Posted by Kristen Hyde on December 15, 2017 in Australia, Guest Bloggers, Research

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.


  1. Kathi

    As an adoptee from the U.S., I was moved to tears by this article. My birth was a secret and my prominent birth family continues to need this sto remain secret in order to continue with their lives.

  2. Nicholas Bannister

    My wife’s family had an aunt who obviously “gone mad” as she died in the local mental hospital. No-one talked about her as there might be a streak of madness in the family. When I went back and found her death certificate, she had died of “prrnicious anaemia” – a blood disease for which there was then no known cure. Her family would know she was being well looked after as she headed towards death and they would have been able to visit her regularly. So no madness in the family!!

  3. D. Beynon

    My Grandfather is an illegitimate Son of one of the Seimen brother’s, he was schooled in Germany until the age of 12 years old this was never spoken about by my Father but my Aunt has told me stories how my Grandfather spoke German fluently he never spoke about this because of the second World war with Germany. I would love to prove this for my Aunt she is now 89 years of age. If anyone can help me I would be so grateful to prove my Aunt right and to know for sure where i
    I come from.

    • TWood

      What does your grandfather’s birth record say? Have you tried locating school records? We recently obtained my grandfathers . Regards

      • D BEYNON

        I’ve been unable to find a birth record in Swansea where we think he was born. The Siemens owned the Landore Steel works in Swansea, My Great Grandmother was in service, She might have been sent to Germany to have my Grandfather because of the scandal. If anyone could help me I would appreciate it.

      • D BEYNON

        My oldest son is the spitting image of Carl Von Siemens the family resemblance is uncanny, it’s like looking at my Son dressed in period fancy dress costume.

    • Joanna

      Likely your best bet as dna databases grow, is to do dna testing. Ancestry has the largest databases and you can transfer your results to other companies like FamilyTreeDNA and Myheritage for free. Test your aunt, and yourself, and any of your grandfather’s children. But starting with your aunt would be wise as she is aging.

      • Joanna

        Also join the Facebook group, DNA Detectives ( the one with tens of thousands of members). They will help you learn about dna and may even help you search. They work for free.

  4. Sharon

    I feel the past is in the past and is not something we should shy away from. It may help us to become better humans.

  5. Libby Townley

    Interesting project. My area is also sociology. Although I’m now retired I’m still interested in people, what makes them tick and of course the influences behind the scenes. I now spend an extensive amount of my time researching family history. I was fortunate enough to get a head start on one line as a descendant of my husband’s family had done a very extensive family history (all pre-internet). When the family history was finally published, noted against some names on the Tree were the letters NFP. On enquiry by some members of the family, mother-in-law seriously informed us this was shorthand for “no further particular”, while some of us tried to constrain our sniggers as NFP in this case meant “not for publication”. Unfortunately someone forgot to edit out the facts that were revealed.

  6. Ian Newton

    An interesting discussion. For living relatives the revelation of family secrets may cause problems with current relationships and I understand that, but for those who have already died it’s hard to see how their feelings can be hurt as they no longer have any ! I discovered a family secret pre internet days while doing family research – it belatedly explained so much about all our family interactions that I wish it had never been a secret in the first place. Truth can obviously sometimes hurt but as a general rule of thumb keeping secrets can be worse. We now, at least in the West, live in cultures where disabilities and infirmities are no longer things to be hidden or worse still locked away as something to be ashamed of (cf. the British Royal Family’s ‘hidden prince’)- it’s a much more evolved and healthy way to live.

    • D BEYNON

      Thank you Ian for your comment. I wish to prove this for my Aunt more than anyone else but I wish my Father had looked into it or told us more of what he new because my Aunt said he new more and wouldn’t talk about it.

  7. BrandonWhite

    I vote for “My ancestors’ actions have nothing to do with me.” I feel the same way about national and ethic pride. Why should I be proud of my ethnic heritage, where I was born or where I live? I had no choice in the matter – so I deserve no credit or blame.
    essaytyper – Brandon M. White.

  8. Connie Hilbmann

    Our family had a HUGE secret that was taken to the grave. Some want to remain hush, hush but others want to embrace it. Imagine searching for 20+ years a family line in which you that was yours because well that was your last name. Now fast forward to the age of the internet and DNA testing, and come to find out your name doesnt match anyone else but matches the step father of your great grandmother….let the gasping and “oh my’s” begin. Isnt genealogy great.

  9. Jeorge H Waters

    Many people find it difficult to write about their personal life or personal feelings. So, the service gives them an opportunity to avoid these embarrassing emotions and feel a bit happier

  10. SMB

    My husband’s brother-in-law is really into this. The family was told never ever to go back to the Isle of Man, which he came from. He said he was caught smuggling. We then found out he made up his last name when he immigrated to the US and left a family behind. On the plus side, the family history now goes back to the 1300s. Who would have imagined that.

    We still have no idea who the mysterious person is who revealed his true name in a Family Tree hit. She has a first cousin out there that never responded back.

    My mom took a DNA test and the reported real name came up in the DNA relatives list. She wasn’t very interested but I used to be a history professor and loved finding out U was distant cousins with Fletcher Christian.

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