Last Tuesday evening, I watched a terrific TV show on TLC called Who Do You Think You Are. It’s not a new program, but somehow, I’ve missed it before now.
Each one-hour episode features a celebrity who’s interested in learning more about his or her family history. Featured celebrities travel around the U.S. (and in some cases, internationally) meeting with historians, visiting libraries, local archives, museums and cemeteries, and retracing the lives of their ancestors through birth, death and marriage records, newspaper archives, court documents, military service records, etc.
Though I found much to like about this show, two concepts in particular resonated with me, probably because I’ve found them to be true in my own genealogical research.
First, address one question at a time. Rather than taking a shotgun approach, the celebrities on this program seek to answer one specific query or research one particular ancestor. Christina Applegate wanted to learn more about her paternal grandmother, while Kelly Clarkson focused on her great-great-great-grandfather.
As you trace your roots further back in time, and each generation brings an exponential increase in the number of ancestors, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Focusing on one issue or ancestor at a time makes the task less daunting.
Second, be prepared for whatever you find. Understand that what you discover may surprise or upset you, and could potentially alter the way you view your ancestors and, ultimately, yourself.
Christina Applegate, for example, uncovers some unexpected and disturbing details about her grandmother. In my own research, I’ve encountered surprises more than once — and not all were pleasant.
I suppose it’s only natural to hope our ancestors were decent, moral folk, but it’s easy to idealize them to an unrealistic degree. The truth, of course, is that they were simply and imperfectly human. From time to time, they made poor choices. They made mistakes.
Ultimately, I guess all we can do is accept their imperfections with the same empathy and understanding that we hope future generations will show us.
One thing did irk me about this show. At times, it felt like nothing more than one big commercial for the Ancestry.com website. Don’t get me wrong. I think Ancestry.com is a fantastic tool for genealogical research. But the amount of product placement within the show was so heavy-handed that I found it distracting.
That aside, if you’re interested in genealogy, you’ll probably enjoy Who Do You Think You Are. It airs Tuesdays nights on TLC. Full episodes can also be viewed online.