Thursday, October 23, 2014

Re-Evaluating The Evidence

Helen Marie (Timmons) Miller
Elkhart, Indiana, 1946
What secrets were lurking behind that smile?

One of the lectures I have given for a great number of years is entitled "Deconstructing Your Family Tree: Re-Evaluating The Evidence." It is a methodology presentation urging genealogists to look more critically at the information and records they uncover, and to assess them in light of a variety of different criteria. Why was the document created? Who provided the information? How many people or clerks did the record pass through before entering into your hands? What errors could be made? And was there motive to provide inaccurate or blatantly false information?

With the recent confirmation that my mother, born in 1946, shared a father different than that of her older half-siblings born between 1938 and 1942, and her younger half-sister born in 1949, it was time to heed my own advice.

What were the secrets Helen was harboring? And who did she meet at the end of March or beginning of April 1946 that would become the father of her unborn child? And who else knew of her secrets?

The initial hypothesis presented by most people today when confronted with this narrative is that the relinquishment of my mother for adoption makes more sense in light of this knowledge of events. Knowing she was pregnant with another man's child, and that her relationship with Frank Strukel was growing stronger, Helen ended her failed marriage with Eldon Miller, relinquished the child born of an illicit affair with a virtual stranger, and started life anew with her marriage to Frank in 1947. Right?

But the facts seem to indicate something far more complex.

Let's review the timeline. If one calculates a conception date for a routine pregnancy, Carol was conceived sometime between 26 March and 7 April 1946. Personally, I like to think April Fools' Day is significantly appropriate considering the circumstances.

Helen was probably just beginning to show her pregnancy when her husband, Eldon Miller, filed for divorce on 10 July 1946 claiming that "for some period past, the defendant has been openly and publicly running with another man, and... that for several months past she has been pregnant with child, and that this plaintiff is not the father thereof..."

On 22 October 1946, Helen placed an advertisement in the South Bend Tribune seeking a couple willing to adopt her unborn baby. She and Frank Strukel met with Ray and Arreda (Dobyns) DePrato and made arrangements for the adoption of her child when it was born. 

Helen's divorce with Eldon Miller was finalized on 26 November 1946.

Carol Sue Miller was born in Goshen General Hospital on the evening of 31 December 1946. A few days later, the baby was released from the hospital in care of the DePratos, who finalized adoption proceedings in 1948. Helen recovered from her recent delivery and married Frank Louis Strukel in Elkhart, Indiana, a few short weeks later, on 18 January 1947.

The timeline is a rather swift one, and there is little room to fit a meaningful relationship with another man between Eldon Miller and Frank Strukel. And it is likely that Helen -- and Helen only -- may have harbored fleeting doubts as to the paternity of her daughter as she became aware of her pregnancy as spring was turning to summer in 1946.

But the man she had been "for some period past...openly and publicly running with" in the summer of 1946 was Frank Strukel. And it seems unlikely that Frank had any reason to doubt that the child Helen was carrying was his. He did not question the timeline, and he unquestioningly accepted his role as the father of the child. My grandparents' remembrances of meeting with Frank and Helen to arrange the adoption of their child included no recollections of doubt, secrecy, or insincerity on Frank's part. He was quite open with discussing the situation of Helen's pregnancy. Frank Strukel had signed away his paternal rights to his daughter in 1946. Those documents are on file with the St. Joseph County, Indiana, Circuit Court, and it is likely he signed it in full belief that he was relinquishing the care of his first-born child.

When Carol was reunited with her mother, there was no hesitation in the narrative regarding her parentage. And if Helen had doubts in 1946, she had most certainly removed them by 1982. The stories regarding Carol's father were free-flowing and emotional, and the very fact that Frank Strukel insisted that his unborn daughter be adopted by a Catholic family makes it apparent that he thought Carol was his. Additional historical tidbits, such as Frank's desire to name his next daughter Carol in 1949 in remembrance of the daughter he lost, would indicate that Frank undoubtedly believed he was Carol's father.

And if Frank Strukel harbored no doubts about Carol's paternity, and her birth on 31 December 1946 raised no suspicions, he and Helen had been intimately involved by the previous spring time when she was conceived.

Unfortunately, nobody knows when or where or under what circumstances Frank Strukel met Helen (Timmons) Miller. All Helen would say is that her first husband told her nobody would want her and love her, but Frank did. So when Frank entered her life, she gained the strength to leave a desperately miserable situation and start anew. Her pregnancy definitely made that transition an unavoidable one, as it broke Eldon Miller's grasp upon her psyche, as well as served as a very physical wedge that drove them apart for good.

But if Helen met and embarked on a relationship in the early months of 1946 with Frank Strukel, she also apparently had met at least one other man who sparked her interest.

As mentioned in many previous posts, human emotions and relationships are complex things. We look at the events of the past, we read a handful of documents, and we make snap judgments of character of people long dead. Helen was married to one man while becoming pregnant by a second man and rapidly marrying a third man. Although this would make for a good series of episodes on daytime television, the reality is probably much more sobering.

Why do women cheat on their husbands? All you have to do is pick up any current women's magazine on the newsstand today, and the reason is emblazoned upon every cover. Numerous psychological studies agree: emotional connection. And in Helen's case, not only was that grievously missing in her life, she was also married to a man who had no secrets about his own extracurricular activities. 

Another unavoidable, yet simple, reason is this: sex is fun. Even in 2014, headlines are made when sexual education materials dare to tell children that adults have sex for reasons other than procreation. Not only had the emotional connection in the Miller marriage been severed long before, but so had the physical one. Eldon Miller was taking care of his needs, and eventually Helen came to the realization that what was good for the gander, was good for the goose.

Further questioning of living family members supports this. And it makes sense with my own observations. As a woman in her 60s, I saw Helen as a spunky, sassy, witty, strong woman. Of course, this woman had endured far more stressors in life and had moved past them successfully. The 29-year-old Helen was trapped in a hellish marriage. And this younger Helen was also burdened with the care of three children under the age of eight years and persistently reminded by her husband that nobody else would want her. But the Helen I knew did not seem to be a woman who would stand for being beaten down into submission for long. And she had her breaking point.

While Eldon Miller was busy servicing the lonely war brides separated from their husbands overseas, Helen sought out her own means of intimacy and connection. Their marriage had deteriorated to one of mutual disregard, and it is likely at this time that neither one of them cared much about the activities of the other. The end of World War II also signaled the end of the marriage between Eldon DeWayne Miller and Helen Marie Timmons Miller. She had regained her sense of self-importance and realized that she was an attractive, vibrant, worthwhile person. Perhaps it took some secretive nights out without the kids whilst Eldon was away on one of his rendezvous for her to realize that men sought her out and found her pretty and desirable. Perhaps she had lovers that supplied her with the intimacy and connection she had craved for so many years past. And perhaps this is how she met Frank Louis Strukel and discovered what it was like to fall in love.

So when she found out she was pregnant in the spring of 1946, she likely wanted it to be Frank's child. And although she most certainly would have harbored doubts, she made herself believe that it was borne out of the love she had discovered in Frank. This is what she told Frank Strukel in 1946. This is what she told Ray and Arreda DePrato when she arranged for them to adopt her daughter Carol that same year. And this is what she told Carol when they reunited in 1982. This was her story because she believed it so strongly to be true.

Did those doubts resurface when Carol came back into her life? Or had she firmly suppressed them many, many years before? There was no use now debating the issue.

I had a grandfather to find.


  1. The mysterious father could have been a rapist. In 1947 the woman was often blamed. She would hide the event from everyone. Often she would not want the child either.
    I have enjoyed your journey, thanks.

    1. Although this has been brought up to me in the past by others, it is unlikely. Helen was a very forthright person, and I have no doubts that this would have been part of her narrative had it happened. Even as deeply tragic and life-altering as it would have been, and something many would bury forever, Helen's reunion with Carol was joyful and the narrative far too easy. This would have not been the case had it been an elaborate cover-up for a rape. Also, the disintegration of Helen's marriage to Eldon, and their resultant behavior is one that seems to be borne out by family rumor and innuendo. I do appreciate the suggestion though. It is always important to look at all possibilities.

  2. I have so enjoyed reading your story so far. I hope there is more!

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