Why do people cry on Who Do You Think You Are?

Genealogy is, when I think about it, the thing I have been doing longer than I’ve been doing pretty much anything else – over twenty years. This fact is surprising to me when I remember it, because I don’t really think about genealogy that much. For a start, it’s a bit of a finished project – there are parish chests I could plunder and mysteries I could worry at, but the easy unfurling of names bit is mostly as done as it’ll ever be. It all floats around in the background, both the doing of it and the data collected, and when I walk down a street on which “somebody” lived or my finger passes over a significant place name on a map I pleasantly “remember” a particular story or set of dates in the same way that I sometimes become gratefully aware of breathing, and then I forget again. With the exception of a couple of years, everywhere I have chosen to live in London has a family connection of some kind, as if this might serve as some kind of grounding in a life of frequent moves I suppose.

I have been catching odd moments of the current Who Do You Think You Are series, which is mostly useless for getting at the actual experience of doing genealogy (nobody wears white cotton gloves and brings you pre-identified bound volumes containing everything you could possibly need to know unless you are Stephen Fry) but excellent at invoking the mythology around it. The pattern is that the fresh and curious disciple arrives at their kitchen table or their desk to join the gently steeple-fingered experts, expresses curiosity, relates some family legends, a few jokes are made. Then the hunt begins, the experts unfold terrible knowledge like calm old Jedis and the disciple is led down a path of admixed discovery and self-discovery that ends, ideally for TV’s purposes, in them bursting into tears.

I’m not being caustic here. It’s a pattern that reflects in a highly dramatised form what happens when you do it yourself. You may not actually weep in record offices – though I have seen people do that – but the ticklish magic of researching family history is that it is an unpicking, of temperaments and circumstances and decisions that might explain why you are what, and where, you are. It helps you to think about family, about the long durée, about life and love and how all decisions have mixed consequences. I gravitate towards well written family histories because I can sense the writer doing that unpicking, not because I am interested in the data itself.

And yet there’s a sort of fiction at the heart of all this, because none of these events in which you are desperately seeking foreshadowings of your own temperamental make-up actually happened to you. You are not culpable in any of it. The decisions you have taken yourself – surely the more relevant data in the project of understanding yourself – are not the things under scrutiny, so you can blub in an uncomplicated way for someone else’s mistakes or misfortunes. The fantasy at work in WDYTYA is more or less that you arrive at the research as a completed and serene person who has resolved everything in their own life, and needs to look further afield for insight and catharsis.

What I suppose we are seeing is somebody displace their own knotted problems onto someone else. Someone dead who never – in modern parlance – agreed to have a public profile, unlike their soggy descendent, which if you think about it is rather spooky. And even if most people who do genealogy don’t get to cry on TV, they still experience the frisson of turning over new data, and they draw it into an account of their background that suits them. Maybe genealogy is a bit of a predatory business.

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