Monday, July 30, 2007

Include? Omit? Justify? Defile? Do Time?

I'm having a bit of a problem with writing the family history for one branch of my family. There is one individual on the family tree who presents a real dilemma for me. I'll refer to her as Bernice (not her real name). The problem with Bernice is essentially this... I don't have anything nice to say about her. All the family stories I've heard about Bernice are just plain awful, from her being lazy and bossy to her being psychotic and prone to acts of extreme violence. I've asked a few people to tell me about her and each person I've asked either doesn't remember her, refuses to tell me anything, or says only negative things about "that one".

I don't know if I ever met Bernice or not. She died when I was 3 years old. I have no personal memories of her. I have a couple of pictures of her and she looks like a nice enough person. But I just don't know what to write about her. She's a pretty significant person in the family and it would be quite awkward to leave her out of the family history. Sure, I can mention the objective things I know about her, her height, hair color, etc., but I'll be writing entire chapters about each of her siblings. So it will seem odd to write only a few paragraphs about Bernice.

I could relate the stories I've been told about Bernice but morally that seems just plain wrong to me. I could try to rationalize or justify her unsavory behaviors when I write about her but since the stories I've heard about her amount to hearsay I hesitate to try to do that (granted I've heard the same stories from a couple different and what I consider reliable sources but it still feels like I'd be passing on gossip). And when it comes to Bernice, it would be hard for me to come up with much neutral stuff. I just don't have much to go on. Here's the gist of what I've been told...

Bernice came to America, she annoyed everyone around her (so they've told me), she married a nice man and made him miserable (so they've told me), she had two children who no one trusted her to be alone with because she'd tried to kill them (so they've told me), she was something of recluse who rarely went to family functions and preferred to stay at home alone (so they've told me), she never worked outside the home, she died at the age of 67.

Both of Bernice's children are deceased. Her grandchildren have asked me to tell them what I know about her because they were so young when she died they don't remember her. I've tried my best to change the subject when that happens because I don't want to tell them what I've heard. So do I lie and say I don't know anything about her? Do I virtually leave her out of the family history rather than say unsavory things about her? Do I write what I've been told and have everyone who reads the family history think of her that way? Do I write, "Here's what's been said about Bernice..." and leave it up to the reader to decide if they want to believe it or not? And do I risk being accused of libel with no way to prove the validity of the stories I've been told?

How do I write this family history? What do I say about Bernice?


  1. This is a hard one. I don't know what to say really. I think before committing anything to paper it might be a good idea to talk this one through with relatives.

    I have a similar dilemma in that a relative and nobody likes to talk about it.

  2. Sorry, that should have been "a relative shot himself".

  3. I would simply give the facts and include a sentence "She had a troubled relationship with many family members." If the events were documented, I would refer to them briefl, but it doesn't seem proper to pass on anonymous gossip.

  4. Before doing anything else, tell the stories to the woman's grandchildren. Find out if it is okay with them for you to publish these stories. If it is not, don't publish them. If the grandchildren say it is okay, then explain to them that you will do you best to verify whether these stories are true or false.

    Do another search for records that may prove her violent past; for instance, look for criminal complaints made against her. When writing the stories, qualify them. Note within the chapter which stories you cannot confirm (which, what you've explained, may be all of them.)Make sure to reference your sources, and note if any of the specific stories were verified by more than one person.

    Just tread carefully.

  5. Cardinal Rule: TELL BUT DON'T DWELL.

    Stick with the facts and nothing but what you have more than adequate documentation to prove. Avoid gossip and hearsay at all costs.

    And most of all, GOOD LUCK. These sorts of issues can come back to bite you.

    Terry Thornton
    Hill Country of Monroe County

  6. Thank you all for your sound advice and counsel. This is an issue I've been stuggling with for quite some time. I must admit it felt good to write the article and express my very conflicted thoughts and feelings on the subject. Even though I haven't yet decided how I'll deal with Bernice, I feel better for having had the chance to present the idea and put it out there for comment. The feedback has been a very nice plus. Again, my thanks to you all.