What to do when you discover a shocking family secret

Drunks, dead beats, physical abusers, thieves, bootleggers. Drug dealers, con artists, prostitutes, shady characters. Suicides, rapists, child molesters, murderers.

Digging into your family history you will find all kinds of people. Some people you will be proud of and others you will not. One of the most difficult decisions a family historian will make is how to handle this kind of sensitive information. Once uncovered, what should you do?

My Shocking Discovery

My great grandfather, Charles Kittridge, went to prison for sexual abuse against a child. I discovered this story initially through my Aunt Maggie’s diary. Great Aunt Maggie was Charles’s sister. There were several entries in her 1940 and 1941 diaries that mentioned visiting Charles. Her diary entry made it sound like she had to travel far to visit him. What an odd statement especially since they lived in the same town. None of the entries come straight out to say that she visited him in prison. It made me curious, where was Charles and why did she have to go visit him?

I questioned my Mom and her brother. Both were vague but said he went to prison for committing a crime.  I was even more curious.

A few years later, I was researching Charles Kittridge and I found him in the 1940 census. He was enumerated as an inmate at Michigan State Prison. 

Ok, so one mystery was solved. It was true that he went to prison. 

But I still didn’t know why. 

Then I found this newspaper article.

Lansing State Journal November 5, 1939

My heart stopped. I read the article again and again. I was shaking; I felt sick.

I am related to a monster! This can’t be true. How can I be related to such a horrible person!

I needed answers! I needed to talk to someone! I called my Mom and demanded answers. She verified what I found was true she but didn’t elaborate.  Much later, my mom went into greater detail and said that Grandma (Shirley Kittridge) My Mom’s mom, didn’t bring her girlfriends to the house because she was uncomfortable to have girls around her father.

For several weeks I felt a mix of revulsion and shame.  Overtime, I realized I can’t change the past and I can’t change the fact that I’m related to him. I had to accept it. My great grandfather was a child sex molester. And like it or not, I am related to him. His sins don’t define me or my family. 

How to Write about a shocking family secret

Being a family historian I feel responsible for the stories my family tells. Since I’m the one doing research, it is my responsibility to ensure that the stories support the research that has been done. 

So when a shocking secret is uncovered, how should this kind of story be told? 

Tell their story just like you would anyone else. That’s it.  

Being a family historian means that we record our family stories—both good and bad ones!  Our job is to record the story, keep judgment and our feelings out of it. It’s our job to report just the facts. Think of yourself as an investigative reporter. We don’t get to adjust the story to fit what our family wants to hear. Don’t make a big deal out of the incident, but don’t hide it either.

Keep in mind these tips when you write about sensitive information

  1. Always cite your sources. Even if your source is a letter or diary entry.
  2. Keep your emotions out of the story.
  3. After you have made your discovery, refrain from gossiping about it. Share it with family but don’t make the shocking event the focus. 
  4. Once you have shared the story, understand that your family may need time to process it just like you did. 
  5. Support family as they process the information. Some people may need to talk aloud to process their emotions. If needed, encourage your family member to seek the help of a therapist. 

Have you discovered a secret? What did you do? Tell me about it! Wishing you luck on your family history journey.

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