I have to admit I love watching television shows like Lost Family, Who Do you Think You are?, Finding Your Roots, and the like. There is something amazing to see someone discover their family tree, be introduced to interesting ancestors, come face to face with the history of your family. The shows have drama, tension, and shock. It makes good television.
But of course genealogical research is not so instantaneous. I have spent literally years researching my family’s history – years. I belong to a family history society (British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa) and the members I have met there have also spent YEARS researching their family’s histories. It is really a pastime for the patient. You can go along for ages not finding out much at all, searching, researching, trying to figure out what is going on in the sources before you make a great discovery. You live for the great discoveries – and they are heady, but they are not like the television moments.
I guess what I ask myself after watching this type of show is how do these celebrities deal with the knowledge that they have just acquired? Seriously, these individuals essentially are taken through the family’s history in a rather short period of time – for the Who Do You Think You Are? About a week, and for Finding your Roots – about a day. There whole vision of what their family’s history was/is is changed in a moment, and then they are asked how do you feel about it? Being that most of these people are public figures and used to expressing themselves they come forth with interesting answers, and some self-reflection, but this is just the start of the processing.
When I do my family’s history I am able to essentially take in the information in bite-sized chunks, process it, make sense of it, and then move forward with more research. Rarely do I get huge amounts of information in one go, and even then, it is not the family’s whole story, and I have the luxury of thinking about it for a lot of time before I talk about it. And then it is when time for me to speak about it, I decide when.
I would really like to know how they have folded this information in, how they now, after a good space of time, how do they see their family’s history? How has this knowledge changed them? Genealogy is at its heart is a voyage of self-discovery. We do this to understand where we came from. These stories inform us. The genealogy shows depend on the stupendous discovery, so how are these moments later processed? How do they understand their history now, the people in it, and the way they see their own lives as a result?
I know, probably not as scintillating a television moment as the initial shock and surprise of the genealogical journey these shows have taken them on. After all the stories they show are carefully culled out of a larger familial narrative, which may or may not have as amazing a cast of characters as the ones that made it to the airwaves. Do these celebrities hear about the other people found in the research process afterwards?