The genealogy drug

I don’t smoke tobacco. I don’t patronize California’s newly-legal marijuana industry. I drink, but only a little.

I do genealogy.

Filling in my family tree has been an occasional obsession in recent years. It goes in fits and starts. When I first signed up for Ancestry.com, I wallowed in the deluge of information about past relatives, some of whom I’d barely heard of. Then I hit a point of diminishing returns and stopped. Several years later I checked back in, found new leads – Ancestry and the other genealogy web sites continually digitize new records – and re-immersed myself. 

When I’m not in one of these immersion phases, I barely think about genealogy. But when I’m “on,” it does feel a bit like a drug.

There’s a visceral thrill in adding data to the family tree – a new relative, or a new factoid about a relative. It’s the same small exhilaration as filling in a crossword clue, or finding the missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle. There’s a rush of dopamine pleasure.  You feel the rush… and you want to do it again… and again… and again… 

Screenshot of part of my tree on Ancestry.com

Of course there’s no end. For every third cousin you add to the tree, there is a spouse. There are the spouse’s parents. There are the spouse’s parents’ siblings, and their spouses, and their children, and those children’s spouses… Some of the people I ve encountered on Ancestry have family trees with 30,000 people in them. 

Thirty thousand people in your family tree! I’ll never go that far. My approach is more like driving with headlights at night: I only want to see a reasonable distance away. Still, I understand the temptation. When you’ve added every detail you can find about your great-grandmother, why not add her brothers? And then the brothers’ spouses. And then those spouses’ siblings… 

But what underlies the druggy rush? Some of it is simply a compulsion for order, like straightening my sock drawer. Ahh, every relative accounted for! Every sock paired with its mate, even if only for a day!

More existentially, it feels like pushing back a curtain of darkness. Pushing back the curtain of how much we don’t understand, and will never understand, about our world and our history. Even if we are only pushing that curtain a nano-centimeter.

Growing up, I had very little information about my ancestors. As a child I knew three of my four grandparents, all of whom were born in New York. Beyond that, I understood we were Jewish – and we came from Europe sometime in the 1800s – but that was all. There were no relatives still living overseas, no handed-down stories about “the old country.” I was 100 percent American, and might as well have sprung fully grown like Venus from a seashell. To the extent I imagined my immigrant ancestors, they were stereotypes from Hollywood – Tevye and Goldie in Fiddler on the Roof, trudging mournfully from Anatevka towards the promised land of America.

Not my family

Nothing. Darkness. My family story – and by extension the narrative I told myself about where I fit into history – began around 1890 in New York. Nothing before that.

Internal narrative is what this is about. Externally, it makes no difference: Things like race and social class are much more determinative of how the world treats me than the identity of my great-great-great-great grandparents. But internally I do tell myself a story about who my ancestors were, and what different paths my life could have taken, and by extension who I am, and it matters very much where that story begins. 

An American story that begins in 1890 is different from one that begins before the Civil War in the era of slavery.

An immigrant story that begins in sweatshop poverty is different from one that starts with middle-class tradespeople or business owners. 

A Jewish story that takes place wholly in 20th century America is different from one that has parallel narratives in America and Nazi Germany.

If you’ll indulge me, over the next several blog posts I’ll share what I’ve learned about my ancestors’ lives through this geneology addiction. My family doesn’t have any royalty or mass murderers,* but it is far more interesting and unexpected than I imagined back in the days when all I envisioned was Fiddler on the Roof.


*Spoiler: It turns out we do have a very distant connection to Albert Einstein, but that is less interesting than other things I found. 

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