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To write about suspected abusive behaviour when the alleged perpetrators are dead in a family chronicle?

(48 Posts)
Mellowfruitfulness Sun 17-Jul-11 17:15:36

I am writing a family memoir and have recently been on a jaunt to dig up some old ancestors. While writing up my findings I have come across a dilemma. Three of my forebears might have committed crimes, but there is no proof of anything.

I would appreciate your thoughts on whether I should confide my suspicions to future generations, thus damaging the memory of these family members, or just whitewash it all out?

To make it a bit clearer: one great grandfather courted a girl of 13 when he was in his late twenties (19th century); another was openly very fond of little girls and his behaviour definitely went beyond the bounds of what would be acceptable nowadays, although he did not to my knowledge actually harm anyone. Finally, another grandfather went to Thailand where we think he had sex with a very young girl and died of AIDS shortly afterwards.

The children of the last two are still alive, but I don't need to show them the memoir as it is really for my grandchildren.

Please tell me what you think. (I don't want them to come back and haunt me, either!)

Mellowfruitfulness Sun 17-Jul-11 17:17:04

And the second grandfather was also suspected of killing his wife in a boating accident.

Can't believe I forgot to put that in, as it was the main reason I decided to ask for your help!

Sausagesarenottheonlyfruit Sun 17-Jul-11 17:28:43

You say there's no proof or criminal records for any of this? It's all based on hearsay then.
I'm not even sure it'd be legal to put these rumours in writing, you may find yourself in hot water for libel.
Not to write about it isn't 'whitewashing', it's simply sticking to proven facts and not committing suspicions and rumour to paper.

garlicbutter Sun 17-Jul-11 17:30:34

I'd put it in. And be prepared for any fallout. For one thing, it makes sense to be honest about your investigations, findings & thoughts. For another, it could prove meaningful to family members who've been wondering about certain elements of their more personal past.

As part of my recovery, I used a book by John Bradshaw called "Family Secrets". As soon as I started working through it, various things started falling into place - and other relatives began telling me what they knew or suspected, without prompting. Secrets can be passed through families by means of silences, glances and euphemisms. Even if they were never put into words, the information registers.

I'm not trying to dump my 'stuff' on you, just pointing out that your memoir might even prove helpful in unexpected ways!

WhereYouLeftIt Sun 17-Jul-11 17:31:33

The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. (not sure who I'm quoting)

Had a quick google, it looks as if the age of consent was 13 before 1885, so possibly no crime involved there.

This is a family memoir, not for publication. Can you write it giving the facts and leaving the readers to draw their own conclusions?

garlicbutter Sun 17-Jul-11 17:33:44

I've assumed you'd be writing in terms of what was observed, who was suspected, and what the gossips said.

This is how histories are discovered ... you follow the trails, and say what those trails were made of.

Sounds like a very interesting project!

LesserOfTwoWeevils Sun 17-Jul-11 17:34:23

No danger of libel suits—dead people can't sue you! And neither can their descendants.
I think you should record the facts. If they are unsavoury facts, then so be it. Whitewashing events that happened decades or even centuries ago seems unnecessarily prudish. If no one will be hurt by your telling the truth, then tell it—at this point it's just a mildly scandalous and colourful piece of family history.

TidyDancer Sun 17-Jul-11 17:35:23

You can't libel a dead person.

But aside from that, could you not write it but change names?

garlicbutter Sun 17-Jul-11 17:35:57

Imagine if Royal historians whitewashed the past. English history would fit in one slender volume grin

diddl Sun 17-Jul-11 17:40:18

"The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. (not sure who I'm quoting)"

The Go Between-LP Hartley.

LineRunner Sun 17-Jul-11 17:42:46

WhereYouLeftIt, it was LP Hartley. Later appropriated by David Lowenthal for a I book I was fecking forced to read at university.

Tidy's right, you can't libel the dead.

Is anyone really going to be upset by this, OP? Maybe you should let them read a draft and invite comments before you publish.

LP Hartley, sigh. Shame he descended into flyfishing anecdotes.

Mellowfruitfulness Sun 17-Jul-11 17:43:39

Thank you for your quick replies! Yes, I want it to be interesting to read, but not at the expense of someone's reputation. At the same time, if I airbrush everything out, it could become rather bland.

It's little details that make people come to life for us, but it seems a shame to select ones that portray them in such a dim light. After all, it seems to be completely random what people remember about their relatives.

The death was investigated but murder was never proved and the body wasn't discovered, and no-one can think of a motive for murder. However, the man concerned did set up home with a 'housekeeper' shortly afterwards, but then he had three children who needed looking after.

Would you mind proof-reading what I have written and then giving your opinions?

Sausagesarenottheonlyfruit Sun 17-Jul-11 17:44:30

"You can't libel a dead person"

I did wonder if I was talking toot! grin

I dunno, just seems unfair really. People make up and exaggerate stories about others all the time, I would hesitate before putting things to paper.

diddl Sun 17-Jul-11 17:49:38

I would have thought the only "interesting" thing would be the guy suspected of murder tbh.

The other things-not unusual for the time?

Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13(?) yr old cousin?

jenniec79 Sun 17-Jul-11 17:51:49

I'd put it all in.

Include the sources you have and the dead ends you found when you looked for more evidence. Photos if you have them etc.

I'd love to have a resource like that for my family history, and I'm sure your grandchildren and their children will find it all fascinating - it'll be further displaced for them so not a problem that it was their own family committing what we see now as crimes (if not then). Add in links or info to things like the 1885 act above and you'll have a beautifully relevant history book.

Mellowfruitfulness Sun 17-Jul-11 17:56:24

Here it is, very much at a draft stage. (I haven't written about the drowning yet):

It was here that JC, in his late twenties first caught sight of M, aged 13, and stalked her until he was allowed to marry her, six years later (this was after 1885, Whereyouleftit). Poor old E had enough on her plate, so she banished M to Ireland where she was put under the protection of her uncle, until she was deemed old enough to marry.

JC was from all accounts a gentle and loving father and husband, in spite of his apparent liking for a very young girl which would have got him into trouble in modern Britain. His son, H, was also fond of little girls, but his really was the last generation that society allowed openly to admit to that particular predilection. Did either of them do any harm? H didn’t, to my knowledge, and he was a very loving, though rather eccentric, grandparent. Were they any different from other men of their generation?

You can choose what you believe, can’t you, and with no evidence to the contrary, I am sure that they both behaved honourably, according to their lights. I even feel a little guilty about throwing all this into the mix, because it will now go down in our family history, but you have to put it in the context of the times. In Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, people believed that the white race was superior to all others and that the upper classes had the god-given right to control and exploit the lower orders. Women were either their father’s or their husband’s property and didn’t even have the right to vote, and we still had capital punishment. I think that in that context, a man who was attracted to children would have controlled his desires in the same way as if he were interested in women or other men. Some things simply weren’t done, and you didn’t do them. If you did, you got sent to prison like Oscar Wilde. So whereas the men who abuse little girls today lie to themselves in order to justify it by the contemptible ‘she’s a little tease and wants it really’ excuse, in the olden days there was simply no justification for any sort of sex outside the marriage of one man to one woman. And you can’t blame people for their thoughts, can you, as long as they don’t act on them? I prefer to think that it was a coup de foudre for JC, and that they were deeply in love. After all, M remembered him with love and gratitude for the time they had together, so the evidence all points to the fact that he did not do anything to make her unhappy.

diddl Sun 17-Jul-11 18:02:41

Did he really "stalk"?

Didn´t Alan Clark meet his wife when she was just 14 & marry when she was 16 & he about 30?

Mellowfruitfulness Sun 17-Jul-11 18:25:14

I wrote 'stalk' but it is a more modern concept, isn't it. I think he carried her bags on the way to school and back. Apparently they first met when she was climbing a tree in the orchard and he came past on horseback ...

Maryz Sun 17-Jul-11 18:42:48

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Mellowfruitfulness Sun 17-Jul-11 18:44:29

Thank you, Garlicbutter, for the reference to John Bradshaw's book. It sounds as if you have had a hard time, and I am glad that this book helped you.

When I first started writing this part of the chronicle, it was in the back of my mind to put in the suspicions of child abuse, just in case it did make sense to any future generations, but then it was all so long ago now. And in any case, I have no idea if sexual orientations are genetically determined. I can understand there might be a possibility of them being passed on to other generations if there is a certain culture in the family, but there are no living male descendants who were alive at the time that these people were.

But at the same time, the historian in me doesn't want to censor anything for future generations ... And although there are people who could be upset by this, I wouldn't show it to them. It's only for my immediate family.

diddl Sun 17-Jul-11 18:52:20

Yes, I would say, put it in quite factually, don´t "sex it up"blush with innuendos/unfounded suspicions/opinions.

And perhaps put that it wasn´t that unusual for the time -if that´s the case.

Mellowfruitfulness Sun 17-Jul-11 18:55:01

Maryz, I have put in what I know about the first grandfather. It's more difficult with the second, as nothing is documented. It's all first-hand accounts of inappropriate behaviour, but no-one has said they have felt they were harmed by him. It's a very tricky subject to broach with people, as you can imagine.

And about the death of the woman in the boating incident (I'm not alleging that it was murder - really I don't think it was!), there were letters, written by her to her mother-in-law. She was unhappy in her marriage, and we believe there were references to her husband in these letters. Unfortunately, another cousin found the letters and burnt them, saying she was instructed to do so by angels ... The woman who found the letters was the neice of the husband and a particular favourite of his.

The daughter of the woman who drowned was absolutely devastated by the destruction of her mother's letters, as nothing else had been kept for her. sad

brownleatherbrogues Sun 17-Jul-11 19:04:29

didnt elvis meet priscilla when she was 13

izzywhizzyletsgetbusy Sun 17-Jul-11 19:09:14

You've given poor old JC an unnecessary bashing by using the word 'stalk'. Surely the word should be 'courted'? After all, M chose to marry him presumably of her own free will and it would seem that her family had no objections to the match.

Providing there is no proof that he continued to 'like young girls' I can't see why it should be worthy of any comment other than that it was obviously a love match.

Similarly, what evidence do you have to substantiate your claim that JC's son, H, was fond of little girls in the context that those words would be used today? It doesn't seem that H did anything to deserve criticism or to be suspected of anything other than being a loving father and grandfather, therefore I see no reason why his name should be sullied.

What exactly are you trying to do here? I'm not getting any feeling of individual family portraits being painted with words or anecdotes being made available to future generations. If you're trying to hand your personal family history down through the years I do hope you'll colour it with some affection because your ancestors' blood flows through yours to your future readers.

Mellowfruitfulness Sun 17-Jul-11 19:35:32

Izzy, yes, I shall change 'stalk', possibly to 'court'. The evidence about H is just what people have told me, but although it definitely does go beyond what we would consider acceptable, he did tend to push the limits of good behaviour and was a law unto himself in other areas too.

Yes, good question. What I am doing at the moment is writing an account of my recent fact-finding mission, in which I am telling my grandchildren a little more about our direct ancestors. Another book has already been written in which the individual portraits have been painted and the anecdotes shared - that is the so-called 'official' history of the family, written by a cousin. There is nothing in that book that casts aspersions or makes allegations about anyone, and that is the book that will be passed down and can be read by anyone.

So what I am writing is a more intimate chronicle of my own branch of the family, mostly made up of our day-to-day lives, for my own descendants only. The passage I have quoted from is part of the trip I have just been on. I am hoping that when they read our little chronicle they will feel inspired to look at the main history of the rest of the family.

And I do want to be kind, especially to the memories of the two relatives that I knew personally. There is no need for me to be completely factual and objective - it's obvious that this is a totally subjective take on things - but I don't want carelessly to include something that is unfair to anyone's memory.

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