Family tree’s bad apples can be a shock

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LONDON — Genealogists want psychotherapy to be made available for people who stumble across unpleasant discoveries while researching their family history.

Britain’s Society of Genealogists is one of several organizations concerned that amateur historians are not sufficiently prepared for the secrets they might uncover in their family records and could need counseling to help them through the emotional process.

“People can be dealing with many serious things — from discovering your ancestor was a rapist who was deported to Australia to finding out you are adopted,” said Else Churchill, a genealogy officer at the society.

“Burying secrets causes problems, and you have to be incredibly sensitive when dealing with such issues,” she said.

Having trained counselors on hand could help, she added.

“My job as a genealogist ends when I have put the ‘whats’ and the ‘whos’ together, but there needs to be a continued support.”

Many of Britain’s 4 million amateur genealogists will end up discovering illegitimacy, bigamy, adoption and previously unknown relatives in the course of their research.

Diane Mattinson, 48, an office manager from Bicester, Oxfordshire, discovered that her great-grandfather, James Phillips, had never married her great-grandmother Elizabeth.

“It was a bombshell,” Mrs. Mattinson said. “I had my family to support me and to talk things over with, but some people don’t have that. For people who find out they have half brothers or [half sisters] or things like that, counseling would be a good idea.”

Another amateur genealogist, who did not wish to be named, found that when she inspected a copy of her birth certificate at the Public Records Office, the man she thought was her uncle was, in fact, her father.

The man was now dead, she said, but “my cousins are actually my half brothers and [half sisters]. It was a huge shock. I would have welcomed counseling.”

Sally Angel, the media and strategy director of Firebird, an archive research agency, said she is training as a psychotherapist to help clients to deal with such discoveries.

“Family history is not just about gathering information. Underneath the research, there’s a bunch of moral, ethical, social and psychological issues related to how you see yourself.”

Family history has become an increasingly popular pursuit in recent years, aided by the publication of census returns on the Internet and the proliferation of television genealogy shows in Britain.

There are those, however, who might be disappointed if they fail to find some dark secret.

Last year, a survey conducted by www.1837online.com, a genealogical Web site, found that 10 percent of amateur historians hope to unearth a family skeleton.

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