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How can I get excited about genealogy when I’m not exactly proud of where I came from?

By Michelle Lehnardt

I keep typiRootsTech-appng and retyping the title of this post. I don’t want it to be about me– but I want to offer a sounding board for others. Everyone seems to be buzzing about genealogy these days (have you tried Relative Finder?  It’s amazing!). And I live in a place where drawing your family tree on the chalkboard in Sunday School has always been the norm.

But let’s take just a minute to acknowledge the unspoken truth– some people come from families that aren’t exactly brag-worthy, some didn’t glean knowledge and values from their grandparents. Some are desperately trying to break a cycle of neglect and/or abuse. While everyone talks about their family walking across the plains, I strongly suspect mine might have been the ones who chased them out of their homes in Missouri.

As one friend said, “I’m sure I have some good relatives; I just need to look past the generations who’ve hurt me.”

In general, how can we get excited about genealogy when when the relatives we know have let us down?

About Michelle Lehnardt

(Blog Team) I'm the kind of mom who drives through mud puddles, throws pumpkins off the roof and lets the kids move the ping-pong table into the kitchen for the summer. Despite (or probably, because of) my immaturity, my five sons and one daughter are happy, thriving, funny people. I'll climb a mountain with you, jump into a freezing lake hand-in-hand or just sit with you while you cry. I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ will heal the earth. Founder of buildyourteenager.com, scenesfromthewild.net and rubygirl.org.

31 thoughts on “How can I get excited about genealogy when I’m not exactly proud of where I came from?”

  1. I don't think our relatives were letting us down–they were just living life the best they knew how. My great-grandfather died because his brother put poison in the whiskey they were bootlegging, trying to drive off thieves but instead killing his brother. My grandfather, who was about 11 at the time, watched his father die and was left an orphan. I've got plenty of other family history stories that are less than "perfect" too. We believe in the progression of our spirits after we die, which is the whole point of posthumous temple ordinances–our ancestors didn't have to be perfect while they lived.

    I am also skeptical about the idea that somehow we inherit our ancestor's accomplishments through our DNA–I've never understood this concept (probably because I'm a logical sort of person). Each generation has to live its own life, hopefully learning from the example of our ancestors, but making our own choices and moving forward as best we know how.

  2. I consider it an extreme act of compassion (not pity, definitely not pity) to ensure that the actions here on earth are not the end of my ancester's stories. Outside of the personal, I'm a lover of puzzles and if you look at family history as a never ending puzzle it becomes even more exciting.

  3. Good question. Some of my ancestors came from Council Bluffs, Iowa, at the same time the Mormons were there. And some of mine were clergy. So what was that interaction like? It feels a bit like a family feud–my bloodline pitted against my spirit-line. But I don't think it matters. I love both sides of the family. I figure every single person in my ancestry did the best they could with what they had, and if that's not good enough, we're all sunk. I actually feel very grateful for my dead people; no matter their own choices, they got me here, and I found the gospel. That is a tremendous blessing that I seek to give back to them.

  4. Yes, our relatives have let us down! This leads to one of the most beautiful parts of family history. We learn the stories of our ancestors, including the bad behavior, abuse etc. Then we choose to make a change. We can be the ones to stop the abuse/sinful acts and make sure they aren't passed on to our children and grandchildren. We can forgive our deceased ancestors and do their temple work. We can hope that at least some of them regret their actions and have a desire to change. In a sense we can be saviors to the generations both before and after us.

    I had a beautiful experience at the temple with my father who brought the names of family members who had betrayed and mistreated him during his childhood. He had worked for years to forgive them and wept as their temple ordinances were performed.

  5. I've been thinking a lot about this lately. Something I've been wrestling with. I want to make a cute family tree to hang on my wall but want to leave part of that tree out. I appreciate the previous comments, and I'd like to try to keep it real and tell the stories (good and bad) and learn from them to make my life better. It's hard.

  6. We also have a weird situation where one of my ancestors was an illegitimate child–this fact was known by quite a few people, but never officially acknowledged. We know who the father of the child was–do we add that family to our family tree? Leave that whole line blank? People have done different things over the years. We also acknowledge the family that raised my orphaned grandfather as "family", but he wasn't adopted or anything so the genealogy chart has all the official people on it. This is why I don't have a genealogy chart on my wall and probably never will–too complicated (and now I'm divorced so that adds another layer–my kids love their dad, but it feels painful to me to make a family tree for them).

  7. I appreciate this topic. Like Andrea, I have wanted to hang a family tree on the wall, too, but one of our grandfathers was a horrible person (as was his father before him, I hear) and the abuse he inflicted on his family is still destroying lives. They were Mormon, so I don't have to worry about doing temple work. I would probably have it done it any way. I do believe in eternal progression, and maybe he's repenting in the spirit world. I don't know.
    But I'm not going to put him on the family tree I hang up. I see no reason to tell my children about him, beyond, "He made many, many wicked choices that hurt his family, and I don't think he deserves to be celebrated along with the other members of the family who have tried to make good choices." (They're too young to process some of the things he did.) I don't feel the need to lie to my children about who he was in an effort to protect them, but I'm not going to pretend our family owes him honor. He didn't earn it.
    Luckily for us, we have plenty of other ancestor who were great people, and we can focus on them.

  8. Most of my family history stories have some hard parts. Some of them have only hard parts. I think it's really important to learn from both the good and the bad.

    One great-great grandfather in particular did some truly unspeakable things. I think it's important to know his story and how his actions affected his family for generations. And I want to acknowledge the pain he caused so many people. I don't want to pretend that it never happened, and I feel like I would be if I ignored it.

    I think there are very, very few people whose lives were all bad and we all have lots of ancestors. There is always good to be found out there even if there are bad patches (or even if it feels like there are only negative parts). Try to focus on the good if you can't deal with the bad right now.

    And I think it would be really interesting to hear more family history stories in church that aren't just about warm fuzzies or honoring people's trials. Pedestalized ancestors are so boring.

  9. In some ways family history is like facebook. We often only see the good parts of people's lives – either because those are the only stories written down, or the only ones retold again and again. You are not alone in being less than proud of (portions) of your family tree, though it probably feels like it. The names and stories in your family history belong uniquely to you and your living relatives. There are probably a few wonderful surprises to find, stories that will be gifts to your children.

  10. I kind of just avoid that side of my family right now. That line isn't in dire need of my assistance as much as another line where we can't push past my great-great-grandfather. They didn't seem to be fabulous, themselves, but we are trying to figure out when and where they came from. We think Germany, but it could also be Eastern Europe. Anyway, that line is a complicated, emotional mess, it's just more removed from me so it doesn't bother me as much as my entire paternal line. I feel like if I just set that line aside, I'll find my way back to it when I'm ready.

    I try to stay focused on the fact that we need to seal all of God's children together, that we are all one big giant family under heaven, and that through the sealing power we are all joined together.

  11. Great perspective/thoughts often not discussed in Sunday school. I never had a desire to look at my absent father's side. Maybe one day I'll be curious, but people (in Utah) always act a bit surprised that I really no nothing of my paternal origins.

  12. Thank you all for your kind and thoughtful comments. It's scary to write something like this because people are often eager to attack. I believe in the power of speaking the truth.

    I love each of your thoughts– your ideas about puzzles and family trees and eternal progression.

    Recently, my sister and I went to the temple to do the work for our maternal grandmother who had died the year before. We didn't expect much from the experience because our grandmother hadn't shown much interest in us and certainly no interest in spiritual things. But we wanted to do her work. In the temple that day, we both had one of the most spiritually intense experiences of our lives. She was there. She was grateful. I think some people are just limited by mortality.

  13. Michelle,

    I love the idea that some people are just limited by mortality, because I myself feel limited by my mortality and love the grace you bestow in that sentence. I know I'm messing up some things while on my journey here and I pray that my children will use the atonement to overcome any of the bad things they pick up from my well-intentioned mothering.

    I have loved this quote from Elder Maxwell's talk on patience (referencing George MacDonald, who I also love): "In the process of life, we are not always the already-tempered and helpful hammer which is shaping and pounding another. Sometimes we are merely the anvil." Sometimes the Lord shapes others on our own anvils and sometimes he uses the anvils of others to shape us. I think of hard family relationships in those terms sometimes: We can become something more than we are BECAUSE we have hard circumstances we have to push through.

    Anyway, I love that grace works in my benefit as much as it works in the benefit of my family members. I do not love that my family members have agency to hurt me and my family as much as they have, but I love that we are blessed to have the atonement cover our sins.

  14. as far as getting excited goes, i just recently got into family history and had a couple of thoughts as i read your post:

    1. start with someone else's genealogy. my husband's genealogy is pretty sparse, so i decided to start with his before getting into mine and even though it's not my blood family, it has been thrilling to learn about his family, too. the spirit of elijah has hit me hard and now i'm excited to look at my own family as well.

    or, if that doesn't appeal to you, maybe look into the ancestors of someone who has mentored you or been an adopted family to you when yours let you down. maybe you can find out where some of their traits that led them to you came from.

    2. target those in your ancestral lines that have endured some of the same disappointment as you have in your family. look into the women or men who endured abuse or abandonment and find out more about them. perhaps you can find some healing in that way.

    maybe by the time you've done one of these things for a while, the spirit of elijah will be able to teach you other things about your genealogy that you couldn't see before.

  15. A sister in our ward is a survivor of family inflicted pain and dysfunction and as she's matured she's come to understand that it is truly multi-generational dysfunction passed on from family to family. (Sounds familiar to many of us.) She has the most amazing outlook. She feels that she is a chain breaker, born into this line to heal them. She feels that with every step of the journey to personal healing and sanctification she is healing her family line. She's had some experiences that verify this. She feels strongly that now the veil has been lifted for them and they are on the other side, they are in the wings cheering her on. I don't know if that helps anyone, but when I associate with this woman, I feel she is right.

    So bring on the genealogy and the healing. You don't have to be proud of them necessarily, but they are undoubtedly proud of you.

  16. One time a teacher in relief society had us all go around the room, one by one, and tell something positive we learned from our parents. One sister flat out said, "my parents were horrible people, but I guess they showed me what NOT to do". I love that she could speak her truth, especially following the parade of 'perfect parents' being laid out before her.

  17. This topic is leginimate an you should not apologize for bringing it up. Every family has its black sheep and skeletons at some point.

    One point to remember about those family members who who have been cruel and abusive– while we have been commanded to forgive everyone, only those who meet the Lord's conditions for repentance can be forgiven. A quick, "Well gee, I am sorry I hurt your feelings" will not be enough. To be forgiven an abuser will need to go to "Gethsemane and back" figuratively speaking. They will need to seek forgiveness from others and exercise faith. An ancestor may or may not choose to do this. We however do not know who will or won't.

    At the very least, a problematic ancestor can be a stepping stone to other willing and worthy family members who are eagerly waiting to receive their ordinances. This could be another grandparent, cousin, aunt or uncle of the family black sheep.

    I recently discovered the birth family of an adopted illeginimate ancestor. I was very happy and very glad to have found them. I feel like they really wanted to be found. I will be doing the ordinance work for them although they are not in my sealing line. This family is quite well documented and were not part of a class that whose descendants would have been likely to have joined the church. There has been no ordinance work done in this family. The unwed birth may have been embarassing and shameful for the family at the time, however it could perhaps be the key to the families salvation in the long run.

  18. As someone who knows this struggle all too well, sometimes you simply have to take a break. You can't leave it off forever, and if it helps to change lines you can do that. I know so much more about my mother's family for that reason.

    The idea that you keep going until you find something good was what sustained me for a long time. In recent times, and on certain lines, that hasn't been enough.

    I've had to remind myself that my family's redemption, not their discovery, is my objective.

  19. I follow your blog Michelle and I enjoy it so very much. YOU are the one who has turned the tables on your family history. YOU broke the cycle, and you are teaching many, no doubt, to do the same. You should be so proud. And all your children will praise your name into the eternities….even more so than they do now. (And it's obvious they love you very much!)

    My maternal grandmother is the one who broke the cycle in my family. I didn't realize the significance of this when I was growing up. I thought it was the norm to have loving parents and a happy childhood. I've just learned bit by bit as an adult some of the suffering my Grandma went through. She knew as a young parent she wanted to do things differently so she read lots and watched other parents. She learned, and changed generations with her determination. Actually CHANGED generations after her. I owe her much.

  20. I have ancestors who lived in Missouri around the time of Joseph Smith and knowing the type of temper and dogmatism that runs in my line, I can very well imagine they were part of mobs persecuting the early saints. At this time, they are either rolling in their graves to have descendants who have joined the church or are profoundly grateful for the opportunity for the gospel. I am most certainly not a perfect person and I know that I have done harmful things that my children are ashamed of. I can only hope that they will extend to me some compassion in accepting my limitations and weaknesses. I do the best I can, but I fall short constantly.

    My grandparents recently passed away and I still can't cope with it because I am still so angry about the generations of abuse that have only recently been uncovered. I am so very ashamed of this side of my family. To forgive and move on is extremely painful and requires a tremendous amount of work and effort that I am not sure I am ready to take on. At some point I will talk with my children about the generations of problems that they have been so lucky to be free of. I want them to know the truth, as far as I know it. I have to believe that when it is the right time, I will be able to figure it out.

    Perhaps the blessing of looking at genealogy of imperfect ancestors is that we may recognize generational patterns of destruction that can be changed, gratitude for the atonement, and also a chance to practice forgiveness.

  21. One of my family members has been struggling about doing the temple ordinances for an ancestor who did some terrible things in life and actually had their name removed from church records. It takes a letter to the First Presidency to get permission to do the temple work in a case like that. This family member has gone to mail the letter many times and has never been able to do it. They know this person is not ready to accept the gospel.

    I have not been bitten by the family history bug. My feeling is that now is not the time, and I have aunts on both sides of my family who are full time family history people. It's covered, at least for now.

  22. My maternal grandfather's first name was Philip. He had a challenging life in many ways, from his parent's divorce to fighting in WWII to several rounds of cancer and other chronic ailments. He lived to age 89, but he was a hardened, abusive man. I barely knew him and didn't hear much good about him. When my mom helped complete his temple work and had him sealed to his parents, however, she said she felt his presence and his child-like joy and exuberance in receiving his temple blessings. This feeling helped her forgive him some. Then a decade after his death when I was pregnant with my second son my husband suggested Philip as the middle name. I felt an overwhelming confirmation that this was to be my son's middle name, not to honor the life my grandfather lived, but who he is becoming through Christ.

    I think there are a lot of reasons why were might be hesitant to do family history and temple work, but my personal experience in participating in the work for my mom's side of the family – the side with abuse and mental illness and messy complications – has helped me to feel the power of the atonement beyond the grave. My mom died a few years ago and I found 16 names she had reserved on family search before she died that I had released for me and my active brother and cousin on that side to work on. My mom's willingness to do the work for people who had hurt her has helped me better forgive my mom her faults and it has helped bring me closer to cousins I never knew growing up due to the complicated family relations.

  23. I take heart at Abraham–he had a difficult father and what a wonderful, sensitive, spiritual giant he became. I think it is possible that some of us accepted (or volunteered) to come to difficult families because of the good we could do in them. My mother is the only convert in her (somewhat difficult) family and her patriarchal blessing talks about her role in providing temple work for her deceased ancestors.

  24. Doing family history has helped me understand where I come from. I have no memories of my grandma before I was 12. I remember my grandpa and their house, but my grandma is never in those memories. Around the time I turned 12, I decided I wanted to develop a relationship with my grandma. In the 11 years since that decision, we've developed a loving friendship, but I'm now able to see why I blocked her out of my early memories. She is a difficult person to get along with: stubborn, blunt, and frequently rude. However, as I've worked through our family history, I've finally been able to understand why she is how she is.

    Her dad died when she was three. She grew up as the youngest by ten years with a mom who worked three jobs. Her paternal grandfather ran away from home following his dad's remarriage to an unkind woman. This same grandfather sent his four children to an orphanage after his first wife died and the second wife refused to keep the children. Her maternal grandfather left her grandmother for an inkeeper's wife. This resulted in her mother dropping out of nursing school and picking up odd jobs to help provide for the family.

    As I recognized these pieces of dysfunction, I finally started to understand my grandma's actions. This whole process has helped me see the importance of the atonement and participating in the ordinance work that makes it possible to slowly heal the wounds and erase the scars that are strung out over generations.

  25. I am personally intrigued with this notion of being saviors on Mt Zion, of doing this kind of work that forebears cannot do for themselves.

    This quote is, I think, from Doug Brinley.

    "Indeed, my experience in various church callings and in my profession as a family therapist has convinced me that God actively intervenes in some destructive lineages, assigning a valiant spirit to break the chain of destructiveness in such families. Although these children may suffer innocently as victims of violence, neglect, and exploitation, through the grace of God some find the strength to “metabolize” the poison within themselves, refusing to pass it on to future generations. Before them were generations of destructive pain; after them the line flows clear and pure. Their children and children’s children will call them blessed.

    "In suffering innocently that others might not suffer, such persons, in some degree, become as “saviors on Mount Zion” by helping to bring salvation to a lineage."

    The language of this quote doesn't quite capture it for me because I think it's the Savior who has to metabolize the poison, but I do believe there are strong individuals who are willing to look honestly at unhealthy patterns and seek after truth and tools that can help break the chain in their families.

    I also think this can be true for more subtle patterns and cycles in families, not just overt abuse, neglect, etc.

  26. Michelle,

    Thank you SO much for initiating this discussion. I have read such beautiful, insightful, thought provoking comments as a result. You were inspired.

  27. Thank you Kim. And I agree– the comments have given me understanding and new ways of thinking. Bless you all, and please add your comments if you have anything else to share. I've so appreciated your insights and compassion.


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