Friday, October 12, 2012

Genealogy: At the Intersection of History and Memory

Not long ago at a meeting of northwest Indiana County Genealogists the conversation turned to those people who insist that their old family story must be true, no matter how conclusive the evidence against it. I thought at the time, "Well, some folks just are knuckleheads."

But maybe there's more going on than that. It's the difference between memory (personal and collective remembrance) and history (what can be rethought and documented publicly).

People get into genealogy because they want to preserve and extend their family memories. But genealogy is not scrapbooking, it's history. It deals with what actually happened. Often genealogists encounter facts that show their cherished memories were false. Some can deal with that, others can't.

There's a nice discussion of memory and history -- so often joined, so often at odds -- in the book Thinking the Twentieth Century, pages 275-78, a conversation between two 20th-century historians. But since this is a genealogy blog, I'll substitute a personal example of how the two can collide:

In the mid-1950s our family was driving through downtown Peoria, and one of my young sisters for the first time saw Catholic nuns in their traditional black-and-white habits. In great excitement, she yelled through the open window, "MOMMY, LOOK! WITCHES! REAL LIVE WITCHES!" My mother was mortified; we drove away; and the episode entered the family memory. For years afterward in retrospect we attributed the yell to Mischievous Middle Sister. That was our memory, confirmed and reconfirmed with every repetition.

But it was false. Decades later we were sorting through the near-daily postcards our mother had sent to her mother in those days -- just about the length and tenor of a quick email or Facebook post would be today. One of them told the story of that day, except that, contrary to our memory, it had been Sweet Quiet Sister who had yelled those words that day.

Genealogy stands or falls on our ability to recognize that a contemporary earwitness account (history, from a document) trumps years or generations of false repetitious memory.

Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century (New York: Penguin, 2012).

Harold Henderson, "Genealogy: At the Intersection of History and Memory," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 12 October 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.


Michele Simmons Lewis said...

Unfortunately, yes. A certain relative was adamant about the facts surrounding her brother's death (which occurred before she was born). When I pulled the death certificate I found that everything was wrong (place of death, date of death, manner of death). She refused to accept it even though I showed her the death certificate.

Lois said...

I like this story! SQS