Sunday, September 14, 2014

In Defense of the Truth

As genealogists, we seek the truth.

The unfortunate reality with being a truth-seeker is that the truth is rather messy. And if that truth has been buried deeply within the sands of time and further weighted down with silence, avoidance, and lies, it is even more difficult to dig free.

This blog details my efforts to ferret out the story - and the truths - regarding the conception and birth of my mother, Carol Sue Miller, born in Goshen, Indiana, on the night of New Year's Eve, 1946. She was a child born of a recently divorced woman who had left a husband who treated her poorly. The mother, Helen Marie (Timmons) Miller, had just lost custody of her two sons, who were immediately taken by their father across the country to be raised without the influence of their mother. This same mother made the painful choice, with other outside pressures, to give her child to another couple to raise. This child, who was conceived outside the bounds of marriage, is my mother. If you have read the blog this far, you have learned that my mother is not the child of the man who thought she was his first-born daughter.

The truth is undoubtedly messy.

The story you have followed thus far details infidelity, deception, premarital sex, abandonment, lies, revenge, and deceit. In learning about the war experiences of Frank Louis Strukel, you have experienced just a tiny bit of misery, starvation, murder, degradation, alcoholism, torture, and despair. In learning about my grandparents, Ray and Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato, you glimpse a bit of disappointment, loneliness, and anguish over the inability to have children of their own.

None of these things are pretty.

As genealogists, we are constantly faced with not-so-pretty events in the lives of our ancestors. In a lecture I give regarding utilizing court records in Pennsylvania research, I titillate and shock my audience with a criminal case that occurred in 1794, where Maximillian Spaidle is prosecuted by the State of Pennsylvania for the crime of buggery. He was caught having "a venereal affair...upon a certain red Heifer about the age of three years." To some, this may be an inappropriate topic to cover in a room full of genealogists. Why do I use it as an example? Because the person who paid Maximillian's bond guaranteeing his appearance in court was listed as "his father." No other record in existence provides that sort of information. It is genealogically relevant. And it is Maximillian's regrettable truth.

Similarly, I recently discovered through the ever-expanding database of digitized newspapers that my great-great-grandfather, Albert Swarm, bludgeoned a teenager to death with a piece of wood in 1901. There were no witnesses, and he claimed self-defense. This is the same man who went through five wives, largely because of his temper, so it is more likely that Albert killed a man in a rage over something petty. At the time of the murder, his nineteen-year-old wife, Rosa, was at home having just given birth the week before to her second child - my great-grandmother. Rosa left him in 1904. Albert wasn't even held or prosecuted for his crime. There simply was no proof as to the events that transpired prior to the murder. That is a part of Albert's story. It is a part of Albert's truth.

Again, Truth is a harsh mistress.

It is also offensive.

And it should be. We are all humans. Our ancestors were all humans. We have the capacity for tremendous good and survival, as well as horrible acts of depravity and selfishness. And the fact that I urge everyone to tell their story, or the stories of their families, means I am asking you to tell the truth. Whitewashing the family history to make everyone hold to the highest standards of societal propriety is a lie. A grievous one. And a genealogist that skips over the salacious and horrific details of his family because they are "inappropriate" is a genealogist I do not want to work with.

So why this tirade about truth seeking?

After my last blog post I was contacted by a genealogical colleague, a person who was a staunch supporter of my blog and who was engrossed in the story that has been unfolding. This same person found my language offensive, against their beliefs, crass, and unnecessary. Those are directly quoted adjectives. This person also stated that they will not likely continue reading my blog because of my language usage.

I would like to quote Dr. Daniel Fincke, a Doctor of Philosophy, from his blog Camels With Hammers  from 12 September 2012 regarding the use of "dirty words":

"There is nothing inherently wrong even with a harsh word like "fuck". It's good that we keep a lot of emotional charge in the word by not overusing it and abusing it, and it's good that we have recourse to it in any number of circumstances where it can be used to shock or provoke or intensify or otherwise stimulate people."
"In fact, these and other similarly "vulgar" words have a sort of wonderful dialectical tension that gives them their power. They are somewhat arbitrarily forbidden and ruled as impolite and potentially offensive and their forbiddenness in certain contexts is precisely what makes them effective words. Bringing them into contexts they are typically not allowed makes them strong words. The more we relax the general rules of politeness against them and make them entirely ordinary, the more we rob them of their power when we want to use them."
"The words have no magical "intrinsic" wrongness. The rules about them are on one level arbitrary of course. But once there are meanings and implications associated with words then they have effectiveness. It's knowing that a word is considered and will be taken by others as generally coarse or informal that makes it your choice to sound coarse or informal when you use it. You know that the social understanding is that you are going to present yourself in this way should you use the word." 

And because it's the truth.

I admittedly paused in my typing when describing my reaction to my mother's DNA test results compared to those of her sister. But writing in my blog that I sat there in disbelief thinking "Fudge!" is ridiculous and untrue. What I thought at that very moment is what I described in the last blog. And it is EXACTLY the one word with its coarse and informal and rude and forbidden and offensive and shocking implications that described my feelings at that particular moment.

If the acts of my ancestors haven't offended you by now, my use of a single word shouldn't either. But out of the acts of infidelity, deception, premarital sex, abandonment, lies, revenge, deceit, misery, starvation, murder, degradation, alcoholism, torture, despair, disappointment, loneliness, and anguish, have come stories of great survival, hope, love, commitment, redemption, joy, and laughter.

And that is because we are all human. Those of us living today. And those of us who have gone before us. These are the imperfect - often offensive - stories we need to tell.

And telling their stories is the best way to respect them as the imperfectly wonderful human beings that they were.

Will the truth set you free, as the old proverb states?

Maybe not. But it makes for damn good reading.


  1. Perfectly said Sir.Thank you.Along with truth, genealogy will also teach you forgiveness if you let it.Neither lesson is easy but both are invaluable.

  2. I've read each chapter of this intriguing story, and after reading the one previous to this, I would have said the same thing you did! Keep being truthful - I for one enjoy the ride. You are right about not whitewashing the bad, indecent, malevolent, sorrowful, or obscene facts of our ancestral history. After all, that would be pretty boring.

  3. The story can't be over yet. Just who was your mother's father?

  4. I agree, well said! I would have been swearing too, if I were in your shoes!

  5. That as been the wonderful truth of your story. Nothing seems to be held back. And you write so well, I can picture your story too. From the day in the library waiting for your mom to reemerge from the bathroom, to your true reaction to these test results. I could picture all of it. If you had said "fiddlesticks" instead, you may have lost me a little then. Write your truth Michael. Don't whitewash it; it just aggravates people like us 20, 50, 100 years from now.

  6. There is so much truth in those blunt words! Would it be me with that discovery it would be the same. To reveal the results of that research without the emotionally charged reactions of that language would be disingenuous.

  7. I have so enjoyed your writing style and honesty in sharing your family story. Hooray!!! for the truth.

  8. Sometimes the truth expressed in emotion offends. So be it. Keep writing the truth, if some cannot handle it, let them be, it's their loss! No one has the right to dictate how we feel or how we react. Personally, I don't care for the word, but damned if I could have thought of a better one to express your revelation!

  9. However, with me, you've gained a reader (found you via Genea-Musings), because personally, although I would have written f**k, you're a great writer and I want to see where this story leads...

  10. Well written. I've been following your story and when read that portion of your discovery that is exactly the word that popped into my head.

  11. And speaking of not being truthful, I am willing to bet hard money that the "offended" primster is still reading in eager anticipation of your next installment.

  12. Michael, you're a great writer; now you got me addicted to reading your blog. Keep doing what you're good at. ;)

  13. I have no problem with your very appropriate use of the "f" word. I take more issue with your misuse of Immaculate Conception. But a quick boning up on Catholicism will remedy that! Binge reading your blog and enjoying every entry!

  14. It always surprises me when someone throws a fit over foul language. I'm offended by war, poverty, cutting funding for veterans, and many more important things. I knew exactly what you were feeling and had sympathetic pains reading it. Using "fudge," "fiddlesticks," or "like a punch to the gut" wouldn't have had near the impact. The first two, in fact, may have given the impression you were making light of the situation and that it took no emotional toll whatsoever.
    Going back to my binge reading now ;-)

  15. Where is that damned "Like" button!?

  16. Re: harsh language. I taught young language-delayed students who, when angry at peers, would physically attack them. To me, it was a sign of growth when they realized words had the same power with fewer consequences. Once my 3rd grader got into trouble in the school library for looking up "naughty" words on the computer. I refused to scold him, reasoning that he was developing needed research skills and expanding his knowledge of word meanings the same way I did as a kid, except I used Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.