Airing Laundry in Public
(Photo of Arthur Bryan as an adult with his wife Mary Anne and their children.)
"I have known my father and brother to beat my mother but they did not do so a short time before [the murders] as I know of."
This admission was made by 8-year-old Arthur Bryan during cross examination by the lawyer representing George Amer and his son Laban at their murder trial in Sault Ste. Marie in the fall of 1877. Arthur had just given damning testimony that would almost certainly result in the Amers being convicted for the brutal murder of Arthur's older brother, Charlie, and so the defendants' lawyer was trying to shift the blame for the deaths of both Charlie and his father William to the victims he claimed had provoked the tragedy through their violent natures.
One of the questions I often get asked during my genealogy-based creative writing workshops is what do you do if you stumble upon information that shows one of your ancestors in a bad light?
That is not at all an unusual circumstance. The deeper you dig into your family's history, the more likely it is that you will uncover skeletons hidden in the most surprising closets. It's amazing how common illegitimate births were. Alcoholism. Domestic violence. Criminal activity, both major and minor. It's also amazing what other kinds of details families selectively write out of their collective past.
It's a mistake to think that your ancestors need to be protected. Focussing on their positive attributes while hiding their crimes, misdeeds, or societal faux pas turns them into cardboard cutouts to which no one can relate. The fact that your great grandmother was once a notorious pick-pocket or that your great-great-great uncle was an embezzler who married fourteen widows in order to profit from their fortunes is not something to hide, but to highlight. It makes your family's story more interesting. Not because it contains salacious details, but because it reveals insights into your ancestors' humanity and it's that humanity that will resonate with your readers.