Ashley Barnwell, Ashworth Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Melbourne, explores the ethics of keeping family secrets hidden.
At the International Family History Workshop in Manchester 2017, I presented my research on Australian family secrets. As a sociologist, I am interested in the connections between the small events of everyday life and the large events of social history. My project looks at how national policies and social attitudes influence what families choose to keep secret over time. I also study the family politics that arise when past secrets are revealed in the present.
In late 2016 I conducted a national survey of Australian family historians, asking them about their experience of finding secrets in past generations of their families. The respondents described how they discovered the secret and why they thought it was kept. I also asked how family members reacted when they learned about the secret, and whether the family historian would share this sometimes quite sensitive information on their family tree.
The findings from the survey show that family historians are grappling with important ethical questions about how to respect the privacy of their ancestors while also being true to the historical record. As one respondent notes, “It is a dilemma that I do not wish to cause further distress but wish to portray the family history correctly”.
Australian family histories
Australia’s settler colonial context presents a unique case for family secrets and national memory. Historians such as Chris Healy and Babette Smith have defined Australia as a nation with wilful amnesia about the colonial past, specifically its violent impact on Indigenous families and communities. Ann McGrath also explains that in 19th-century Australian families, ‘keeping the “secrets of nation”’ became ‘a deeply ingrained practice’ [Insert link: ].
My survey results often confirm this collective secret-keeping. Family historians in my study describe the early 20th century, when many of their parents grew up, as a time when it was improper to ‘look back’, or to ask overt questions about people’s backgrounds, for fear of outing convict stains, mixed racial origins, rapid social mobility, and other stigmatised ancestries.
In this ‘forgetful’ setting, family history – particularly following a democratic turn in the 1970s – has been vital in shaking things up. Tanya Evans argues that, in the Australian context, family history has had a “radical potential” to alert people to the crafting of dominant national histories, as they find its secrets and suppressions within their own family trees. “The construction of a family tree”, and “the discovery of manifold secrets and lies” she argues, “throw into question the solidity not only of the history of family, class relationships, and the power relations between men and women, but also of the history of nation and empire”. Unpacking family secrets, and reinstating some of the characters and stories that were pruned out of family stories for the sake of colonial mores, has been an integral part of contemporary Australian family history research.
The ethics of revelation
Family history can challenge social stigmas, but pushing at the boundaries of what family stories are acceptable to discuss can also cause family conflict, particularly between generations. Family secrets are complex because they are shared; yet family members may hold different stakes in either keeping or disclosing the secret. The impact of revealing a secret can also differ depending on a person’s distance from the unspoken event. To the descendants of one branch of the family the secret might be an intriguing curiosity, but to another branch it might trigger intergenerational trauma or even unsettle present family relationships. This can mire genealogists in tricky ethical situations, where they must choose whether to speak or remain silent about certain discoveries.
In the survey I conducted, family historians reported needing to develop practical strategies to protect family members’ sensitivities, and manage the raw emotions that revealing secrets can provoke. These strategies include not disclosing a secret if the people concerned are still alive, or if their descendants might still be offended or hurt by the revelation. Some family historians also explain that they publish family histories with cut-off dates, so that the events discussed are “a safe distance in the past”. Others decided only to share their family trees with select members of the family, carefully chosen for their discretion; and some genealogists hesitated to publish the stories online, which was considered too public.
But the need to be sensitive can also conflict with a need to be truthful, leaving the family historian in a double bind. For example, a respondent who decided not to reveal the story and “respect all the others who had kept this secret up until their deaths”, was also concerned that another family member might discover the information online – it is freely available on Trove – and become upset that the family historian knew, but withheld their discovery. Adding to concerns about being truthful to the family, genealogists also felt strongly about being true to history, and to the experience of their ancestors. One respondent proclaimed that they would publish the secrets, even at the risk of offending living relatives, because “The shame [the ancestors] experienced was unjustified and they need their identity back”, their lives, in all their thorny details, offered “great stories of hardship, grace and survival”.
Managing emotions, challenging stigmas
In the survey results, one of the most frequently cited ethical dilemmas was how to balance emotional sensitivity with historical accuracy. Genealogists want to be sensitive to the family’s privacy but also resist reproducing the shame around certain secrets, such as mental illness or illegitimacy, by continuing to exclude them from the family’s history.
For some respondents emotional sensitivity is the main priority. For example, one family historian notes that she wishes to ‘honour [her ancestors’] feelings, even after death’. She explains that there ‘are strong emotional ties because these two aunts were the centre of a family which suffered many tragedies’. ‘Out of a deep respect and deep love’, she adds, ‘I have kept private the particular shame they suffered’.
However, another respondent decides to reveal her forebear’s illegitimate pregnancy and forced adoption based on the rationale that ‘Oppression of individuals is continued though such shaming and fear’. ‘Too many times’, she reasons, ‘the ‘secrets’ are about shaming someone […] and has led to the subjects of the secret living lives hiding the secrets and being subject to shame and fear’.
In both scenarios, the family historian must carefully deliberate over their sometimes quite complex and conflicting ethical obligations to the family. Sometime they chose to respect the social mores of the time and their ancestor’s desire for privacy, and other times, as we can see above, they chose to challenge the social context and impact of past stigmas and secrets. In both instances the ethical decision required the family historians to empathise, and manage both their own and their relatives’ emotions.
As my survey results suggest, Australian family historians are very attuned to the social, emotional, and ethical significance of their research practices. The ethical quandaries that are thrown up by family secrets often reveal just how connected family and social histories are, and offer us the opportunity to consider the most ethical ways to balance respect for individual families with an accurate account of family life in the past, and in the present.
Ashley Barnwell is the Ashworth Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on memory, emotion, cultural transmission, and family storytelling.