Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Hidden Side of Genealogy

Many of us who research our family history do so out of a curiosity, a deep need if you will, about who we are and where we come from. We join groups that tout our ancestor's achievement as soldiers, pioneers, and founders. We talk about our ancestor the inventor, the celebrity or the every day person who knew a celebrity. Yet there are aspects of genealogy that we don't talk as much about. Yes, there are the black sheep that some of us proudly claim. Maybe an ancestor was a thief, a pirate or spent time in jail. But there still are aspects of genealogy we tend to downplay.

The suicide of Sylvia Plath's son, Nicholas Hughes is a grim reminder that maybe aspects of mental health like, suicide and depression may have a genetic component. Nicholas was only 1 years old when his mother killed herself in the next room. Later, his father's girlfriend would kill herself and her child.

Nicholas isn't the only offspring of a celebrity that chose to end their lives just as those before them did. One of the more famous families affected by suicide is the Hemingway's. In the book, In My Blood, John Sedgwick details the Sedgwick family history of depression. One of their most famous members was the actress Edie Sedgwick.

Depression is typically suffered in silence. Shame and guilt make the sufferer unable to express what they are feeling. Those who do speak up to family and friends are usually labeled as crazy, or their torment is downplayed as just a phase.

Taking note of our family's health history is so important in our own preventative medicine. Letting your doctor know about close family members who have a history of cancer or heart disease can potentially save your life. We must also consider taking note of other health issues, including mental health, that our ancestors and family struggled with. Addressing these issues can help someone better deal with and seek treatment instead of seeing only one, final way out.

For a short discussion on the genetic link in suicide, see the Scientific American post at An article that reviews research on the connection between genetics and depression can be found at


geneabloggers said...

Great post Gena and a great way to show how a recent tragic incident relates to genealogy.

Miriam said...

Excellent post, Gena. I actually have kept track of the people in my family (both sides) that have been imprisoned, institutionalized, or committed suicide. There are also the whispered stories of sexual abuse. These things also unfortunately get passed down through the generations, and will continue to do so until they are properly dealt with, instead of ignored.