When the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society, the most authoritative source for research on New York families and families with New York connections, wanted to tell its members about the emerging focus on family storytelling within genealogy, they asked me to write the cover story for their most recent issue of their magazine, The New York Researcher. With their permission, my article is reprinted below. The printed version also included a nice call-out about Treelines, for which I am quite grateful. I have enjoyed getting to know this society tremendously and recommend anyone with New York roots to check out their offerings.
What do physics and genealogy have in common? Besides a preoccupation with certainty, in my family they’re a sure way to get most of the dinner table to tune out the conversation. The physics chatter is nearly always the fault of my father, but talk of genealogy – or “dead people,” as my mother dismisses it – comes from mostly from me, and it is equally unwelcome.
I know I’m not the only one whose family thinks she’s nuts for her obsession with “dead people.” Part of the problem was of my own making: the more I got into genealogy, the less I talked like a “normal” person, and the more I spoke with the jargon of a specialist. I presented elaborate trees and historical records and expected my family not only to understand what I was showing them, but also to share my excitement for what they depicted. Have you made this mistake, too, talking and writing like a genealogist to non-genealogists? How often do people presenting you with charts about arcane subjects capture your attention? And yet we persist in making the tree the centerpiece of how we share our work. The tree organizes our family history, but it doesn’t make meaning. It’s the stories that do.
In the context of family history, the story is the interweaving of genealogical evidence and interpretation, historical context and creative extrapolation. It takes us beyond our role as researchers looking for the who-what-where-when and demands answers to the why and how questions that make sense of the real lives these real people led. Yes, it might cross a line from certainty to speculation, but the more we can put the flesh on the bones of our ancestors, the more we can make our work relevant to family members who are looking for a personal connection to the past. Tell them a story about an ancestor whose life they can relate to, and you’ll find suddenly they’ll start engaging with you about their family legacy. And what is the worth of all our efforts if we can’t pass them along?
That’s the central point of this story-oriented approach. It isn’t about changing the way we research or replacing the traditional research process. It’s about changing how we communicate about our findings.
What it comes down to is finding ways to reveal the vibrant people behind the dry records they leave behind. We know how to look at evidence to draw conclusions and pose new questions. But to do our research – not to mention our ancestors – justice, we need to move beyond the bare facts of a person’s life into the fullness of their life journey. Curating the piles of research we accumulate, not to mention reading between and around this evidence for the narrative glue, is its own skill. The results may not be appropriate for an academic journal, but that’s not the point. It’s about the most human of impulses – putting yourself in the shoes of your ancestor to imagine their world and how they experienced the important events of their lives.
The first time I worked this way was when I was researching my maternal grandmother’s mother, Fanny Skversky. Matching the tree my grandmother dictated to me with the surprising number of available records was a satisfying process for me, but needless to say, my family’s eyes glazed over at the resulting trove of documents and charts.
The only reason why I made the story breakthrough at all was that I became obsessed with the unusual chronology of Fanny’s immigration from Russia. She, her mother, and five siblings arrived together in Liverpool in early August 1905. Mid-August mother and siblings departed, leaving Fanny behind for three and a half months until she sailed in late November. Why was a fifteen year-old girl left alone in a foreign country? I just could not let go of the mystery implicit in the ship manifests. I started asking different questions of the records – not just those that might lead to discovery, but also those that gave me broader context – and found answers in histories about the wave of Russian-Jewish immigrants who came to South Philadelphia in the early 1900s. Eventually a granddaughter of one of Fanny’s sisters told me that she had heard that her grandmother fell ill and was not allowed to accompany the rest of the family to Philadelphia. Wrong ancestor, but mystery solved!
When I returned to my family after this second round of work, I had something very different to share: a story. It had a setting – all that I had learned about turn-of-the-century life in the Pale of Settlement and the Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia. It had characters – perhaps not the actual people my ancestors were, but composite sketches from their community. It had a plot, which began with the pogroms (anti-Semitic mob attacks) they fled, heightened drama with the three-and-a-half year separation of Fanny’s father while he worked in Philadelphia to afford to bring his family over, the climactic separation of Fanny from her family in Liverpool, and the happy conclusion when she made the crossing just before winter set in. Fanny’s ship manifest noted that her mother met her at the dock. “Mother called”: now I had my whole family imagining all the heartbreak and relief captured in those two simple words written over a century ago.
Even my sister, once the most genealogically disaffected of everyone, admitted I had her hooked. She pointed out that as a child she had enjoyed reading historical fiction of this sort. Finally I had made our family history as engaging as those stories – with the added empathy of explaining her own family, and thus herself. In this way she is not an anomaly. 84% of American adults say they have an interest in their family history, but only about 1% are doing what we would categorize as genealogy. The rest are reading historical fiction, looking at old family photographs, telling stories around the dinner table, visiting museums, and watching historical movies. Our family is not as disinterested as we assume.
As humans we have a primitive need to make sense of the world – most fundamentally, where we came from and why we are who we are. That’s why my father spends all his time reading physics books. And while I don’t know how to make my family care about what happened in the fractional seconds after the Big Bang, I do know that if I put as much effort into how I pass along my genealogical discoveries as I do in making them, I can connect to their latent interest. Day in, day out, sharing and listening to stories is what we do as humans, and we genealogists are uncovering some of the most personally affecting stories our families might ever hear. It’s up to us to carry our work across the divide and meet them where they are.