Sunday, 16 August 2009

Warning: Genealogy may affect your emotional health

This week’s Who Do You Think You Are – the BBC programme in which celebrities trace their family history – was a particularly emotional one. Kim Cattrall set out to discover what had happened to her grandfather who had abandoned his young family some 70 years earlier.

Seeing a celebrity reduced to tears is pretty familiar WDYTYA territory. In fact I’ve long suspected that the amount of emotion to be wrung from a family story is a major factor in deciding which make it to the final series and which are assigned to the cutting room floor.

To the outsider genealogy must seem like a cosy little hobby. The collection of names, dates and dry historic facts may not immediately strike one as something to get the pulse racing and yet the emotional impact of uncovering the past can be very real.

We may not all have a story like Kim’s in our family history but there were certainly elements I could connect to my own family.

I’m someone that believes that you shouldn’t be afraid to ask a question just because you might not like the answer. However, I wonder if before undertaking a journey of ancestral discovery we should all take a moment to consider whether we are prepared not only for what we might find but also for the effect it will have.

So my question this week: Should genealogy carry a health warning?


  1. Yes it should carry such a warning because it's GOOD for your health! It's an antidote for depression. Nothing has lifted my spirits or given me the joy and excitement that genealogy has. It's also a good motivator to get my work done so I can get to my genealogy! Thanks for the good article!

  2. Intriguing subject. Even sad discoveries in the course of my research have probably given me a better perspective on life, so I would say the overall effect is a healthy one. "Genealogy - it's good for you but may have unexpected side-effects."

  3. Dry historic fact? Eh, maybe -- but it is in connecting those dry historic facts with the living, breathing people who were our ancestors, and learning about how their lives went, that puts the zing into it.

    Health warning? Genealogy is indicated for symptoms of curiosity, and for the exercise of the inquiring mind. It may not be appropriate for everyone. Side effects may include increased pulse rate, flushing of the face, spasms of the feet (known as "happy dance"), and discovery of heretofore unknown cousins.

  4. Thanks for the comments. I have personally found that researching genealogy has had a positive effect on me. However, our ancestors lives were often far from idyllic and when information uncovered during research relates to people we have known and loved it can be particularly emotional.
    I think it is also important to remember that the reactions of other family members to our discoveries may not be the same as our own reactions.