The Variable Consequences of Debunking Family Myths

I received this ferrotype when my maternal grandmother died. She always said it was of her grandparents, who had passed away before she was born. The stories she heard about them from relatives were thus linked in her mind with these images.

However, as my older brother began investigating our genealogy, the family story about this picture didn’t add up. The ferrotype technology was out of fashion in the era it was supposedly taken and the military uniform is of a Pennsylvania regiment in which my great-great-grandfather did not serve. Further spadework proved that the image is in fact a generation further back in our family tree than our grandmother knew. When she visualized her grandparents she was in fact relying on a picture of her great-grandparents.

I doubt it would have bothered her much to learn the truth. She’d have felt silly for a few minutes but then let it go. After all, she didn’t know them personally so it just isn’t that big of a deal.

The debunking of family myths is not always so benign. I had a colleague whose faith in his own family and in people in general was shattered when he learned that the woman he thought was his mother was in fact his maternal grandmother, the woman he grew up thinking was his older sister was in fact his mother and his “uncle” on the other side was in fact his grandfather. The family had created a network of lies to cover up two scandals (an out of wedlock teen pregnancy and a military desertion). They fooled everyone for decades. Once my colleague found out the truth from his dying mother, he could never forget nor forgive the deceptions. He himself died, in his 80s, still bitter about the myths of his childhood.

In a less serious but still painful case, two women on Antiques Roadshow brought in for appraisal a violin that had been in their family for many years. The family story was that it was a Stradivarius, which the master craftsman had produced in honour of his beautiful new wife Faciebat Ano (Her name was even on the violin!). When the appraiser revealed that Faciebat Ano means “Made in the Year” and the instrument was a cheap reproduction, their disappointment in the destruction of their family myth must have been accentuated by the humiliation of looking ignorant on national television.

My favorite family myth story concerned two women from Manchester. One of them in late life began digging into her family’s history and found that she had a distant cousin who was probably still living. She tried to track the cousin’s whereabouts and found that she resided only a few miles away! She introduced herself and the cousin was delighted. They found they had similar tastes and similar ideas and why shouldn’t they? They were family after all. Even their husbands got on well, to the point that the four of them dined and played bridge together regularly.

But then the woman who had originally discovered the connection realized that she had misunderstood a baptism certificate of an ancestor. When she corrected the resulting cascade of misinterpretations within her family tree, she realised that her “distant cousin” wasn’t related to her at all. The friendship, despite being based on a fairy tale, endured. This makes me wonder: If everyone were deluded into believing that some proportion of total strangers were in fact long lost relatives, would we all be blessed with a larger circle of friends?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

13 thoughts on “The Variable Consequences of Debunking Family Myths”

      1. Anomalous and Anonymous: Similar reactions, similar names…hmmm, maybe you are both members of the “ous” family?

  1. Oedipus. Sophocles’ story is nothing about the boy’s alleged sexual desire for his mother – when Oedipus the mature man discovers that he has unwittingly married his mother, they are both so horrified that she kills herself and he blinds himself. It’s all about Oedipus’ dangerous pursuit of the truth about his origins. You could write a Freudian story about why exactly Freud found it necessary to warp the dangerous myth: at its core, Freudianism is an optimistic Victorian scientific creed that the truth will set you free. Not always it won’t.

    1. Very good observation. Oedipus and the Oedipal complex seems two different things that share a common name. Sometimes I wonder if the concept of an Oedipal complex wasn’t Freud’s own invention.

  2. Thanks to Anomalous and Anonymous for invoking Kurt Vonnegut. Hi ho, indeed. Larger message: We are all related to each other, warts and all, yet we seem to need some special family connection before we can trust that relationship. In “Slapstick,” as I recall, Vonnegut suggests, tongue in cheek, that we have national “clubs” based on our voluntarily chosen middle names. That way, we would never be lonely.

  3. A different aspect of the same dilemma. I have an older relative I interviewed once before and need to interview again now that I am more familiar with her branch of the family. She is the last surviving relative with direct knowledge of the generation in question. Here is the dilemma. I have disproved some of the information/stories she originally provided me. Do I let her know the correct info in the hopes that it jogs additional memories or do I keep it too myself for fear it might cause her to second guess her memories and withhold information? The information is nothing earth shattering. It was told to me that a paternal great grandfather bought and furnish a home as a wedding present. Truth is the bride had already inherited said property from her parents years before the wedding.

    I’ve been fortunate so far. The biggest scandals we’ve had are mainly divorces and I’ve proven an adopted relative was likely jewish rather than native american. Oh, and we’ve had a couple who were married secretly before their wedding. Trival stuff by comparison.

  4. Gracious. What a horrible thought to establish a relationship on the false belief that the person you don’t know is really a relative. Chaucer (ca. 1380) said it best – if not first – in Troilus and Cressida: Let sleeping dogs lie.

  5. I haven’t debunked a family myth, but I did recently uncover some very sordid family secrets involving my father’s parents’ generation, secrets involving arson, betrayal, and homicide that was probably murder, possibly premeditated. Since the events took place in the 1930s and involved people I either never knew or only vaguely remember (other than my long-since dead father, who testified as a teenager at the arson and murder trials), it doesn’t really seem to involve me or my living relatives. While the fact that these people were related to me lends the story a certain frisson, I don’t feel personally invested at all. Which is why I was so surprised that when I told a colleague about the old family scandal, his reaction was to tell me I ought to keep that kind of story to myself.

  6. Don’t recall if Mark covered the story of a Polish Catholic priest here. The man grew up, initially, in Lithuania, then moved to Poland with his mother, but had few recollections of his childhood. He not only joined the Church, but bought into a lot of the regional mythology and apparently became quite antisemitic in his outlook. When I read the story, it was not made clear whether he was actually outspoken in his antisemitism or merely considered it a private set of beliefs. In any case, his mother eventually told him that she was not his mother at all. In fact, she was a completely unrelated neighbor in the village where he was born. When the Germans came in 1941, his mother, realizing what was about to happen, knocked on the neighbor’s door and begged the woman to take her 8 year old son. Eventually, the neighbor agreed and took the boy into her house, later presenting him as her son. She did not know for sure what had happened to the rest of the family, but had presumed that, being Jewish, the whole family had perished. Being confronted with these facts, the middle-aged priest did not exactly lose his religion over this. But he did try to atone for his past antisemitism and, in fact, became one of the most vocal proponents of reconciliation with the Jews (and an opponent of antisemitism) within the Polish Catholic Church.

    Contrast this with the story of another victim of somewhat similar circumstances. This guy grew up in Texas in a family of German immigrants. He studies German philosophy and became an expert on Kant. Irrespectively of the quality of his scholarship, he later became the provost at a prominent university, then a president at another. Throughout his life, he considered himself German. As he was fairly inflexible and despotic in his behavior, it should not be too much trouble to conclude that his attitude toward Jews was less than warm, although he did not appear to be an antisemite (at least, not that I heard). When he was in his 50s, his father died and, at the funeral, he noticed that there were some markings on his uncle’s (his father’s brother’s) arm. He inquired. The uncle said, “You mean, you don’t know?” The man was puzzled. “It’s a concentration camp number.” Still recognizing the look of puzzlement on his nephew’s face, the uncle offered an answer to the “why”–“We are Jews!” This apparently did not sit well with the nephew, as he could not forgive his now-dead father for never having told him. He became the prototype of the “self-loathing Jew”, although he did not suffer a neurosis on this account, unlike Karl Marx. (He had plenty of other hang-up on this account, so this one would have been last in a very long line)

    Two stories, nearly opposite endings.

  7. It’s interesting what things different generations consider worth mythologizing or covering up and what things they don’t. My father was perfectly open discussing his father’s accounts of being taken on a tour of the best brothels in Buenos Aires, but completely silent (within the family, at least) about the fact that he was an ethnic jew who threw himself off a bridge to avoid being arrested and sent to a concentration camp.

  8. A population genetics professor of mine worked out that the people we consider “no relation” are at a minimum, our seventeenth cousins. (This assumes random selection of mates. Nonrandom mating would make us even more closely related.)

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