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Online genealogy bringing out the 'skeletons' in every family's past

04/23/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 07/18/2015 08:59 EDT
"In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future," said the African-American writer Alex Haley, whose 1976 book Roots: The Saga of an American Family is credited with igniting the early interest in the study of genealogy.

The longing to connect with a personal history is fuelling explosive growth in the do-it-yourself online genealogy industry. A 2012 analysis found that genealogical research ranks second only to porn in how people spend their time online.

In fact, roughly 84 million people a year are digging into their family history on the internet. 

Many of those amateur genealogists are driven by a deeply personal desire to understand where they came from, according to Lesley Anderson, a genealogist at Ancestry.com, a site with more than two million paying subscribers.  

- LISTEN | Jennifer Teege on The Current

"Families today are more spread out than they've ever been and a lot of people have lost a sense of community that we often seek," she says. 

"We want our children to know that they are part of something bigger than any single person."

The recent surge in public interest has also spawned a host of TV shows, like PBS's Finding Your Roots, which traces the family history of celebrities.

And they in turn have upped the mortification factor, like earlier this week when it was revealed this week that actor Ben Affleck tried to have the PBS show's producers scrub the revelation that one of his relatives was a slave owner, saying he was "embarrassed" by the finding.

Uncovering difficult or unsettling truths about our family's past is part of the process, says Jeannine Powell, a Duncan, B.C.-based genealogist with more than 20 years of experience. It's what we do with that information that matters, she says.

"Every family — every family — has skeletons somewhere. I don't believe there is a reason to be embarrassed or ashamed by it. It's a part of our lives, a part of who we are," says Powell.

"I have found things out about my own family members who did things I'd never do. But it helps to understand their lives and the decisions they made in their lives."

Online genealogy also provides an opportunity for families to better understand and possibly end destructive cycles, like histories of substance or physical abuse that can span multiple generations, she says.

A 'toxic family secret'

There are, occasionally, extreme cases that shock even seasoned genealogists and historians.

German author Jennifer Teege, who is half black, recently published My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me after accidentally discovering that her maternal grandfather was the infamous Nazi death camp commandant Aman Goeth.

Goeth's sadistic cruelty — he used to indiscriminately shoot Jewish prisoners from the balcony of his living quarters, for example  —  was immortalized in the film Schindler's List.

Her grandmother and mother kept her lineage a secret, until one afternoon she discovered images of her grandmother with Goeth in a book tucked away in a Hamburg library.

"I left the library and I had to lie down on a bench outside the building," she told CBC's The Currentin an recent interview.

She says it was a "toxic family secret" that her mother suppressed, but she thought it was critical for her own children to know and come to terms with the truth.

"I knew that lifting the family's secret was very important. Since my mother had not done this, I chose a different path."

'Finding the stories'

Powell attributes the surge in public interest to the vast, easily accessible databases being assembled online, opening a gateway to hundreds of years of human history and migration.

The tedious research that used to take months or even years and thousands of dollars to complete "can, frankly, be done in about half an hour," she says, with the help of far-reaching online records.

Before, we could trace family trees — now, we can colour them in with the rich details of our ancestors' lives.

Even the smallest details can help paint a clearer picture. A will, for example, isn't just a record of wealth, but a looking glass at what possessions a person valued most dearly and who they entrusted with those belongings.

"Today, as opposed to 10 years ago, people are able to spend more time finding the stories behind their ancestors, rather than just finding the facts," says Louise St. Denis, managing director of the National Institute for Genealogical Studies in Ajax, Ont.

St. Denis has traced her family tree back 10 generations to the 1600s, and says it's the personal details, rather than simply historical facts, that are drawing people to genealogy in record numbers.

"I think that's the most fulfilling part of all of this," she says.

Breaking down the 'brick walls'

The next generation of DIY genealogy will increasingly incorporate DNA as a tool to break through the "brick walls"  of little or no documentation.

Ancestry.com's Lesley Anderson says a considerable portion of the website's subscribers express interest in using DNA tests to uncover their "deep ancestry," going much farther back in history than basic document analysis allows.

The use of DNA to connect people with the distant past is likely to raise difficult questions about traditional perceptions of race and identity, and could connect people in a way  that was unimaginable even a decade ago.

"There's going to be a lot of stories to tell," says Anderson. 

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