Genealogy Junky, by Linda Jean Shepherd, Ph.D.

Cemetery in Rathcalen, Co. Westmeath, IrelandI’m a genealogical junky. It’s mystifying, since my family never interested me. I was a scientist immersed in the physical world until the spirits of my ancestors demanded I find them. While other family members are delighted when I share what I’ve discovered, I’m the only addict in the family. I revel as the name of each new ancestor finds a resonance and place in my body. Knowing them, I feel different inside.

What lures homebodies like me on journeys across the globe in search of gravestones, wills, and church records? What is it about genealogy that makes normal people become obsessed, compelled to discover our ancestors’ names? Addiction to genealogy is such a common affliction that online stores sell t-shirts proclaiming “Genealogy Addict.” Helpful websites list the symptoms:

  • You would rather read census schedules than a good book. 
  • Your idea of a great vacation is visiting cemeteries and historical societies.
  • You have traced every one of your ancestral lines back to Adam and Eve, have it documented, and still don’t want to quit.

I knew I was hooked when I found myself tracing the genealogy of the Maine Coon cat we inherited.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has tapped into the mysterious force that causes genealogical addiction and woven it into the fabric of its theology. They consider genealogical data collection a religious duty. In China, people compete to update genealogies burned by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. Genealogy was so important to the Maori of New Zealand that they symbolically inscribed it in the form of moko (tattoos) on their bodies with an albatross’s wing bone.

As I discover more about my forbears’ lives, I better understand the emotional and psychological patterns that have been passed down to me alongside my DNA. I’ve always been haunted by a sense of deprivation, which contrasts sharply with my comfortable material circumstances. I even thought I had no family left, other than my brother. That feeling of deprivation makes more sense, now that I know something about my ancestors’ cumulative poverty and struggles: Irish potato famine immigrants; a great-grandmother who lost four children due to undernourishment; and an emaciated, half-blind uncle who was killed robbing a bank.

Now that I’m aware of the origin of certain beliefs and behaviors, I can release old dysfunctional patterns and make new choices. And as I heal my sense of deprivation, I imagine the healing passing to my relatives along the lines of time.

Through genealogy, I’ve discovered an abundance of family, including a second cousin, an only child of an only child, who believed she had no blood relatives left in the world. When I reunited her with two flesh-and-blood second cousins and a history of our family, she thanked me for “the best, most important gift” she’d ever received.

Genealogy creates webs of connection. The more I discover about my ancestors, the more of humanity I include in my family and the less justification I have for prejudice and intolerance. With each new name, the connections multiply–through time and space–linking me to bygone families as well as present-day cousins across the globe.
Every family is woven into the tapestry of humankind, and understanding it gives me a larger perspective. Any vista of time can be reinterpreted when seen from another perspective. New visions of past, present, and future events create alternative routes to explore, expand, and heal.

I have the sense that what I learn in my life reverberates through time and impacts the souls of my ancestors as well as the descendents of our bloodline. Beneath all the cataloging of names and dates, there is something numinous about reweaving this web of family.

Some people derive a deep sense of interconnectedness with the universe through the revelations of quantum physics; I find it through my ancestors. Experiencing synchronicities and help from ancestors opens me to questioning the nature of reality. Where do my ancestors reside? Are the spiritual realms in other dimensions? What is the nature of time? What’s the purpose of life? At a deep level, my addiction to genealogy is an expression of my innate desire for connection–to myself, to family, to humanity, to spiritual realms, and to the Creation.

I’m proud to be a genealogy junky, and I savor the delicious rush from each new discovery. Fortunately, I still have many more ancestral lines to trace before reaching Adam and Eve. 

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

Linda Jean Shepherd, Ph.D., is the author of Lifting the Veil: The Feminine Face of Science.

70 thoughts on “Genealogy Junky, by Linda Jean Shepherd, Ph.D.

  1. WOW! I swear that you just summed up everything I feel about genealogy….seriously. Sometimes, when I’m looking stuff up or scrapbooking a document or picture of my ancestors, I swear I can feel them standing behind me looking over my shoulder…and I know just how important it makes them feel. Their struggles make me stronger and have more of a sense of who I am… You couldn’t have summed it up better then you did! Thanks so much!

    p.s. I chose a trip to Ellis Island over a Carribean Cruise, my husband thought I was crazy but took me anyway!

  2. The Best article on Genealogy I’ve ever read! Thank you(!) Linda Jean.

    A junkie too,

    Roger L. Butler

  3. Linda,

    I had tears in my eyes when I finished reading your article. You expressed so eloquently what I have felt about genealogy for so many years. During the 24 years I have been doing my genealogy, I have developed what only can be described as a passion and love, for it. I, too, am an addict. Blessings to you!

  4. This is a great article. It describes the feelings and satisfactions we all have experienced when discovering a connection. I know more about my parents and grandparents now, then I did when they were alive. Thank you for the article. I am also a junky genealogist.

  5. I really enjoyed the article,it reflected part of myself.
    I get a real buzz when I discover a new connection and also feel quite emotional when I find an ancestor that died young.
    I can now explain to my wife that there are other people out there like me!

    Many thanks
    Mike

  6. Perhaps we could start an AAA…. Ancestry Addict Anonymous?

    Loved the article, said so many of my thoughts. Besides family connections and a list of names and personalities, we have learned a lot about history and humankind in general, have greater sympathy for the flaws of those ancestors and greater knowledge of our genes and personalities that we inherited, and a greater sense of purpose.

    Thanks, Linda, for writing this.

  7. You have put into words what is so difficult for so many of us to express. Thank you for writing such a fantastic article. I couldn’t even finish reading the newsletter before letting you know how many of us you have touched.

  8. Thank you Linda Jean for making my day. I understand all you are saying. I love being a genealogy-scientist! oh the detective work that takes place and the emotional feelings you get when you discover a new connection. Thank you! Janelle

  9. Absolutely great article. I believe this one sentince says it all: “What lures homebodies like me on journeys across the globe in search of gravestones, wills, and church records?”
    Happy to know my husband and I are not the only ones who spend our vacations in cemeteries!!!

  10. Beautifully written. Linda Jean, your articulate article obviously made other connections than what DNA supports. This is one I will keep. Thank you.

  11. Thank you for this wonderful article, which I am going to download so I can re-read it when I start to despair about the amount of time I spend on family history research! I believe that such research can heal long-standing rifts in families that stem from difficult times that they didn’t talk about, even when many of the people involved are no longer alive. Even if it sounds mystical, I think it gives them peace.

  12. link to print is broken…love the article and wish to share it with others to help explain WHY I do Genealogy….I could have written this…Great JOB…

  13. Thank you Linda Jean:
    I too am a junky and also feel the connection to my ancestors. Like you the past comes alive and I particularly am impressed by the many strong women in my family who homesteaded, raised children and survived on the farms of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Wisconsin.

  14. This is the most insightful article I have ever read on genealogy. Thank you for summarizing all my thoughts.

  15. My sentiments exactly! My addiction rubbed off on my husband, to the point we actually made a trip to Germany to find the small town where his great-grandfather came from in 1852. He has become quite adept at cleaning old tombstones so that I can photograph them. History came alive for me as I discovered where my family was during the formation of our country, from Jamestown to Quaker settlements in New Jersey, through Revolutionary and Civil Wars, ever westward. Thanks for such a great article.

  16. Oh My Goodness, Just add my name to all the comments already written. This is a wonderful article. Now I know just how to answer all those people who ask me why I’m so interested in this ‘weird’ addiction. I have been in Churches where my 4th and 5th Greats were married and the cemeteries where they are buried in Germany. The most goose-bumping time was in the town of Maryville, Tennessee when I was absolutely certain that Ann Eliza Boyd Dunn knew I was there to visit her. She died 18 Aug 1865.
    Incidentally, I don’t think it is weird at all, but I am certainly addicted.

  17. Like many researchers I am the only one in my family involved in this hobby/pastime/passion/mania. I am confined to my house a lot of the time and sometimes I feel isolated. My ancestors have become my silent companions, they don’t say much but there presence is palpable. Thank you for a literate, heartfelt article that struck a chord with myself and, obviously, many others.

  18. A very moving and powerful article! I too am a scientist, specifically, a geologist. With genealogy I deal not only with eons of time, but the past few centuries as well. I find many parallels in researching people and researching scientific truths. Persistence, creative thinking, and a healthy dose of skepticism at times are necessary in both cases. Genealogy has the bonus of being very personal, as Dr. Shepherd has so eloquently stated. Add my name to the genealogy junkie list. We are all one people . . .

  19. Thankyou Linda Jean. I too feel that researching my family history is my spiritual task, although I have no idea why. The discovery of a new family member, no matter how remotely related we are, or how distant in time, keeps me buoyed up for weeks. If I discover a tragedy it touches me keenly. My great-great Aunt died in the workhouse in 1900. She was a “charwoman” who died of “exhaustion” It makes me value every moment of my privileged life. Thankyou. MG

  20. Thank you Dr. Shepherd, you have expressed what I have felt, so eloquently. I have been addicted since 1969 and still have much to learn. Don’t you wish for a time machine?
    Again thank you,
    Jean Friedman

  21. This is the BEST article on genealogy article I’ve ever read on Ancestry. I especially appreciate the plug for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as I am a member and KNOW what happens to us after we die, why we are here, why it is NECESSARY to do genealogy and family history, etc. Thank you for printing Dr. Shepherd’s article.

  22. Thankyou for such a wonderful article. I do know the exhiliterating feeling of new finds. My side of the family was researched well by my Dad and I was able to add alittle more to it. In was my husband’s side that was the real mystery. Both his parents were gone by the time he was 19 years old. He knew little about them. It took several years but I was able to find and document a wonderfully rich history for him and some living relatives.

    Katie

  23. Many of my relatives have asked me why I am so dedicated to finding our ancestry. When I tried to explain that I learn a lot about myself they roll their eyes, get a small smirk on their face.

    How to explain the rush you get when you walk the city where the ancestor walked? To see the house where they lived? To see that they live near the Baltic Sea and you think, wow, is that why I have this desire to be near the ocean–why it must be in my genes! Well, perhaps when someone asks the next time, I can just hand them this article. THANKS, I identify with every paragraph you’ve written so eloquently.

  24. Thank you Linda for the most eloquent and inspiring article I have read to date. You expressed my sentiments exactly. I feel that it is my mission to seek out and write my family history. None of my family is interested in participating in the search.
    I have learned more history trying to locate my deceased relatives than I have learned in all of my years of schooling. The interconnectedness of all human life becomes real through genealogy. This process has changed my life and made me more humane.

  25. We have lost a dear friend today in genealogy in Central KY. Your article surely touched me as it would have rseonated with Sam, I think.

  26. Dittos to all of the other positive feed back! Linda, your article is a beautiful expression of the “spiritual” quest each genealogist undertakes…to immortalize their ancestors as real and tangible people. Thank you for giving me an inspirational renewal.

  27. Mil gracias for sharing your insights that has resonated with so many of us! Genealogy is a spiritual quest for me, too, to identify those souls that preceeded us, to remember and thereby honor them, to ask for their prayers and guidance in this realm, and to pray for the advancement of their soul in the next. As I also learn of the national and even religious ancestry of my relatives, I see the divine unfoldment and receive the confirmation of the oneness of humanity as our trees intertwine and tangle with all those others. We are indeed all related, and we have found kindred spirits among genealogists and found relatives, as well as some of the physical evidences of our predecessors. May our searches and family reflections be blessed!

  28. Linda, I loved your article! Only a true “genealogy junky” can understand the thrill of a dusty, musty, room of old books in the basement of a historical society, and you expressed that feeling. I personally know your passion for finding your ancestors. It’s been a joy to search for our connection for the past 6 years. I always appreciate your enthusiasm and insight each time we find another piece of our puzzle. One day our ancestors will lead us to the answer and I will be proud to finally call you cousin.

  29. Dear Linda reading your article made me think of why I started doing genealogy, for a feeling of belonging when you didn’t think you had anyone left out there in the world. I have Shephards in my family tree do you think we could be related?

  30. Thank you Linda, for summing up the feelings of all true genealogists. I think that I was destined to be our family genealogist, as I used to spend much of my childhood talking to my two grandmas, who lived on the same street, as I did. I had this great curiosity about my ancestors, for all of my life, and used to accompany one grandma to the cemetery every year on decoration day, to put flowers on all of the graves of my ancestors. She would tell me great stories about them. How great an opportunity for me, to begin this wonderful and exciting hobby. Also thank you Linda, for the opportunity that you gave me, to help you find your ancestors who lived in the same area of Ontario, that I do now. It was wonderful having this connection with you. I am sure that many tears will be shed by the people reading your inspiring article. You have spoken for us all.
    Jean

  31. Actually you only have to go to Noah’s three sons and the rest is in the book.

  32. I fully agree with your feelings on genealogy. I love the sense of exhilaration I feel when I am able to confirm a suspicion, for lack of a better word. There is also a sense of completion just knowing a part of who you are and where you originated. Keep your articles coming.

  33. Ditto x 34 of all the comments made. I so understand the feelings & appreciate so much this article.

  34. Wonderful article. So true, sounds just like what I would have written. Ditto to all the above comments.

  35. Hi Linda

    What a great article!! I too had to comment before I even read any more of the newsletter. You definitely hit it out of the park with that article. I used to be a dabbler in genealogy and would spur others on to search their family history and helped others in my family do reasearch and decided to become serious about doing my own research. I am slowly but surely becoming an addict as well especially after visiting ancestral villages in Poland two years ago. Thanks for the article!!! Loved it, loved it!!!!

  36. Linda,
    Your article was very moving and resonated with me, as it obviously has with many others. I will be teaching a small genealogy class for my town in Vermont, and would like to ask your permission to use a copy of your article as a handout in my class. Could you email me [cathiwd at comcast.net] and let me know if I have your permission to do so? Thank you kindly.

  37. There’s no way I can add any MORE superlatives. This article is THE best ever – you’ve spoken for us all. When its time to pass out membership cards to the above group of folks, count me in as a member of your fan club! Thanks so much for a most sincere, profound and accurate description of our ‘malady”. Peggy Baatz Parker

  38. So beautifully written! And so true. It may be an “addiction” but do not want to live without it now that I’ve found it.

  39. Thanks so much for describing how I feel about genealogy and my ancestors and descendants, far better than I could. I became a “genealogy junky” about 10 years ago when introduced by my sister in law, Kathy. As I have made this journey, and learned so much about the human experience on a more personal level, I too have learned to be more understanding, accepting and forgiving. I love each of my ancestors, and I cherish knowing them in this way. And as you stated, it is amazing how DNA seems to play a role in so much of each of us; from personalities to illnesses to choices we make. I hope and pray that I will be able to record my findings in order to pass them on to my descendants, and they too can learn from the information. And “Ditto” on all the other comments. Thank you, Dr. Sheppard, for this beautiful description of ME, a “Genealogy Junky”. I have copied and pasted it to Word and will print it to my families. Again, thank you!

  40. Guess I’m one of those junkies. I started late but each ancestor is important to me. I feel I KNOW them all.

  41. Indeed one of the best articles describing this “affliction” I’ve ever read. This gives credence to my unusual (and possibly genetically related) love of Irish music and a few other strange habits. It links us to our past and makes us more tolerant and understanding of children conceived out of marriage, sons lost in war, and contested wills.
    Just curious, what did you find about your Maine Coon’s past? They’re a favorite of mine too!

  42. I must add my “Thank You” to the long list of other readers who admired this inspiring piece.

  43. I’m touched by your responses to my article. Thank you! I’ve puzzled over my addiction for many years, and am delighted my musings resonated with you. “Genealogy Junky” was my first online publishing experience and I love the instant feedback and the connections it creates.

    For those who had trouble with printing the article, try clicking on “printer friendly version.”

    D. Corella, I don’t know whether we’re related, but I’ve traced my Shepherd line to my great-grandfather Herbert Edward Shepherd (born 23 Mar 1845 in Erindale, Ontario, Canada) son of Charles Tomlyn Shepherd (born about 1811 in Kent, England).

    S.P. Graben asked about the genealogy of my Maine Coon cat—yes, we truly are obsessed. I adopted Singer from a friend dying of lung cancer, mounted a search for Maine Coon breeders, sent emails to them, and finally found Barb Solga of Dar Morev. From her, I found Singer was born 8/14/97, her dad was Ch Cooncreole Skagit of Dar Morey and her mom was Taraknoll Whimsey of Dar Morey.

    Blessings to you all.

  44. There must be a “gene connection” here for so many of us to feel the same in-depth emotions about our need to continue our research with passion. Your writing expressed it perfectly. I plan to share your insights which explains so well the thoughts and feelings I have not been able to convey to family and friends.

  45. Just loved your article, and so true! Although I haven’t gone as far as tracing my cat’s genealogy! (Not yet, anyway, too busy with people)

  46. RE: “GENEALOGY JUNKY” by Linda Jean Shepherd, Ph.D.

    Reading this article from Ancestry Journal I was impressed with the fact that this person knows exactly how I feel about genealogy research. Some times we all need validation for pursuits that might seem otherwise pointless and strange. In this age of computers Ancestry.com has put a human face on technology. The need for connection is at the very core of human nature and this “technological” form of pursuit of ancestors is just one path to that connection. It is an efficient and supportive tool to find public records that might otherwise take a lifetime to personally compile. I too have found ‘cousins’ and have been fortunate in making a personal contact with a few. Together we are connecting the loose ends of each family story which compiles a collective whole.

    I have never been interested in pursuing the Celebrity that might emerge from my tree. I am interested in the common individual who has made my life journey possible. I want to know all of the acts of courage, human frailties, and individual paths my ancestors took to make their journey through life. Their lives have put a personal face on World and especially American history. Before now, history was the endless stream of wars and conflict. A laundry list of death and destruction which was not what I wanted to learn about. Now, has become the framework in which my ancestors lived their lives. It helps me understand why my farming ancestors left the center of New York in the 1800′s up the Hudson River; and, how the building of the Erie Canal made is possible for them to transport their farming products, find employment as ferry operators, carpenters, railroad employees, etc. That is just one example of how history and people become intermeshed from one generation to the next. Religion, ethnicity, economy and politics effect us beyond every day life. In hind site, I can see how these forces effected my “family” and now me.

    Thank you Linda, for the article, and Ancestry.com for helping me honor and validate those who have come before me and those living now. I will probably continue this ‘hobby’(which consumes atleast four hours of every day) for the rest of my life because it has been FUN, REWARDING, and a REAL ADVENTURE.

  47. Julst finished reading your so well writen article. It reflected so many of my feelings. When I got started on my searches I had no idea what I was getting into but I do love it and now know all these ancestors were living and breathing people. Now my aim is to leave what I have learned about this unique group of people for all the family yet to come. Thank you. Julie Hillin

  48. The article was so descriptive and uplifting and the reponses to it are wonderful to read and made me feel a lot better with myself because it made me realise that there are many, many other folk out there as obsessed with Family Tree matters as I am.
    My 87 year old sister says I will only be more interested in her when she is dead !
    Where can I buy the t-shirt?

  49. I must admit i don’t always read every article but place it to one side for another time BUT Linda’s article almost hypnotized me, taking me down through a journey as I shared, overwhelmingly, her passion, which like her encapsulates my whole being–brilliant–its great to know there are others out there in tune with the spirits of their ancestors. I think and breath family tree and may be one day I will actually meet these ancestors–i gave up work for 1 year recently just so I could go off in my campervan and explore graveyards, archives and breath in the air that they breathed–I went back over a 1000 years– a descendant on the move.. Thanks Linda for the continued inspiration your article propelled. sheila

  50. Dear Linda,

    As many have already stated your articulate article about the Addiction of Genealogy is right on. I now have a very well stated answer to give those who over the years questioned my addiction to genealogy. You have summed up in a few paragraphs the reasons and reactions for doing all of the research I have acumulated over the past thirty years. I had put it aside a couple of years ago for various reasons but your artice reminded me of why I started researching my genealogy in the first place. I am going to get my binders out and start updating and breaking down those brick walls that I had run into. Also it does not hurt that my grandson called the other night and asked for some information for a homework project.

    Thank you again for your insights and for putting them on paper (or cyberspace) in the first place. You have certainly inspired me into action. Sincerely, Judy

  51. This article is one of the best statements of why we genealogists devote so much time to the research we love. I, too, have felt a connection with long dead ancestors as I researched and reconstructed their lives. Thank you, Linda, for sharing your thoughts so beautifully.

  52. Thank you for this article. It is how I felt when I went to a cemetery looking for an unnamed ancestor in North Carolina who died sometime in the mid 1700s. I will never know her name but as I wandered through this very old resting home of many unmarked graves one spot seemed to grab me and I felt a great sense of peace. I will always feel that this is where she rests and that she is glad to meet me at long last as I am to meet her. And yes they all still live in our souls.

  53. Linda – what a wonderful explanation of being a genealogy junky! You’ve helped me understand that what I’m really trying to do is “build” a family for myself because I was not raised under conventional circumstances. These “family members” are, on some days, more relevant to me than the living ones. I appreciate the struggles they were willing to endure in order that my life may be easier.

  54. I have been a “Junky” a long time.My husband and I were both Junkies. We did it at first with out computers. Traveled to Canada and all over the U.S. He has been gone for 11 years, and we were married for 52 years.There are pictures of ancestors covering ost of the walls in my home. a few days before he died he looked at the pictures and asked “do you think they will recognize me when I get there”. His sister replied,” I am sure they will, you have been talking to them a long time.” I am now 81 and have been at this for 35 years, and still going and finding new things every day. People have asked me how to get started, and I tell them to be sure they want to do this, because it is addictive and there is no known cure.

    Louise Bentley smith

  55. Thank you, Linda. I found the following in an anthology named Sisters of the Earth, published by Vintage Books in 1991,edited by Lorraine Anderson. Walking, by Linda Hogan, page 12:

    “Tonight I walk. I am watching the sky. I think of the people who came before me and how they knew the placement of stars in the sky, watched the moving sun long and hard enough to witness how a certain angle of light touched a stone only once a year. Without written records, they knew the gods of every night, the small, fine details of the world around them and of immensity above them….Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”

  56. Dear Linda,

    I owe you a large vote of thanks for something: by writing this article, you’ve now legitimized genealogy addiction, by “bringing it out of the closet”, so to speak. All of us who have been junkies for so many years also can now realize that they aren’t alone with this obsessive/compulsive behavior. Many others are in the same boat. The tremendous response to your article right here alone overwhelmingly illustrates that point!

    I myself have been at it since 1968, when I was in my senior year in high school–which, I’m proud to say, is almost 40 years, already. If I may, I would also like to offer a new term for anyone suffering from said addiction (or affliction): how about a “tree-aholic”(?!)

    Robert M. Kern–May 10, 7:48 p.m.

  57. Could not have said it better. I started in 1981 and as you said, I would rather do genealogy than read a novel. I have been known to sit at the computer for 12 hours at a time. Thank God for Ancestry.com and the web. Saves lots of travel time and stating at microfisch or bad film.
    Thanks, now lets get those bumper stickers going.

  58. Liked your article, can you direct me in searching more about true genealogy, not the outward traces of names but the spiritual or mind, character and personality we inherit that is bequeathed through our genes & chromosomes. Want to write an article but so few people comprehend the majority of our person is inherited; nature vs. nurture and so on.

    Will send you some files written so far if you like.

  59. My oldest brother is a Genealogy Addict and soon will be making a-once-in-a-lifetime journey to villages in Hungary to connect with our forebears. His passion is contagious. I feel his excitement and hunger to learn more of the lives and struggles of our bygone families. He is undertaking an emotional and spiritual quest. My heart and prayers go with him. We are all citizens of the world linked by the spirits of our ancestors. Good luck to all who are seeking the unfolding of their history! Bless you, Linda Shepherd for your inspirational website!

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  61. Thanks. It’s good to know that there are other genealogy addicts out there. At least this addiction can be put to good use by reuniting family members after sometimes generations of drifting apart. I was adopted and never got to see my grandparents then a second cousin I found while researching my family tree recently was able to send me a photo of my grandparents wedding which included my grandmother’s two sisters who were bridesmaids.

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