Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The cruelty of the curious

How many skeletons are there in your family closet? None? Can you really be sure?

In the high and far-off times before the People’s Princess, the stiff upper lip reigned supreme. From Victorian stoicism to the dogged determination to Keep Calm and Carry On, the British played down the traumas and disasters that afflicted them.

And that meant ‘not in front of the children’. As far as possible, children were protected from knowledge of tragic accidents or violent death affecting the family, aware, perhaps, that something was wrong but spared the grisly details in a way unthinkable in today’s media-saturated culture.

The children of that era have grown up largely unaware of their family skeletons – until now, that is. Thanks to the growing popularity of tracing family history and the avenues opened by the internet, amateur genealogists are researching family history and news stories from the last century with painful consequences.

Imagine learning for the first time of an older sister murdered before you were born, or being told the horrific details of the industrial accident that killed your grandfather, in a letter from a complete stranger, a distant and hitherto unknown relative who has found the story and wants to know more.

Not being personally involved in the events they describe, the researchers cannot begin to appreciate the impact of their enquiries and find it hard to take no for an answer. And some of them, at least, their expectations shaped – or warped – by tabloid journalism, are clear about what they want; gory details, intimate secrets and scandal.

In the words of one victim, bombarded with persistent letters and e-mails demanding to know about a traumatic incident from her distant past, “The information explosion has all the sensitivity of a battleship running down a small craft.”

There is a burgeoning and profitable industry producing software to help unearth these stories and track down distant relatives but it’s doubtful whether its creators or users have ever given a thought to the demons they may be unleashing in other people’s lives.

1 comment:

  1. If anyone approached me for such information, they would get a simple, two-word answer.