Opinion

Buried family secrets

Family secrets can be buried deep and quite often succeeding generations never knew them. 

One issue families in the past felt compelled to hide was if a family member exhibited a mental illness or was born with a lower mental capability. 

Children were labeled with cruel names and were an embarrassment to the family. Couples often blamed their spouse for the appearance of such a child into the family.  Some even believed it to be a punishment from God.  In a time when there was no science or modern medical knowledge, God often became the culprit avenging some imagined sin.  If the family were poor many people dismissed them all as mentally deficient anyway.

Some mental disorders can be genetic, such as schizophrenia, which can run in families. In my own line there is a history of it.  I identified a great-aunt, aunt, and a cousin who suffered from it.  The cousin’s mother didn’t have it, the aunt’s children escaped it, as did the great aunt’s siblings, but it shows up in other family lines as well.  

Today we understand more, but years ago the causes of mental disorders were unknown and doctors had few or no treatment options. Some people were kept hidden at home; others simply disappeared from family records altogether as they were admitted to an institution and never spoken of again. They were dead to the family.

It’s important to realize that children born or who developed mental issues suffered greatly from prejudice and even well-meaning parents. The rich and famous families weren’t spared.  For example, Rosemary Kennedy, sister to President John Kennedy, proves the point. Rosemary was “slow.”  She was kept in the family but as she aged she became more rebellious and difficult to control.  So in secret, without informing his wife, her father had a lobotomy performed on Rosemary.  The procedure was a massive failure, leaving Rosemary with the mental capacity of a very young child.   The family sent her to a Catholic home, where she remained for the rest of her life. Her fate was eventually acknowledged by the family.

For less well-off families their members ended up in publicly funded institutions where the care could be lacking. When you’re researching you may encounter similar situations.  Patients in public institutions are in the census and in some cases their illness is also listed, though the diagnosis may not agree with today’s medical knowledge.  Sometimes the institution’s records survive.

Even today some genealogists would rather not admit to a relative who was institutionalized. “There but for the grace of God go I” was a saying my mother taught me while I was very young.  I grew up believing no one should be bullied. 

When you encounter a family member who had developmental problems or a serious mental illness, keep my mother’s admonition in your mind and treat these hidden relatives with kindness.  They may be long dead and deliberately forgotten, but acknowledging them and their issues is the way to right a wrong.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.

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