Family Ties & Family Lies

After my grandmother’s passing in 2017, I really dug into our family’s genealogy hardcore. I’ve done the Ancestry DNA test and spent hours and hours reviewing census data, birth and death certificates, marriage and divorce decrees. I’ve tried to track down the origins of how aunt-so-and-so and cousin-such-and-such are actually related to us. I’ve look at the research others have done, both inside the family and outside. And through all of this, one of my biggest takeaways/realizations has been that these people be lyinnngggg.

At first, I was appalled by my discovery. Like, “I know my grandmother wouldn’t just LIE to me… would she?” What I’ve come to realize is that I’m looking at history through my 2020 lens (ha ha… see what I did there?) We live in a time where transparency is valued and expected. This was not always the case.

At the top of the last century, instances of infidelity and children out of wedlock were simply not tolerated, publicly at least, so arrangements were made to keep up appearances. Aunts raised nieces and nephews, cousins raised cousins… There’s nothing wrong with any of it and God bless them for being willing to accept a child that wasn’t their own and raise them as if they were. The problems start if/when the child doesn’t know the true identity of the players in their life.

I can’t even tell you how many “Oooooooh snap” and “…so that’s why…” moments I’ve had while going through my family tree. And don’t even get me started on my favorite show, Finding Your Roots with Dr. Henry Louis Gates. Some of those episodes will have you on the edge of your seat like its a thriller and not a genealogy series.

But this is where I want to get real: if/when the truth is finally revealed, its usually the one the secret is being kept from who is most impacted. How do you think someone feels when a secret about them is revealed to them? Its destabilizing. It makes them question everything they’ve ever known. It creates holes in their identity. To intentionally do this to someone is not “for the best”, its cruel.

Family secrets and lies don’t serve anyone but the keeper of said secret. Its not just deceptive, its selfish. The lie you tell to make yourself feel better, temporarily, has farther reaching consequences than I’m sure anyone really considers.

Let’s talk genetics, for a moment. Say, there is an infidelity in a marriage and a child is conceived. *insert dramatic gasp here* For “the sake of the family,” all parties agree to act like nothing happened and the other spouse assumes the parental role in this child’s life – with the biological parent never entering the picture ever again. They raise the child as their own and the child is none-the-wiser for the rest of his days.

Happy story right? Everybody comes out looking good, the family is preserved… Great, huh? Sure, for the involved secret-keeping parties but think about how many times throughout your life you’re asked to provide a family health history – doctor’s office, eye doctor, emergency room. This child will go through life reporting a history not his own. I’m sorry but I feel like this is major! What a disservice to knowingly give someone false information because the circumstances of the truth don’t paint you in the best light. With the technology we have now, doctors can begin screenings earlier for patients who are genetically predisposed to certain cancers and other diseases. How do they know to start early screenings if they don’t know their true medical history? Now you’re playing a life and death game and for what!?

There are plenty of people who don’t grow up in the same household as a biological parent – for various reasons – but at least know who they are. It’s not that big a deal. Shed the cloak of shame and guilt, if not for yourself, for the child that will ultimately be most effected by it.

Another thing to consider is history, itself. I know everyone may not geek out on genealogy like I do but knowing who you are and who you come from is important. I didn’t realize how much until I started to learn more about my history.

In today’s world of the “self-made” man, the emphasis on independence can be an isolating feeling. You spend so much time working toward success and sometimes you just feel alone in the process. What I’ve discovered while researching is a sense of support that I’d never known before. When you know that you come from a people that came together and bought their own land on an island after slavery and maintained a culture of their own that’s still intact to this day, you realize that what you’re doing didn’t start with you. You have generations of examples of perseverance and strength to look back and lean into as you navigate your journey. Its one thing to look at historical figures like MLK but there’s something about knowing your own ancestors and thinking “I have their blood in me.” They overcame so much, I know I can overcome this.

I know societal standards are changing and evolving everyday and this might not be such a big deal for the current generation being born but there are still plenty of people alive who were born during the “era of appearances.” Still plenty of secrets being kept from people who don’t understand why they float through life as they do. If you know of family issues that “we just don’t discuss”, realize that your secret is their truth. They deserve access to their whole truth so that they can move through life accordingly.