Re: Including a suicide in a family history #general

Roger Lustig

Dear Davida,
There are many things to be considered when deciding what facts to
include in a family history.

1) What's the intent and purpose of your writing? Is this for
publication? For family use? In either case, what harm would the
publication of certain facts be likely to cause?

2) Who are the intended readers? On the one hand, a family history
written as a gift for young children should not be too horrific; but
some family histories are written precisely to *end* cycles of
concealment and evasion.

3) If others asked you to write, whether for pay or otherwise, what did
they ask for? What limits did they set? What did they already know?

When deciding whether to include a particular fact, consider:

4) How did you come to know it? You certainly can't keep future
generations >from doing their own research and finding what you did!
With oceans of vital records, obituaries, newspapers, court records,
etc. becoming ever more easily searched and accessed, you should assume
that others *will* find out what you did.

5) Does the source carry restrictions? Some people bequeath their
papers to posterity, yet don't want them quoted. Especially if
relatives of the deceased are still alive, this should be considered.

6) How important is it? If you're writing about a central figure or a
central event in a family's story, then you must ask yourself what the
consequences of omission, evasion or deception would be. Some families
have had several suicides, even in one generation. Can one *not* write
about that, and still consider the product to be a history of the family?

I'm currently writing an outline of one of my families, for a volume
honoring the memory of some of them. Limited to 2,000 words, I ask
myself: who should be the focus, and what facts about them matter the
most? So far I've mentioned the cause of death of only three members of
the family: the father (diabetes--knowledge of which could be construed
as a public service to descendants) and one of his seven sons (a doctor
in his early 30s who had a skiing accident). In both cases I felt that
the lack of an explanation would raise questions. But many other
details about the family, some humorous, some sordid, some merely
peculiar, must take a back seat to what I consider important for the
general reader: background, origins, the life of the family, the fates
of its members.

But if I were writing extensively about the personalities of one or of
these people, I'd find it much harder to leave out facts about major
life events, let alone misrepresent them. A survivor's distress in
bereavement will appear in a different light if the deceased was a suicide.

It's hard to imagine any fact of consequence in a family history that
would not cause some descendant some distress. Some do not want to know
that their ancestors were poor; others, that they were wealthy. Some
don't want to know about divorces, abandonment, family strife,
opportunities missed, etc. Some decide, when reading, that they would
have preferred not to know--that the version of events that they had
previously learned or imagined was more valuable than what the writer
has presented.

That said, 4 generations is a long time.

Roger Lustig
Princeton, NJ USA

On 4/27/2013 1:19 AM, Davida Handler wrote:
When writing a family history, is it necessary, or even permissible,
to publish the suicide of an ancestor, no matter how many generations
back that this occurred, and no living descendants who ever even knew
the person? Is the "right to know" applicable to all family members,
or is it best to simply mention the date of death, with no inclusion
of this information? Is the risk of hurting descendants, even if at
least 4 generations removed more important than the facts?

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