Should We Tell All? by Mary Penner

letter bundle.jpgWhile cleaning out my closet the other day, I thought about Emily Dickinson. Emily had instructed her sister, Lavinia, to destroy all of her letters and manuscripts after her death. The ever-dutiful Lavinia carried out her slash and burn mission until she discovered more than 1,700 poems hidden away in Emily’s home. Duty to her dead sister went out the window. As a result, Emily, an intensely private person in life, has been vaulted to the stature of one of America’s greatest poets.

Only a few of Emily’s poems were published during her lifetime, all anonymously, and not all with her consent. Now Dickinson scholars, and just about everyone who’s taken an American Lit class, dissect and analyze the personal lines Emily quietly penned.

Those of us who love poetry are thankful to Lavinia. But, what would Emily think about the fame and scrutiny showered on her most intimate thoughts?

I thought of Emily because of the box I found in my closet. It was filled with letters written to me by a guy from my past. Glancing at the envelopes carried me back to that long ago place and time. That relationship changed the direction of my life, or at least it set me on a path that brought me where I am today. That guy was important to me then, but not now.

Without reading a single letter, I threw the entire box in the trash. At one point I felt sentimental enough to hang onto those letters, but that sentiment has faded along with the memories. And, yes, I realize my great-great-granddaughter won’t have the chance to pore over those letters while trying to piece together my life 100 years from now.

Family historians tirelessly pursue paper trails our ancestors left behind; but, have you ever come across something, like Emily’s poems or my old love letters, that they probably didn’t want you or anyone else to see or know?

You might say that anything left floating around after a person is dead is fair game. In fact, most of us would jump for joy if we found a stash of letters or a diary belonging to one of our ancestors. We truly value those pieces of ephemera that morph our ancestors into three dimensional people–people who loved, who cried, who experienced joy, and who endured loss.

It appears that my ancestors were as un-sentimental as I am because I’ve yet to find much in the way of personal documents. I have, though, found public records that have exposed the rough and raw edges of their lives.

Sometimes I feel a little like a peeping tom, especially when the sordid, sad, and just plain pathetic details emerge from the records. For example, imagine a crazed woman chasing a neighbor down the street with a butcher knife. That spectacle might make you chuckle and remind you of a B-grade slasher movie. That was my first thought as I read the testimony from the annoyed neighbor in the court records. But, it was no laughing matter for my anguished great-grandmother and her siblings when they petitioned the court to commit their troubled sister to a mental institution.

Recently, a cousin of mine discovered that his renowned family patriarch never bothered to divorce his first wife and neglected to marry his second wife even though they lived together for more than fifty years. The fact that the two women were aunt and niece makes the story even juicer. Yet, the pain, shame, and frustration that the second wife felt was clear in her application for a Civil War widow’s pension. Only one of her many children knew the truth about their parent’s un-wedded bliss, and the grieving widow wasn’t anxious for the tale to be told.
What are the morals of these cautionary tales? In other words, does everything we discover about our ancestors need to be told? And, to whom do we tell it and how? I’m not sure if there’s a definitive answer. For me, I just want to remember that these were real people, and no matter how much dirt I dig up (and I’ll never stop digging), I’ll try to treat the dirty laundry and personal intimacies that I uncover with a measure of respect and discretion. Does that mean I’ll censor my research findings? I don’t think so, but, in some cases, maybe I will.

Emily Dickinson, the recipient of massive unwanted personal exposure, wrote this poem about the tell-all concept:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

Will the ugly and unfortunate truths about our ancestors blind us? Not hardly, but it might make a few of them rattle uncomfortably in their graves. It all boils down to respect. How much respect do we owe our dead ancestors? You tell me, because I don’t know the answer.

So, by destroying those letters did I deprive future generations from the thrill of the hunt into my life? Well, maybe they will come across this essay and use the clues here to start digging. I suspect they might be able to figure out who the guy was. But, they won’t know the intimate details of our relationship and I don’t regret that. Unless–unless, he saved the letters I wrote him. . .

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Genealogist Mary Penner writes “Lineage Lessons,” a weekly genealogy column, for the Albuquerque Tribune. She can be reached through her website.

32 thoughts on “Should We Tell All? by Mary Penner

  1. The article you wrote about “telling all” echoed in my own soul. I have often thought along the same lines. I guess that I have decided that yes, we do have to tell all (though I do also agree that it should be handled respectfully and as discreetly as possible—I think one can sometimes share the truth on a “need to know” basis–but the truth must be preserved somewhere and told when necessary).

    I have come to this decision for several reasons–one being that as family historians we are as responsible for accurate history as is the historian who writes a textbook. When we pretend that the less than savory details of an ancestors life never happened, we contribute to a revisionist view of history. If the times that they lived in made the people, then it also follows that the people made the times. If we make them more saintly than they were, we do not get a clear view of the times. That is why we tend to sometimes glorify the “good old days” and see our own times as worse because we sometimes have a skewed picture of the people who went before us.

    For instance, how many people have the very mistaken idea that in the time of the Puritans premarital sex did not exist? If you do not read history and are not a family historian you don’t realize the percentage of brides who walked down the aisle enciente.

    Secondly, my grown children are just now beginning to appreciate my interest in genealogy because they are old enough now to realize how the things that occured in preceeding generations impacts the family on down through the years.

    As an example, I had a ggg-grandfather who, while suffering from “deliriums”(probably from alcohol use), murdered my ggg-grandmother and then took his own life. Sounds like a headline from today’s news doesn’t it?

    In every generation on down in that line there has been alcoholism and divorce. Of all my family lines, that one alone has a high rate of both.

    My grandmother,great-grandaughter of the above, was a strict teetotaler. Jokes were made in the family about how she could tell from across a room if one of her sons had even a single drink. And now I understand why as I discovered that her own brother died from the effects of alcohol abuse (he was also divorced). I wish that I had understood her better when she was alive. But now I can help my own children to understand the lessons from our family history.

    Finally, I have experienced often that sense of “they want to be found” as I have searched for an elsive ancestor. Maybe they want to be found because they want their stories told AND UNDERSTOOD. We do them a disservice if we paint a false picture of them and their lives. Maybe they want their lives used to teach us lessons that we still need to learn.

  2. An interesting article… the difficulty with genealogy is that we will not always like what we find. As a clear (I hope)example, those early American ancestors are generally a source of pride. However, many owned slaves and many were involved in absorbing the Indian lands. Do I take less pride in them? Good question. I have to step back and recognize that their actions are not my actions. That their lives had a cultural, temporal, site context that I need to fathom. In reporting the family history to my children and their children I have an obligation to report family facts without adding (too much) of my own cultural/temporal baggage. And truly, in the imperfections we often see the real people in all their very human glory.
    Now as to burning my own love letters… well, I am the story-teller for my own life. _I_ get to decide who I am and what is important to me… I’m not going to call off the garage sale just because the detritis of MY life might have value in the future… future generations are just going to have to look at the records and artifacts that survive and sort out who I was. 🙂 I hope that they can say that, within the context of his time and place, he was an interesting person that we can be proud of… mostly :-)))

  3. You wrote a very insightful article. While interviewing relatives about steamy family secrets I sense their denial or reluctance to discuss any issue that paints the family portrait in anything less than a steller shade. But I have used our family history, both good and bad, as one of many life’s lessons for my family and me. One prerequisite is to remember we are not responsible for what our ancestors did before us. Therefore, we should neither feel shamed nor supercillious.

  4. I absolutely loved your article!! I will say that my heart sank when you threw those letters in the trash. I have about 50 letters that my Father wrote to my Mother during Vietnam. While my parents are both still living and these letters are pretty steamy, I will treasure them forever. I also have a couple of my family lines that seem to have been very careful not to have left a paper trail. While it does make it very frustrating to research them, it does give an air of mystery to their lives which is exciting and keeps me looking for more. I agree with other comments that have been made about not being shameful or our ancestors lives. In most cases they did the best they could do in the time they lived. Just as we do today.

  5. This excellent article started me to thinking more about the records that we are creating. For example, if a neighbor or close friend cheats me in a business deal, or is merely rude at a public event, what do I risk if I include his name when recording the account in my personal journal. In other words, revealing our own secrets to our descendants is a lesser concern than reporting the secrets of others. I would welcome insights from others. DR

  6. Yes, I have a comment RIGHT NOW. Emily’s records came to light AFTER HER DEATH. Despite her wishes, the effects did not affect her during her lifetime. I was furious when I saw you are publishing marriages and divorces of people alive today. ANCESTRY, you are wrong to do this.

  7. Should we tell all? I have pondered this question, as I compiled my family history to share with family members. I have come to the conclusion that we should be very careful when we are summing up a person’s life into a few short paragraphs. All people were and are complex and it impossible to see into the hearts and souls of those ancestors who may have skeletons in the closet.

  8. A very interesting article. I agree with the previous comments. We should not judge our ancestors actions. It was a time in history different from ours and we should not place our modern day societal values on theirs. Their time in history had different values so let sleeping dogs lie. Whether to or not to include family secrets would be a personal decision.

  9. A very interesting article, and an issue I have wrestled with for many years. I have three sealed bundles of letters from my parents written to each other before, and in their early years of their marriage in England during WWII. They both died well before their time . I have no idea what is in the letters, but I can’t bring myself to disturb their privacy, even after all the years they have been gone. I will keep the letters, sealed in their bundles, in my research files and leave them to whoever takes over my research when I’m gone. Overly sensitive? Perhaps, but I must be guided by my feelings and emotions for two people I loved and admired.

  10. Thank you,Mary for this thought-provoking article and so well-written.I tend to feel as others in that we should realize that “people do what they think they have to do,whether they “should” do it or not.We are all human beings with infallibilities and fears,etc.etc. I do feel that information in the public domain (court records,unless they are sealed) is for anyone to know (marriages,divorces and so forth).

  11. A very thought provoking article. When I found a letter that slandered (without proof) a living, elderly relative, I had no problem destroying it. It could have proven painful to her and her descendants without giving any insight into her overall lifestyle and character, whether true or not.

    The legal records and newspaper story of my grandfather’s and his brother’s attack on their estranged from their sister brother-in-law was something else. No relative closer than me is living and we find it amusing and rather touching that Grandpa, who was known for his gentleness, lost his temper in defense of his sister.

    As for correspondence or other writing by or about a desceased person that simply shows lifestyle and personality, I think it should be preserved and shared. A very private person might find it embarrassing during her lifetime but that element is lost with death. The only question I would consider in deciding about such information would be how long to wait after her death to share.

  12. Beautifully written with a great deal of sensitivity to an issue we all wrestle with: revisionist family history. Jim Saunders comment was poignant. I am facing the same dilemma with some personal writings of my mother-in-law that I’m quite certain she would not want shared with her grandchildren. We discuss this problem in my genealogy classes. No one has a definitive answer.

  13. I found this article very timely and informative as I have had this same question arise in my own genealogy research – whether an undesirable fact one has come across should be disclosed to that person’s children. What purpose would it serve? The fact would undoubtedly bring shock, sorrow and disrespect, and so far, I have decided not to disclose those facts to anyone. Thank you for helping me decide on the right course.

  14. I got a kick out of your article, it really hit home in a sense. I want to know everything and anything about my ancestors, even the most sorid detail for it is history. But in the same sense, if I had some secret or embarassment to hide not sure I would want the world to know—ever! This might be why I have such a hard time researching some relatives or ancestors, they didn’t think it would be anyone’s business to know about their lives. But I still search trying to find out anything and anything on my ancestors. Dave [:O>

  15. If the letters were mine, before burning them I would have gone through them and recorded the facts they gave me about the chronology of my life (not any of the love-life stuff). It is like finding an old diary – it brings back many of the little mundane details we had completely forgotten. For the gentleman with the WWII era letters between his parents: read the letters! Your parents are long dead, and their letters will bring them back to you as nothing else ever could. Not that I’m opinionated or anything . . .

  16. I know some things are hard to read about, but I was able to get my mother-in-law to think about her father and step-mother in a different light. Her father married and had 2 children, his wife died when they were very small. Since he was homesteading in Oklahoma, he needed help. He married a widow with 2 children, who needed help also. They had three children, one of whom was my mother-in-law. Her mother died when she was 10, after a long illness that left her bedridden. He then married her step-mother, a widow with 3 children, who had been housekeeping and helping with his 2nd wife. Mom always felt that he indecently married to quickly, but had to concede that at that time, he needed help. After all, her mother was in the same position. History has shown that this was not unusual. Oftentimes, a spouse was buried in the morning and the survivor was remarried in the afternoon. Some truths are helpful to descendants, while others can be harmful.

  17. I loved your article.
    My mother and grandparents kept every piece of correspondence from my father while he was stationed in Europe during WWII. One letter I read was from him to my mother when she was pregnant with me in 1944. He commented to her that he was glad that I (unborn me) was on the way even if she wasn’t and (she) wished they had waited until he returned to have a baby. He never returned. He was killed in France. It made me happy that my father had wanted a baby but I always wondered about if my mother was still sorry after I was born. She is 86 now and I still haven’t asked her that question. I probably never will.
    carol Stryhal

  18. I totally disagree about trashing memrobilia. For instance the letters in the Civil War wrote home give life to the tragedy of the war. And if you read letters aloud they take on an even greater life. My wife trew out her fathers letters written to her Mom during WW1. I cried-WHY? Her reply I don’t know!
    Sure thow it out-yea.

  19. Mary:

    You hurt my heart… Perhaps I don’t want anyone reading my old love letters while I am alive, but if I don’t want them read —EVER — I will and should destroy them. If you had kept them through a completely new and different life, they must have been worth keeping for ever.

    They’re gone now, but the act of writing about them will force the rest of us to make the decision.

    Keep writing …. Jerry

  20. Dear Mary, I have struggled with information I have found in my research but in the end, I feel that some of the information deserves to be left hidden. Not everything is everyone’s business. Some of the secrets would hurt the descendants and I’m not willing to cause them pain.

  21. I think it can be useful to future generations to know the issues ancestors have confronted and sometimes conquered,sometimes not. Some of these issues, such as gambling, have a genetic component so a member of the present generation struggling with it could find some courage in knowing it was faced and overcome by several generations of ancestors. Family therapy involves breaking behavior patterns that pass from one generation to the next just as our physical characteristics are passed on. Whatever insight letters and other family history can give to present and future generations, can be a gift of insight that can help them to more fulfilling lives.

  22. When I first began doing research 15 years ago, I struggled with this same question when I discovered a family skeleton. It was so strange the way I figured it out, that it was almost as if the skeleton wanted to come out. Anyway before I decided about anything I went to a close family member who I thought most likely knew the truth. I privately asked them if my assumptions were correct. (This person knew I was doing research and had previously given me information to get started with.) Their first reaction was shock that I knew. They confirmed my deductions as being fact and confirmed that the spouse of the offended relative had been angry about it 80 years later,just before his death. This spouse felt that justice had not been done to the offender who was also a family member. The family member who confirmed the truth…said that I should be truthful but with kindness. They requested that I be as thoughtful as I could be of the other descendants.

    I later read an article written by a professional genealogist which made a lot of sense to me. He basically said that if we are willing to report the good we find in our family lines, than we must be truthful but considerate of the ‘black sheep’ we find in the family as well. I have since used that as my guideline.

    I have several close cousins who in their youth who did things which they now regret and wish they hadn’t done. These are things which are a matter of public record. When they gave me the statistics of these events I promised them that I would not post any of the information to any public place during their lifetime. I feel if you don’t want something to show up at somewhere like don’t post it to their site.

  23. I agree that one should be careful about what is revealed. I too have a personal story about my father’s birth. I feel it is relavant and am including the information in a book I am writing about his family. On the other hand I myself have things in my life I will never write about or want anyone to know. So goes it, the life question.

  24. A heaping measure of thanks, Mary, for a superb and thought-provoking article. You struck a chord with many, me included. I’ve mused often on this topic. I recently mused once again after reading a book (written by a non family member) concerning the life of a distant cousin. The book is based on family letters. The difficulty in labeling it wholly fact, rather than partially fictionalized, results- in my opinion as a family historian- from a missing and crucial three year period of correspondence. The author contends that the missing letters may have been deliberately destroyed by a family member with notion to write his own version of family history. I thoughtfully and carefully considered each argument for that assertion-every “perhaps”, “likely”, “possibly”- yet came away unconvinced the author had ultimately proven her point as to calculated disappearance, blame, and motive. Had those letters survived, it’s my opinion the “true story” might have proven there was no such revisionist in the family, nor did there need to be. A related incident occurred while my sister and I were home visiting years ago. In search of childhood photos, we headed to the attic. While sorting through boxes, she pulled out a packet of letters I’d written her while a college student. After reading a few lines, and enjoying a laugh over the comings and goings common to 20-somethings, I gathered up the letters to toss. My sister grabbed them back- “No, they are history!” Tables turned at that moment. The family genealogist was poised to throw away letters not because politically correct family history hinged on their survival or demise, but simply because of their dated, not to mention insipid, content. Lacking even minute interest in my genealogical work, my sister even so refused to allow me to erase years of the very thing I’d give my eye teeth for when it comes to ancestral research. Those particular letters would never be missing ones crucial to my life story. But there are others I’ve written falling within such a category. There is power in the family pen. I’ve personally been recipient of the life-changing effects of a relative’s words. I would not be writing this comment now without having read when a child the sole surviving letter written by a great uncle as he lay dying in hospital during the Civil War. Never in his wildest imaginings could Caleb have considered how his words would alter the life of a relative born a hundred years after his death. Might not our words today- including virtual ones- be capable of doing the very same at some future date? Electronic correspondence serves as “footprints” we’re leaving behind us in the sands of time. Any saved and printed emails may tomorrow effectively become letters written to relatives yet unborn. Now that I’ve opened my eyes as result of seriously considering the pros and cons of this topic from several viewpoints, I intend to take time to sort through, print, and compile a binder of emails that may prove interesting to future genealogists in my family. I realize that even in so doing, I’ll in effect be leaving things out. Intentionally? No, but I won’t have time or inclination to print every saved mail, and words written on previous PCs may prove impossible to retrieve. Blanks will remain to be filled in. On one hand I’m okay with that because I don’t wish to spoil the fun my posterity may have in putting the puzzle together. On the other, I pray that if they read between the lines, they “get it right”. Ideally, writing one’s own memoir offers the best insurance a future historian picking up pieces of the past doesn’t pen a family story based on any missing period of correspondence. When it comes to my life history, I’d rather be the one writing that last word.

  25. I value highly the letters written by my great-great-grandfather to his estranged son, my great-grandfather. They are in a safe deposit box because what is said in the letters reveals history of the family that still touches my life and my children’s etc. –we are what our ancestors before us experienced. We can learn from those experiences to better our lives and those of our descendants.

  26. One day in the spring of 2000, after my father had died and my mother was cleaning house in order to move to a retirement community, I went to visit her. She told me she’d found the box of letters my father had written her while he was in India in World War II. She said, she’d read them one more time, then took them out back and burned them. Oh, how I wished I could have read them. How I wished they’d been saved for future generations. But, they were her letter, and it was her choice to burn them. Maybe there were things in them she didn’t want anyone to know.

  27. I recently attended a weekend with children of a cousin who died recently. They are such a loving, close, and accepting family. But one thing bothered me – their picture of their grandfather, my uncle. I knew him to be a selfish, boorish, demanding jerk who cheated on my aunt and anyone else that was close by throughout his active adulthood. They saw him as a generous grandfather and laughed when they tho’t my aunt’s name was “God Dxxm, Viv!” because that’s how he always addressed her. My other cousins and I discussed this disparity of views about my uncle, but said nothing to his grandchildren. But someday their children should know the other side of their ancestor, if only to understand the life of my cousin and her mother.

  28. Sometimes we do not write down the names of evil doers to protect relations between the ancestors’ descendants on both sides of a wrongful deed. One of my great-grandfathers was a soldier in the Confederate Army. He was a poor, illiterate boy and agreed to go as a substitute for a well-to-do draftee for pay. My great-grandfather was to get his pay at the end of his service.

    He was in the Confederate Army for four years. During those years, he was hospitalized three times with dysentery, permanently injured during the Seven Days Battle of Richmond,
    captured and held prisoner for three years at Elmira Prison (the Andersonville of the North) where the prisoners survived on a few beans a day and whatever rats they could catch. He was there for almost the entire time that Elmira Prison existed.

    When the war was over and my ancestor returned home, he went to his “benefactor” for his pay. He was told that he had volunteered, and that no one owed him anything. Not until one of my cousins retrieved his records from the State Archives did we discover that the Confederate enlistment officer had been in colusion with the villain, and had written “volunteer” in the line where “substitute” should have been in his documents. My great-grandfather went through years of hell for this guy not knowing that he had been deceived from the beginning. My family knows the name of the person who deceived my ancestor into his horrible ordeal. We do not publish it in genealogy publications, because we know that the descendants of this villain were not involved in the deception, and are innocent of this wrongdoing.

    Jo Prytherch

  29. My father asked (actually bugged me) to do some research on our family history for an upcoming event taking place in our state. He felt his family might have been in the state at the time of the beginning settlers arriving. I have always loved history, so he felt I would enjoy doing this for him. Well, I found out a lot more than he wanted me to or than he ever imagined I would. Yes, our family had been part of the people who helped settle the state, arriving just before or just as the area was made a state. But…

    To arrive at this information I had to work backwards from my grandparents, knowing only their names and partial names of my grandmother’s parents names. What I found were public records but I don’t think my father ever dreamed they were able to be researched or could be found. With my stomach churning, I went to him, told him what I found and watched the shock cross his face. He tried to make excuses for the ancestor and said there was more to it than that. Out of respect for him I moved forward very carefully.

    As I starting finding hundreds of ancestors for his other family lines, I continued to be stuck at a brick wall with this one relative’s ancestors.

    All of my research to that point had been done before the computer research age arrived. As I became more familiar with computers and the websites available, I finally posted at a website requesting any information on this person. I received an answer from someone who also had this relative in their line wanting to know how this was possible. When I explained, she was also shocked but was as excited to find me as I was to find her. She was also stuck but had more information than I did. She shared her information, I shared mine but we continued to be stuck for years because no one would share any information.

    I had been researching for 11 years at that point but continued to hit a brick wall with this line. This was the line that started my interest in genealogy research and I could not go any farther than 4 generations back. I was very frustrated but put it aside and continued to work on the rest of the family. As continued to add information and websites blossomed everywhere, I found a little more information.

    After 19 years of research, I made finally found the missing link I needed and was able to trace this line back to the 1600’s in North America. Needless to say I was absolutley thrilled and relieved to finally break through the wall!

    Did the family approve of what I found out? No, the older generations were not thrilled with me, the younger ones of my gneration were. To one family member I have become the wrecker of history and their memories of this person. I kept trying to explain what happened had nothing to do with them personally, did not reflect on who they were today and was part of our family history. The person was long dead and could not be hurt by the information being told. Yes, the person had made mistakes but who of us has not. This person just had a little more effect on our history than other family members had.

    If the family had not tried to hide these facts, I could have found this family line many, many years earlier. Should facts/documents be hidden? No, use common sense, tread carefully and with a lot of respect for your familys feelings but don’t hide the truth. It all is part of your history.

  30. Mary, you pose a couple of good questions the answers to which are as varied as the number of people reading this post. It has been my experience that personal letters left behind help to broaden a picture of a person who we may only have knowledge of from someones aged memory or the stark public records that government keeps. I do agree that dirty laundry and personal intimacies should be handled with the utmose respect and discretion. On the other hand, I do support those who destroy their personal communications if they contain parts of their past lives they wish to remain a secret…. though as we all know, once two people know something, it is no longer a secret.

  31. I’ve come across several bits of information that caused me to ponder this issue. I decided that I would treat it the way I would want information about myself treated. I’m glad to have learned these facts about certain ancestors, and although I find them most interesting, in most cases I’ll just keep them to myself.

  32. How interesting the nerve this article stroke in so many people. I too have been pondering how to handle a piece of information. Because it is only a generation earlier, I remember my mother’s stories or take on the happening. To tell the story will explain other family events that some may seem pecular if they don’t know the story. To tell it may upset the first family of a favorite uncle, to not tell it keeps his second family in the dark, and when those who are not around anylonger to explain, what is left is the public record that could be hurtful to both parts of uncles family and future generations. Just a note about post number 6. I am glad that you publish current information. It is not harmful info, we live in the “current” and it helps us keep our records up to date.

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