10 December 2010


    (Allow me a disclaimer before I begin: while this post focuses on negative reactions to our family history research efforts, I find that the overwhelming majority of people are very proud of, and grateful for, their family genealogist. I have received tremendous encouragement and gratitude from my extended family in my work, and this positive feedback is the fuel that keeps me researching. But the reality is that there seems to be a sour grape or two in every bunch, so here goes!)
     "That's not great grandmom Mary's baptismal record, it says 'Maria McGee' and the family ALWAYS spelled it 'Magee.' "
     "You wrote that Aunt Peg played bridge with the family, but she never came to bridge night!"
     "You forgot to include Aunt Peg when you wrote about bridge night. She loved playing bridge with the family!"
    I am going to discuss a complaint that I hear over and over again from fellow researchers:   family members criticizing or finding fault with one's tireless and difficult work on the family history, especially after one has so magnanimously (and often with great expense) shared that work with those same family members who, invariably, haven't lifted a finger to contribute time, energy, or funds to the pursuit or preservation of the family history.
     The critical relative has a warm fuzzy place in a family historian's heart, right next to the relative-who-hides-the-family-records-and-photos-in-their-closet.
     In all seriousness, hurt feelings and even family feuds are often a by-product of the family historian's work. I have found that some researchers can simply shake those raindrops off their shoulders, while others respond by withdrawing and becoming very protective of their work. But since part of our goal is to preserve our family history and to ensure that it is not lost for future generations, the issue of coping with criticism becomes a very real concern for the preservation of the family tree.
     I had to learn early on to shrug off comments about my research. My late father, may he rest in peace, used the word "alleged" when refering to any of my discoveries. "You allegedly found an alleged great grandfather," he would say (finger pointing and heavy vocal emphasis on "allegedly" of course). Proof to my sceptical dad would have been his grandfather's rising out of the grave and handing my dad a certified certificate from St. Peter--maybe even that would not be enough, I am sure Dad would have asked if St. Peter had been under oath. I took my dad's criticism as the "leg pulling" that it was. I also saw his skepticism as a challenge to be meticulous in my research and sources.
     Most of the complaints that I hear from others involve relatives that dispute dates and spellings of names--the latter being a BIGGIE. I still have difficultly convincing new family researchers themselves to accept the fact that their ancestors' names were spelled many ways. It can be impossible to convince relatives, especially those who have never gone bleary-eyed reading old Irish baptismal records on microfilm, that, no, the family did NOT always spell Kavanagh with a "K" instead of a "C."
     I often hear complaints from researchers whose relatives dispute events from living memory. "I don't remember Uncle Pat's being at any of our Christmas parties" or "Aunt Bridie played the fiddle, not Aunt Mae" are examples. We have to remember that events are both perceived and remembered differently by each individual present at the time. We all have different perspectives while watching the same event. This is where being a good family history detective helps. Any police officer or detective will tell you that eyewitness reports can differ widely. A ten year old boy will remember an event differently than would a thirty year old woman in the same room.
     Be aware that personalities play a crucial role in how we remember other people. In my mind, my grandfather was a larger than life figure, doting and protective. But, just mention his name to some other relatives, and expletives explode! He had a temper, he yelled, he was impatient. Yes, I saw that side of him, but it was not directed towards me, so I saw these faults as strengths and remember him fondly as a tiger of a man.
     The critcism problem arises when researchers share their work. One of my goals is to get my family's history in as many households as possible, so that it is preserved for generations to come.  I have spent hours of work and quite a bit of money putting my genealogy in many forms. I have made charts, books, and dvd's. I have written family stories, reports, and memoirs. In the process, I have exposed myself to comments and criticism. For the most part, I have learned to brush them off, but, being human, I must admit to sometimes being irked or hurt.
     It helps to realize that I am not the only family historian to suffer these slings and arrows. We need to regard criticism of our work as an occupational hazard.  I have found that there are ways to control the comments before they begin:
1. educate your relatives by offering an explanation of the difficulties of records research  (alternate spellings, varying birthdates, census errors)
2. remind relatives that recollections differ and that you have recorded how you (or how Aunt Emily or Uncle Bill) remember an event (encourage a critical cousin to record his memories and to add to the family history)
3. acknowledge that your book or memoir or tree might contain mistakes, but that you did your best to present correct information
4. nod, smile, and listen to a relative's comments, then simply ignore what he or she said (or, take the comment seriously if your relative might be correct or might have new information for you)
5. encourage the critic to become a partner in research. Most times, that's the last you hear from him or her about their comment. But, you might be lucky and acquire a new companion for your research trips.
   Usually the critical relative has their say and then chucks your work into the closet, where it awaits discovery by a future generation. And, isn't that one of your goals, anyway?  Pat yourself on the back even when others won't! You've done good!