There are hardly any hobbies that hold more passion than genealogy. Once hooked by the bug, most people never retire and one of the things they worry about passing down to their family are their genealogy records – even if the family of today isn’t terribly interested.
So it’s easy to understand the degree of passion and enthusiasm, but sometimes this passion can kind of go astray and it crosses the line from something positive to something not nearly so nice.
Genetic genealogy is the latest tool in the genealogists’ arsenal, but it introduces some new challenges and unfortunately, with the increased number of people testing, we’re seeing some examples of what I consider bullying – for DNA, for identification and for information.
Bullying is unwelcome aggressive behavior that involves repeated threats, physical or electronic contact or a real or perceived imbalance of power. Generally, the victim feels they can’t make it stop. This has become especially prevalent in the cyber age. And bullying is not just about kids.
I’m going to look at 3 types of situations. It’s easy to see both perspectives, but bullying by any other name is still bullying, even though the bully probably doesn’t see it that way. Guaranteed, the recipient does.
You’ve Got the DNA I Need
Let’s say that Aunt Gladys is the last person alive in a particular line who can provide DNA to represent that line. But Aunt Gladys, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to test. It’s fine to discuss this, to talk about her concerns, and perhaps you can find a solution to address them, like testing anonymously.
But let’s say that Aunt Gladys simply says “no,” end of story. What then?
Yes, Aunt Gladys carries the information that you need, but it’s HER DNA that needs to be tested, and if she says no, then her decision should be respected, as difficult as it may be and as unreasonable as it may seem. Maybe Aunt Gladys knows something you don’t – like she is adopted or some other secret that she does not wish to reveal. Badgering Aunt Gladys from this point forward is going to do nothing other than cause hard feelings and make Aunt Gladys want to avoid you.
You may think you’re “just discussing” but from her perspective, you may be bullying. Now, it’s OK to beg and cry once, but if you’re slipped into the realm of “if you don’t test, I’ll tell Uncle Harvey that you scratched his car back in 1953,” you’ve stepped over that line.
Won’t Answer E-Mails
I can’t tell you how often I hear this story. “I match with person XYZ and they won’t share their information.” Most of the time, they won’t answer e-mails. And the question follows, of course, as to why they tested in the first place.
These tests have been around for a number of years now. Many people have died or moved or the purpose of the test was fulfilled and they aren’t interested beyond that. Think of your Aunt Gladys. If you did convince her to test, it wouldn’t be for her, but for you and she certainly would not be interested in answering random e-mails.
There could be a number of reasons, depending on the testing company used, that someone might not answer. In particular, many people test at 23andMe for health reasons. It doesn’t matter to them if you’re a first cousin or any other relation, they simply aren’t interested or don’t have the answers for you.
It’s alright to send 2 or 3 e-mails to someone. E-mails do get lost sometimes. But beyond that, you’ve put yourself into the nuisance category. But you can be even worse than a nuisance.
I know of one case where someone googled the e-mail of their contact, discovered the person was a doctor, and called them at the office. That is over the line into cyber-stalking. If they wanted to answer the e-mail, they would have. If they don’t want to, their decision needs to be respected.
I Know You Know
This situation can get even uglier. I’ve heard of two or three situations recently. One was at Ancestry where someone had a DNA match and their trees matched as well. At first the contact was cordial, but then it deteriorated into one person insisting that the other person had information they weren’t divulging and from there it deteriorated even further.
This is a hobby. It’s supposed to be fun. This is not 7th grade.
However, there are other situations much more volatile and potentially serious. In some cases, often in adoptions, people don’t want contact. Sometimes it’s the parent and sometimes it’s the adoptee. But those aren’t the only people involved. There are sometimes half-siblings that are found or cousins.
For the adoptees and the parents, there are laws in each state that govern the release of their legal paperwork to protect both parties. Either party can opt out at any time.
But for inadvertently discovered family connections, this isn’t true. Think of the person who doesn’t know they are adopted, for example, who discovers a half-sibling and through that half sibling their biological mother. Neither person may welcome or be prepared for this discovery or contact.
Imagine this at the dinner table with the family gathered, “Hey guess what, I got a half-sibling match today on my DNA. I wonder if that’s some kind of mistake. How could that be?”
So if you match someone as a half sibling or a cousin, and they don’t want to continue the conversation, be kind and respectful, and leave the door open to them if they change their mind in the future. Pushing them can only be hurtful and nonproductive.
Dirty Old (and Formerly Young) Men
And then, there’s the case of the family pervert. Every family seems to have one. But it’s not always who you think it is. By the very nature of being a pervert, they hide their actions – and they can be very, very good at it. Practice makes perfect.
Let’s say that Jane likes genealogy, but she was molested as a child by Cousin Fred. Some of the family knows about this, and some don’t believe it. The family was split by this incident, but it was years in the past now. Jane wants nothing to do with Fred’s side of the family.
(By the way, if you think this doesn’t happen, it does. About 20% of woman have been raped, 30% of them by family members (incest), many more molested, and children often by relatives or close family friends. 15% of sexual assault victims are under the age of 12. Many childhood cases are never prosecuted because the children are too young to testify. Perverts and pedophiles don’t wear t-shirts announcing such or have a “P” tattooed on their forehead. Often family members find it hard to believe and don’t, regardless of the evidence, casting the victimized child in the position of being a liar and “troublemaker.” Need convincing? Think of what Ariel Castro’s family said and how well he hid his dark side and the Boston bombers’ family comments about their innocence in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.)
Jane’s an adult now and DNA tests. She has a match and discovers that it’s on Fred’s side of the family. Jane tells the person that she doesn’t want anything to do with that side of the family, has no genealogy information and wants no contact. The match doesn’t believe Jane and then becomes insistent, then demanding, then accusatory, then threatening.
This is clearly over the line. Jane said she didn’t want any continued contact. That should have been the end of the discussion.
But let’s say this one gets worse. Let’s say that because of this, Cousin Fred wakes up and decides that Jane is interesting again and begins to stalk Jane, and her children……
Does this make you shake in your shoes? It should. Criminals not only aren’t always playing with a full deck, but don’t play by any of the same rules as the rest of us. Cousin Fred might just be very grateful for that information about Jane and view it as a wonderful “opportunity,” provided by his “supportive” family member who has now endangered both Jane and her children.
Who’s Yer Daddy?
In another recent situation, John discovered by DNA testing that he is not the biological child of his father. He subsequently discovered that his mother was raped by another male, married to another close family member. When John discovered that information, he promptly lost interest in genealogy altogether.
A year or so later, John matched someone closely who was insistent that he provide them with how he was related to them. John knew, but he did not feel that it was any of their business and he certainly did not want to explain any of the situation to the perpetrator’s family member, who, by the way, had already mentioned what a good person the perpetrator was. However, the person continued to harass and badger John until he changed his e-mail address.
I so wanted to ask these people, “What part of “NO” don’t you understand?”
Mama’s Baby, Daddy’s Maybe
In one final example, adoptees often make contact with their birth mother first, and then, if at all, with their birth father. Sometimes the birth mothers are not cooperative with the (now adult) child about the identity of their father. Often, this is horribly frustrating to the adoptee. In at least one case, I know of a birth mother who would never tell, leaving the child an envelope when she died. The child was just sure the father’s name was in the envelope, but it was not. I can only imagine that level of disappointment.
Why would someone be so reticent to divulge this information? The primary reasons seem to be that either the mother doesn’t know due to a variety of circumstances that can range from intoxication to rape, the woman never told the father that she had a baby and placed the child for adoption, the father was abusive and the mother was/is afraid of him/his family, the father was married, or the father was a relative, which means not only might the father still be alive, the mother may still have a relationship of some type with him. The mother may have lied for years to protect herself, and in doing so, protected the father as well.
Clearly, this situation has a lot of potential to “shift” a lot of lives and not always in positive ways. One woman didn’t want to make contact with her child other than one time because she had never told her husband of 30 years that she had a child before their marriage. One woman made contact, but did not want to divulge that the child’s father was her older brother, still alive. Victims often keep the secrets of their attackers out of misplaced shame and guilt. Think Oprah here. Mother may not be simply being stubborn, but acting like the victim she is and trying to preserve whatever shreds of dignity are left to her. She may also be embarrassed by a lapse in judgment. One adoptee realized when counting forward from her birth date that she was conceived right at New Years and when she realized that, she figured out that her mother, who drank heavily when she was younger, probably did not know who her father was, and didn’t want to admit that.
As frustrating as this is for the adoptee, the birth mother does have the right not to have her life turned upside down. Badgering her will only result in losing the potential for a relationship from the current time forward. Being respectful, understanding and gentle may open the door for future information.
I can hear Aretha now.
If you haven’t walked a mile in their moccasins, so to speak, you can’t possibly know the situation of the person on the other end of your request for DNA or information. Don’t make the mistake of stepping over the line from excitement into bully behavior.
Think of the potential situations the person on the other end may be dealing with. Ultimately, if they say no, then no it is and no should be enough without an explanation of why. Generally bullying doesn’t work anyway, because someone who feels like you are threatening them or being too aggressive will clam right up and it will be that proverbial cold day in Hades before they tell you anything. It’s important to keep communications from sounding like you’re demanding or entitled. My mother always said “you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” I always found that very irritating, probably because I needed to hear it just then – but regardless – it’s true.
Keep in mind, genetic genealogy is about genealogy. It’s a hobby. It’s fun. If it becomes otherwise and puts people at jeopardy, then we need to take a step back and take a deep breath.
Most people don’t mean to cross the line into bullying. They just get excited and sometimes desperate. Hopefully this discussion will help us all be more aware of where the polite line is in communicating with our family members and matches.
If you are the victim of information bullying, cyber-stalking or someone puts you in an uncomfortable situation, there are steps you can take to remedy the situation. Most bullying sites are directed at adolescents, but the advice still applies.
If you know you don’t want contact initially, then make your accounts anonymous or don’t respond to requests. If you realize that you don’t want contact after the initial contact, for whatever reason, say so. After that, do not engage in communications with someone who is attempting to bully you. If they threaten you or threaten to reveal information or your identity if you don’t give them information or do something, that action falls into the blackmail realm, which a crime. Complying with a threat to protect yourself or your family generally only results in more of the same. You are not dealing with a nice person. At this point, you are way beyond genealogy and your own internal ”danger” sign should be flashing bright neon red.
If disengaging does not take care of the problem, save all messages/contacts and contact your attorney who may advise you to contact the police or the FBI if the problem crosses state lines. Depending on what state you/they live in and exactly what they have done, you may have a variety of options if they won’t stop, especially if they do something that does in fact manage to turn your life upside down and/or a crime is involved, like blackmail. Of course, this is akin to closing the barn door after the cow leaves. Hopefully, the person causing the problem is simply an over-zealous genealogist, means you no harm, realizes what they have done or are doing, and will get a grip and compose themselves long before this point.
Bullying of course is not because of DNA or unique to genetic genealogy, but the new products introduce new social situations that we have not previously had tools to discover nor the opportunity to address in quite the same way.