Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

The Case for Genealogy 

A follow-up from Virginia Hughes

Matter
Matter
Oct 10, 2013 · 4 min read

In MATTER’s latest story, Uprooted, Virginia Hughes writes about how advancements in genetic testing, combined with the Internet revolution, have transformed the genealogy industry—and what implications these changes have on our privacy.

I’ve always considered genealogy a strange hobby. Why do people devote so much of their time towards unearthing fairly trivial information about their long-dead ancestors?

While I was reporting Uprooted, I heard a wide range of answers to this question. But the most poignant response came from Fred Moss, the legal advisor for the Federation of Genealogical Societies.

I had called Moss because I was trying to find examples of legal cases—such as paternity or inheritance scuffles—that inadvertently resulted from online genealogical searches.

Moss hadn’t heard of any such cases; as it turns out, he deals with cases that involve fighting for more access to genealogical records—not those involving emotionally potent online searches. Because of heightened security concerns over the past few years, these records have become more difficult to access. That’s a big problem for Moss and other genealogists, and one that they have trouble communicating to legislatures and the greater public. “The genealogical community,” he told me, “does a woefully inadequate job of explaining why we do what we do and how society benefits from these efforts.”

Genealogists play a major role in finding the next-of-kin of unidentified human remains like fallen soldiers or unclaimed bodies, according to Moss. They can also identify heirs to resolve property disputes or complicated estates. The research provides health benefits too: Knowing the illnesses that run in your family can help your doctor predict what might be a problem for you. (The U.S. Surgeon General has even launched an online genealogy tool to encourage the tracing of family illnesses.)

While these are laudable and important efforts, they’re not the primary motivators for most genealogy hobbyists, including Moss. When I asked him why he’s so passionate about it, he told me the same thing that every genealogist told me: It gives him profound insights for dealing with the ups and downs of his own life.

Moss, age 74, has buried two of his children, and another child lost his home to a fire. Through his extensive genealogy research, Moss learned some of his ancestors had also lost children, while others lost their homes to fires and floods. “For me and my children to realize that it’s possible to live through some of these experiences,” he said, “I think makes us better able to cope.”

Moss directed me to some fascinating psychological studies bolstering this idea. The research suggests that children’s identities are shaped not only by what they themselves experience, but by the stories they hear about family members’ experiences.

A few years ago, researchers at Emory University tape-recorded the dinnertime conversations of several dozen middle-class families. All of the families told episodic tales of what happened at school or at work that day, as the researchers expected they would. What wasn’t expected was that the families also talked a lot about the past, including, for example, stories of the parents’ childhoods. The study found that children whose mothers who told the most family stories were the least likely to have anxiety, depression, anger, and aggression, the study found. But other types of stories, such as those related to the day’s events, didn’t have a strong impact on the child’s well being.

Intrigued, the researchers performed another study in which they surveyed 66 teenagers about their emotions and family life. One of those surveys, dubbed the “Do You Know scale,” asked 20 yes/no questions about whether the children knew family stories, such as how their parents met or where their grandparents grew up. The researchers found that the greater the adolescents’ knowledge of their family history, the higher their levels of self-worth, emotional well-being, family communication, and ability to plan for the future.

At the end of their report, the researchers raise a provocative point that has made me re-think my skepticism of genealogy. “There is the question,” they write, “of whether adults who do not know their family histories and/or do not pass them on less adjusted, have less functioning families, are less resilient, or have less clear identities than those who do carry and transmit their family narratives.”

That seems to be the case for Cheryl Whittle, whose search for her biological father is the driving narrative of Uprooted, and for thousands of other adoptees who have turned to genetic testing to try to find otherwise mysterious family members. As I discuss in the story, their choices may be jeopardizing the privacy of their family members. But can you really fault them for grasping at what might be their only chance at finding these powerful family narratives? I certainly can’t.

    Matter

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