mother. This is as far as my husband cares to go. He doesn’t care to force ourselves on the birth family. He would simply like to place flowers on the birth mother’s grave. But – if ever confirmed – that information will be part of my database which is published on the web.

    We also submitted mom’s DNA to confirm/refute Native American ancestry. Both the mtDNA and atDNA could lead to a grandmommy birth family connection. Do they know? Will this be how they find out? What is my responsibility to them?

    I feel for this potential family. For my database, I suspect I will privatize this information should I ever be able to confirm my leads, thereby keeping it oral knowledge among immediate family. But the DNA is out there and I have had considerable email from folks trying to connect to this line. That cat is out of the bag, as it were, and it is an irrefutable connection that I can’t take back.

    With interest in genealogy increasing and more resources coming online there will inevitably be tension between those that want to know and those that don’t – or even those who didn’t know there was a question in the first place.

    I don’t have an easy answer. But I think it is a moral and ethical conversation each of us needs to have. Even if only with ourselves.

    Congrats Terri, great topic.

    1. Rorey,

      I agree that we do not own our families history. In all honesty, not one piece of it is about us, but it could be the reason behind why we are the way we are.

      I am glad that this topic hit home and made you think about things. I agree with you on the DNA testing and finding information on the birth family. If just knowing is enough for your family that is great. I hope that if anything it will bring a bit of closure to your family.

      I absolutely agree that this is a moral and ethical conversation that we need to have with ourselves before we move forward with anything that has a delicate nature.

      I definitely hope that this topic hits a chord with many others and we all begin to see that it is ok to research the delicate areas of our families lives, as long as we keep their feelings in mind as we find out information.

  4. Great article. I agree with the comments that we must tread carefully with what we find. Do no harm is my motto!

    I would also add suicide to your list. Something people didn’t then and don’t often now want to talk about.

      1. Suicide is a big no-no for more recent people in my opinion, but for people who died 100+ years ago, I think it is legitimate to possibly consider publishing. I have both in my family.

        1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, John. I agree that the older the situation the easier it is to publish something about it. Especially when you cannot really connect current family members to it.

  5. Dear Terri, I am so glad you posted on this subject. I am enjoying reading not only your original post but also the various comments. When Rorey says, “It is broadly assumed that illegitimate children will show up sooner or later,” one’s particular individual family members might not nclude themselves in that broad assumption. Either the researcher will disclose an illegitimate child to other family members, or she will not. There’s no escaping individual agency. What a highly nuanced question you have brought up. Thank you!

  6. I have been following this moral/ethical and family research since the beginning, and look forward to your research results. I, of course, think it is most important to uncover the full story while being sensitive to children and siblings. However truth is, it’s not a secret. The fact that you can research and prove or disprove…devalues the idea of secrecy. There are newspaper clips, court records, federal records, vital records etc. that the world can access. Where’s the secrecy?

  7. Wow, Terri, what a great topic! And kudos to you for such a nuanced exploration of it.
    To your list of great secrets, I might add mental illness, criminality of any sort, and religious issues, like leaving the family faith. Of course, the precise list would be unique for each family.
    Great post!

    1. Andy, Thanks for taking the time to comment. I really do appreciate it. Those are also great secrets that a family might hold on to. It is obvious that the list is not all inclusive and many more things can be added. I just hope that with posting about it and the small discussions that we have had with different genealogists opens a door to research. Even if they are not ready to discuss it.

      Thanks again,

  8. I enjoyed your topic too. In my no-too-distant family I have come upon plenty of alcoholism and spousal abuse. I have found that I have been demoralized by these histories. How could a parent choose someone like that to be my godfather? I have found no heroes, only questionable characters.

    1. The questionable characters leave behind a story, and these are the stories that will add meat to our research. Is it possible that the alcoholism and spousal abuse was hidden from the family? Keep this in mind when you think about the choices your family members made. No one is perfect and often these secrets were kept from the family.

      Like you, I have found the questionable characters and no heros to date. But, heck I am gonna keep searching and hoping that someone will reveal themselves to me.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, I greatly appreciate it.

  9. Excellent post. All families have terrible secrets. Some to shameful for that generation to deal with. If you have the strength go ahead find out. You may not share it with anyone else except your research friends. That’s fine.

    I wish you the best.

  10. A very interesting post. We also have some skeleton’s in the closet. One very taboo topic for my family elders is out-of-wedlock children. However, I read a very interesting article that in early Germany in order for people to marry the ‘town council’ had to agree. If they felt the couple were too poor or lower class they wouldn’t allow them to marry, so many children were born out-of-wedlock.


    1. I too have an out of wedlock birth, circa the early 1900’s (Germans as well). Have not released the information to all of the family because I am afraid of how the elder generation will take the news. Though, we all have our own secrets as well.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, Cat, it is greatly appreciated.

  11. I have come to the realization that in the old country illegitimacy was so common how could it have even had a stigma? While reading church records in small Czech villages I was shocked to see the lack of a father listed in a great number of cases, sometimes one out of three baptismal records. It could have been for reasons like what was given above where people were not allowed to marry. But growing up in America I often thought there was nothing worse that could ever happen to me.. So I was shocked to make this discovery.

    1. Judi, Very interesting. I also heard that the German were very particular about marriages and class level and that might have something to do with it as well.

  12. I have another one for your list: incest. I researched a family where several members of the family had stories about a stepfather being ‘a dirty man’.

    I subsequently found court records that proved he went to jail for raping his 16-year-old stepdaughter. I was so sad when I read her testimony. What a brave girl to take him to court. After he got out, he went back to live at home, although at the end of his live he was a vagrant even though his wife was still alive. I wonder if she finally kicked him out. I was very relieved to see he was denied custody of his own minor daughters after her death. They went to an orphanage instead.

    The stepfather was also the informant for the birth records of 3 illegitimate children of 3 other stepdaughters. It is not a great leap to suppose he may have been the father.

    In this case, the family chose to document the story but not publish it as the children of the probable incest victims do not want to be reminded of this painful history. It may be published in a couple of decades, when nobody will be hurt by it. I think that is a fitting compromise.

    1. Yvette,
      I added that to my list for a future project involving Researching The Forbidden. Will be sharing details here in February about the new project.
      Thanks for commenting and telling us this sad story. We appreciate your continued support here at IDG.

  13. I clicked on this blog post (from a link at another blog) because of the apple jpeg image, too! Good choice with that one 😀

    Anyway, to the point of your essay: I myself am all for researching one’s genealogy to the fullest extent possible with the extant (public) records.

    My grandmother first got me interested in genealogy when I was just 12 or 13 years old. She must’ve thought that G-d had a sense of humor, b/c within a few months I had uncovered that she was a “bastard” (is there a feminine form of that word??) at birth. Her maiden name had been that of her mother’s husband, who had died 3 years before she (my grandmother) was born. My grandmother had always known this information, but neither my father nor I knew until I asked my grandmother (quite innocently, I might add, as I was a naive 12 year old) how she was born in 1933 if her father had died in 1930? (We were visiting the cemetery so that she could show me her “parents'” graves, and even though she had placed flowers strategically to hide her “father’s” death date, I moved them to take the photograph before she could stop me.)

    I think that this “discovery” opened a lot of unhealed wounds within in my own family, but for me, it only increased the admiration and respect in which I hold my grandmother. Far be it from me to make negative assumptions concerning a person’s integrity based on events over which she herself had no agency or power/control.

    Even my grandmother’s (half) brother, who is still living, has asked me on a couple of occasions in the past not to pursue this line of research, out of respect for the dead (his mother) and the living (him, I assume). While he has a right to his opinion, of course, I, too, have respect for myself (and any research to which I attach my name), and therefore will research whatever strikes my fancy to the extent that I please. 😀 (lol)

    In the end, it is my belief that if any “secrets” like this are hiding out there, and can be pieced together through public records (or cemetery records, for instance, as was the case in my example) will come to light eventually, if some enterprising researcher has not done so already. Since that’s the case, and because my ancestors’ identities are of importance to me, I am always happy to follow each and every potential “lead” in my genealogical research. Why else go through the trouble of genealogy, really?

    Of course, I would be extremely hesitant to publish (even online at a site like Ancestry, which is considered publication for legal purposes) any information that you cannot back up with a source that is either accessible to you yourself (e.g. as a “Closest Kin” relative) or to everyone (e.g. census records of 70+ years ago). Otherwise, you might open yourself to a libel action by anyone with an interest in the matter who feels like putting on a Plaintiff’s “hat” that day. I’m not sure genealogy is worth putting yourself in the defendant’s seat at court, but otherwise, why not go ahead and publish? If you don’t, someone else will, and he’ll get the “credit,” for whatever that’s worth 🙂

    Good luck, and keep up your excellent work with this blog. I’ve enjoyed my time here and will stop back to read more in the future!

    Yours, JWC.

    1. JWC,

      Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment. I am so glad you found the post through the jpeg of the apple. The apple was a great play for sin and the forbidden, which is usually what our family secrets are made up of.

      You make excellent points about not publishing anything that you cannot back up for legal reasons and will definitely keep that in mind!

      Thanks again,


  14. Has anyone brought up the situation where a couple’s youngest child turns out to have been in reality a grandchild? My dad told me 3 or 4 instances among his cousins, I blithely added the facts to my family file which I keep online at Rootsweb.com, and some time later I received an irate phone call from other members of the family. So, I respected their wishes and deleted the story. Should I have kept a record for future generations? My thinking was that it wasn’t my family secret, and I didn’t have the right or responsibility to choose whether to preserve it or uncover it. As this comment might show, I am not yet comfortable with that decision.

    1. Kathy,

      I do have a situation very close to that in my family. I would personally keep a record of it, and you are right. You do not have to share it, but it is ok to notate it in your files.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

  15. Hi Terri
    First time commenting. In a commission situation where there was spousal abuse and the client was an elderly person and the detail could be left out without affecting the details of the family tree do you think that leaving out these details is the proper path to take?

    1. John,

      First of all, thanks for reading and commenting. I think that in any situation with a client you need to make sure they are prepared for anything you may find. If you have not had that conversation with the client already, I would tell that that you found something that could be unsettling for them and you will share, if they feel they want to know. If they do not want to know, do not share. Or maybe they might have a younger relation that might be willing to take the information you found. I think it will depend on your client and what they want.

      Good luck.

  16. I think the question of illegitimacy will soon be a moot point. Lifestyles and definitions of family have changed and are continuing to change.

    Incest is probably the toughest question to deal with.

    I have researched an occurrence where the grandmother in a family line was the result of incest between her mother and her mother’s brother. There are actually three children involved in total. One has been confirmed, one has been assumed (partially proven) and the third child has not been located anywhere except in a picture when she was about ten years old. This same grandmother went on to marry and have three more legitimate children and lived a long and happy life.

    Sure it was 100 years ago, but her grandchildren and great grandchildren would have varying degrees of reaction to this knowledge.

    The individual who requested the research had a “feeling” about what the answer would be but was unwilling to share the information with anyone else.

    Since it unknown to other members of the family, it is probably better off left unsaid and the father shown as Unknown in any family files created and documented for public display.

  17. Anytime there is a “touchy” situation in a family history, I have to remind myself that even though it is something that happened, and it is family related, sometimes those findings need to stay buried. I have a family event that a baby arose from, and early in childhood had horrible things happen – all before the age of 3. He has since grown into a good man, and done well for himself. I don’t believe in these instances that we are servicing anyone by making these things known unless these facts answer direct questions, or the person they are about has passed.

    1. Tanya, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

      I think with each story we research we have the responsibility to proceed with caution. Especially if what we are researching can hurt our living loved ones. In situations like you mentioned, one might keep a note on the story they have researched and seal it so that no one has access to it for 100 years or so. I have talked with others who have done this and then made mention of it in their will with what should be done with these sealed notes.

  18. Oh my, you have reminded me of several family facts I came across. In one case, I chose to end a budding friendship with someone who was getting too close to asking me what others had told me not to tell her. I so wanted to share the truth with her, but didn’t feel it was my place to do so. In other instances, a family member would start to relate a story and then stop. I would then have such a longing to know the whole story, but I didn’t feel it would be right for me to pursue it. And in the strangest situation of all, myself and a family member were interviewing an elderly man we had stumbled across that knew our family. He told us some things about our family that my relative didn’t want me to keep on the tape, so I would back up and erase each portion where he talked about that subject. That was 30 years ago and they have both passed. Now I wish I hadn’t erased my tape because I can’t remember the full story! BUT I’m guessing there are distant cousins out there that still might not want our family’s secrets told even though my family was the victim in most cases.

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