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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > Family Tree October 2018 > To tell or not to tell ?

To tell or not to tell ?

Whenever and however family secrets come to light, there’s always the dilemma of whether to tell all, or to hold some secrets back. As a professional researcher Kim Cook has had to deal with such dilemmas first hand. Here she shares her solutions to handling sensitive issues


As family historians we tend to be the people who have unearthed a family secret, and so we inevitably look at the situation from our own point of view. This is something I completely understand, but in this article I’m going to consider the issue from a wider perspective, looking at the viewpoints of all the other people involved too. I’m going to use cases from my own professional research files to show how I handled these sensitive situations.

Whenever and however family secrets come to light, there’s always the dilemma of whether to tell or not to tell, and whether to tell all, or hold some secrets back. In making that decision, there are many factors to consider. One which is frequently overlooked is the situation of the seeker. The area that I’m going to look at here is the very sensitive one of people seeking their birth parents.

Seeking an identity

Those who have been blessed with growing up in the secure knowledge of their family, and therefore their identity, understandably find it difficult to appreciate the problems of those who haven’t, and can therefore misinterpret the seeker’s motives.

This misunderstanding probably accounts for the unfortunate use of the word ‘phishing’. This word has strong connotations with deceit and fraud, which I’ve never come across in anyone searching for a birth family, and certainly cannot be said of a relationship which has been confirmed by DNA testing.

Secondly, it’s easy to assume that, because a seeker shows particular interest in a birth parent, there’s no interest in the wider tree. The two are inseparable. Most seekers need to find out about themselves by learning about their biological family. A recent legal judgement that ‘knowledge of biological identity is a central component of everyone’s existence’, affirmed this, and stated that everyone has a right to that knowledge.

Thirdly, deciding what attitude to take with an enquirer based on whether he/she has immediately declared themselves to be a child unknown to other members of the family is, I feel, somewhat unfair. In similar circumstances, would you reveal, on first contact, that you were illegitimate, or risk upsetting the family of a second marriage/ relationship by announcing yourself as the child of an unknown first relationship? The seeker needs to trust someone before revealing that information, and it takes time for both parties to assess each other, to understand the other’s circumstances, and to establish a basis of trust.

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