walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Brain, Child article about genealogy

Stephany Aulenback has an article in Brain, Child (an actual, paper magazine that I read, and only parts of which -- not including this article -- can be read online http://www.brainchildmag.com/toc/indexfall2011.asp) about genealogy. I am, obviously, fascinated by genealogy, people who do genealogy and the stories we tell ourselves based on genealogy. However, I also recognize that this long-term fascination translates quite often in irritation with what I perceive as Rookie Errors.

I am pleased to report that Aulenback has Great Perspective on Rookie Errors. Her article is well worth reading.

The narrative is simple: Aulenback watches the American version of "Who Do You Think You Are?" and decides to explore Ancestry.com. "It's the easy of making those jumps [Ancestry.com suggestions] -- from what you think you know about your family to what other people think they know that makes the whole thing so addictive." What a precise and concise and perfectly accurate description of the process. Her very next sentence is: "Unthinking product of the patriarchy that I am, I explored my father's side of the family first." !!! I explored my father's family on Ancestry.com first as well (strictly speaking, my father's father, because, along with my mother's mother, those were the branches where I had no paper genealogies to start from). I think I'll steal the "unthinking product" line myself. It's a good one.

Aulenback goes on to describe what she discovered that was probably true and an interesting contrast to family understanding and a variety of things that turned out not to be true. She finds a cousin who has posted a family tree which she can copy information from. Eventually, she starts working on her husband's family, for the benefit of their children and to improve the odds of finding noteworthy ancestry. Along the way, she tells a story about an elderly member of her husband's family who self-published a genealogy, but introduced so many transcription errors in the information she and her mother-in-law passed along that they called it "The Book of Lies". "But, I reasoned, not all amateur genealogists are bound to provide inaccurate data, right?" This all happened such a long time ago. You really have to relax and accept the idea that no matter what you do, there _will_ be inaccuracies. But if this is what it takes to motivate to continue the journey then I have no complaints.

Digging through her husband's ancestry, she finally comes across someone who married royalty, and has a blast recapitulating that quintessentially American fascination with same: planning a visit to the castle, etc. Her sense of humor in this description is clear and enchanting. Then, of course, as the high wore off, she double checked the data quality at the hinge connecting the royals to her and found reason to doubt. Best of all, Aulenback _identified the original source of the error_! And she found a wildly entertaining story about the woman who didn't marry royalty at all (of which she is correctly skeptical as well, much as I am skeptical of the Penelope van Princis story).

I have only one complaint, and it isn't about the article at all (which is astonishing in its perfection and enjoyability); it's about the italicized bit after the author info, where the author gets in a last post script. Aulenback relegates the Humphreys/Chang foolishness to this post script but I'm sad that she even included it (both the 40 generations to a shared ancestor for every pair of people alive on earth today and the everyone-is-descended-from-famous-person-X nonsense; in this case, Confucius and Nefertititi and everyone with European ancestry is descended from Mohammed and Charlemagne). I am happy to see that she at least chose a moral to draw from it which I can support.

Brain, Child is an excellent magazine, but even by their standards, this is an amazing non-fiction piece. Her blog (very picture heavy so don't read it over a slow connection) is at:

Tags: genealogy
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