From Reluctant Genealogist to Relentless Family Historian

Mom as Family Historian

Selfie with my grandparents, November 2016 (taken after I became interested in genealogy)
Selfie with my grandparents, November 2016

You might think, with all the energy Mom spent on researching her family tree, that her stories would have become more detailed and connected than before. But Mom continued to tell the same old tales, which were unaltered by anything that she might have uncovered in her genealogical research. For that reason, genealogy didn’t interest me during the years that Mom was actively pursuing birth certificates and census records. Looking at the pedigree charts and family group sheets, filled out in Mom’s distinctive scrawl, I was unable to make any more sense of the past than I had by listening to her stories.

The Reluctant Genealogist

Genealogy, in my view, was nothing more than the gathering of dry facts such as who begat whom, when they married, when they died. What I wanted was a more coherent narrative of Mom’s childhood; one that was continuous, had fewer contradictions, and more explanations for whatever had happened to her. A lifetime of listening to Mom’s brief and disjointed stories hadn’t given me that, so I had no expectations of getting it out of genealogy. Whenever I asked her how her genealogical research was going, Mom would spout random facts about her family: “My great-great-grandfather Warren was listed as a pauper in the 1860 U.S. Census.”  Or: “My great-aunt Rose owned her house in 1920.” These historical non sequiturs were even less compelling to me than the ones I had heard all my life. Mom’s genealogical tidbits might have piqued my interest if they had somehow illuminated the story of her childhood, but they didn’t.

The Relentless Family Historian

My attitude toward genealogy changed when I realized what family secrets I could uncover by reading my grandmother’s patient record from Norwich State Hospital, then comparing what I learned with what was in the family tree. I went back to Mom’s genealogy files and realized that many of the gaps in her research coincided with people who might have known the truth about her family. Maybe Mom thought the purpose of genealogy was to verify family stories that she already knew, not turn up alternative facts that might contradict them. Maybe Mom suspected that something wasn’t quite right in her family history, but didn’t want to know more. Maybe it was a combination of both.  All I knew was that I needed more out of my family history. Thus I began my relentless search for the truth, culminating in my work, Secrets of the Asylum.

5 thoughts on “From Reluctant Genealogist to Relentless Family Historian”

  1. my mother in law was an inpatient when my husband was 10 years old(1963) any suggestions where to begin to research her time there,treatments etc? thank you

    1. The Connecticut State Library and Archives in Hartford have all the records that still exist from Norwich Hospital. That’s the best place to start. There are also annual reports for the hospital, but you would have to ask a librarian how to find them. My research stopped at 1958, when my grandmother retired from the hospital. Best of luck in your search.

  2. I thought it was interesting in your discussion with me about the fact that your grandmother also worked at the hospital besides being a former patient.
    My sons have a friend who had to go Western State for a bipolar disorder. He had to make several trips there and at UVA Psych unit as well. He finally improved with a cocktail of medication and therapy and turned his life around. I know for a time he worked at Western State as a patient aide. Recently I heard he was doing well and married.

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