My parents are obsessed with genealogy

Why would healthy adults who are barely in their 60s become so attached to the past?

Published September 27, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My parents are obsessed with dead people.

No, not ghosts. Genealogy.

They are baby boomers and have been tracing their lineage for several years now. They are obsessed with their new hobby. This is strange because they are not the type to have obsessive interests. Every time I see them, they tell me about Great Great Uncle Jonas who died of smallpox or Great Great Grandma Enid who campaigned for the mayoral candidate of New York. At our last get-together, my mom talked so much I wondered if she was manic (although she has never had a mood disorder). I have never, at any point in my life, seen her this enthusiastic, even about anything that had to do with her children. This sounds like an exaggeration. Trust me, it's not.

I find it sad that they appear to have no desire to cultivate their relationships on this earth (including with me), and instead spend their time tracking down people, regardless of what they have accomplished, they will never meet in the flesh. It's not that they don't socialize, it's just that they don't enjoy it and have no desire to become closer to the people around them. They used to be more tolerant, but now they don't like anyone and make no attempt to pretend otherwise.

Why would healthy adults who are barely in their 60s become so attached to the past? They have the wealth that would allow them to travel and indulge in any other type of interest they desire right in the present. I'm sure plenty of seniors out there have expectations and dreams for the future, but not my folks. Is this something I'll understand when I'm their age? Or is this somehow a sign of sickness?

Genealogy is a fascinating hobby, but I have limits. Any polite attempts I make to turn our conversation back to the present day so I can participate are rebuffed.

It isn't my business how they live their lives, but it's thrown me for a loop seeing that they actually do have the capacity to care deeply about something. Why did it take this long?


Dear Curious,

This sounds like a classic case of relative narcissism, a projection disorder in which the ego, unable to countenance its own narcissism, projects onto ancestors all the idealized qualities it would otherwise take onto itself; it is harder to diagnose than traditional narcissism because its sufferers do not act grandiose and superior. Rather, they adopt a humble air in deference to their great aunt or uncle. It's not they who are draped in glory but long-dead forebears (who, through genetic association, nevertheless give proof of superiority). It can be paired with a deep, melancholy longing for an idealized world and a sense that today's world can never measure up to this mythical past. It is often found in baby boomers who didn't attend Woodstock but had a cousin who did.

Of course, you don't find "relative narcissism" in any diagnostic manual.

It doesn't exist in the literature yet. I made it up.

But if it did exist, it would exist because the psychiatric community would recognize that when an interest in one's ancestors becomes more than historical, when it seems to take over one's emotional life, then some need other than mere curiosity is being met. What is that need? What are they really getting out of it?

I suspect that it generally works to quell one's anxiety about where one fits in the social hierarchy. It also can function as a kind of simulacrum of immortality: To contemplate the long line of people who preceded you might give you a sense of how vast time is, which is something like contemplating the ocean or the forest, something larger than oneself. I'm guessing it can also serve a need to believe in one's goodness -- and perhaps in one's innate superiority.

If they talk only of those who played a part in some grand enterprise, perhaps that serves to highlight grandiose virtues. Believing ourselves blessed with a hidden talent for political office, for instance, we note with pride that we are descended from a campaign worker without whom, who knows, the history of New York might have been turned on its ear.

Or let's take the opposite tack. Let's suppose that your parents actually feel inferior, that they are searching for some way out of a nagging sense of having never measured up. Obsession with dead mirrors of ourselves can work to justify our shortcomings. Are they talking about ancestors who went to the gallows, or never left the galley of a ship? That might tend to justify a perceived low station in life, one that one considers unjustified.

The key question is: What are they getting out of it?

In practical terms, regardless of whether it shows one to be high or low in the hierarchy, genealogical inquiries can simply offer one a new freedom to be oneself. For instance, my Uncle Hall walked into the kitchen the other day and began declaiming on the wildness of the Tennises, which we get supposedly from the Hawkinses. I found myself curiously grateful for his thoughts on the matter, having never found it easy to behave myself.

Not that the Tennises aren't intelligent, says my uncle. Lord knows we have brains. We're just wild. It's our Hawkins blood, says Hall. Those Hawkinses of the Tidewater.

He also says generations of Tennises have always gone to sea -- and being genetically predisposed to take the tiller, we inevitably settle on coastlines. Which explains why I put up with the fog, and why the paint is peeling: Why couldn't I have bought a house in Arizona?

My basic take on genealogical research is that it would be wonderful if the purpose of it were to broaden our sense of common humanity, not to find evidence of some innate superiority. For such are the ideological roots of racism -- a belief in innate values that come invisibly in the blood.

Better to look for evidence of our connection, rather than our difference.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

What? You want more?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice or make a comment to Cary Tennis.
  • Send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.

  • By Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Since You Asked