Genealogy As A Tool For Self-Knowledge And Family Therapy

By Tom Rue (1998)

This article discusses the rationale for incorporating genealogy into family therapy, explores related cultural and ethical issues, and gives examples of techniques. A Bowenian systems theoretical framework is assumed. The article touches upon the elements of genetics, culture, spirit, and emotion, as they relate to family narratives. [Twenty-three references]

Families are products of the society or societies which weave them, and they transmit the social strengths and frailties of those larger social institutions. While ancestry does not in any sense determine destiny, cognition of collective family experiences shapes development of individual and collective consciousness in crucial ways.

Narratives from the family tree, often grasped only partially or at a deep preconscious or symbolic level, can form the spiritual and social strands which make up the basic building blocks of families and societies much as the double-helix DNA comprises the more tangible building blocks of carbon-based life.

There can be little dispute that persons and family systems carry within them the roots of identity constructed through a multi-generational maturational process which involves genetics, culture, spirit, and emotion. These four core elements, perhaps plus others, but essentially these, are viewed by this writer as keys to self-knowledge and processes of therapy. Information gathered through genealogical research can shed light on each of these areas, to aid in identity clarification and individuation.

The resulting construct of identity, for both families and individuals, is the lens through which human existence and experience is filtered and defined. By attending to and perpetuating family story patterns, honoring rituals and traditions which carry meaning, the bonds of blood and love are strengthened and systems function to perpetuate the species and the divers values which gave them rise, and at a higher level has given rise to societies and human civilization as a whole.

Beginning to learn about one's heritage, even by speaking with available older relatives about their pasts, can help facilitate self-awareness as a member of a group and provide a bridge to a forgotten cultural base, empowering individuals and family systems to confirm or reweave their values, identify patterns, and make changes in personal, family and cultural activities; all of which in turn may give hope for curing present social ills.

Champagne (1990) found that structured genealogical exercises benefited some clients in her clinical mental health practice. "Like most counseling techniques, genealogical search counseling is not for all clients. The client's presenting problems, personality, and motivation all need to be taken into account before encouraging such an effort," she wrote. Champagne added, "With selected populations research into one's family history can serve as a foundation for personal healing, family communications, and personal" (p. 85).

Master family therapist Michael White uses a technique of helping family members "re-author" the manner in which they view and experience a wide range of problems and situations, such as child behavioral problems and fears, grief, separation anxiety, encopresis, anorexia nervosa, intellectual disability, schizophrenia, children in residential care, sexual abuse, and men who are violent (Hart, 1995).

Family patterns of repeated cut-offs, such as divorces, abandonments, or deaths, are significant information to family therapists. Survival themes may also be identified.

Writing about the analysis of society and culture from a Jungian perspective, Vergolias (1996) observed: "Within the family therapy context, Murray Bowen (1966) opened psychology's oedipally blind eyes to the skeletons hiding within the familial closet, skeletons not only of the living souls, but also of the ancestors from generations before. These skeletons remain unreal, unpractical, until we till through the fertile history of our familial past. Words, in the same manner, have a history, an ancestral past, and by uncovering the top-soil and tilling the roots of this etymological earth, we find the myths and meanings hidden within. What appears on
the surface may allow us to convey practical meaning, but it is what lies underneath which provides breadth and depth of understanding."

Gibson (1994) provides an example of using the genealogical search "to solidify my own sense of identity and process of differentiation."
Gibson relates her experience and information gathered in a trip to her birthplace in Illinois to locate as many family members as possible. "I went to the area where my parents had met and to where my ancestors had immigrated. I retraced their past and mine by visiting where they lived and the people that they knew to learn where I had come from. I used Bowen's methodology in that I listened and observed 'at least partially outside the emotional field of the family,'" she explains.

In a training aid for library scientists entitled "Helping patrons with genealogy: Understanding genealogists ," staff at the Marguerite deAngeli Library (1998) in Lapeer County, Michigan are given the following information concerning the interest genealogy holds
for family therapists and sociologists in particular:

The use of family history and genograms for the professional development of counselors was first popularized in the 1950s and 1960s by Dr. Murray Bowen; he felt that the family therapist "must have a thorough understanding of his own position in the family; otherwise, his unresolved conflicts would obscure his ability to identify and counsel clients who required his professional objectivity" (Curtis[, 1984, p.] 36). Use of genograms continues to be advocated by many counselor educators, who believe "that persons in counseling will be able to progress to no higher level of psychological and emotional health than the level of their counselor" (Lawson & Gaushell[1988, p.] 162). Genograms have also been used as an educational tool for clinical sociologists "to introduce students to the sociological basis of family therapy and to deepen their awareness of the social transmission of family patterns" (Reed, 1994, p.] 255).

Said one sociology student who created a genogram as part of his education: "I communicated with the dead more surely than had I been in a seacute;ance and saw how their influence still shapes the path that my family is walking" (Reed[, 1994, p.] 259). And family histories have also been used by family nurses in order to examine "how the nurse's personal family background and experiences affect clinical practice" (Green[, 1983, p.] 191). In addition to using genograms in self-exploration as a part of counselor education, genograms are widely used by family therapists, family physicians, chemical dependency counselors, and others in clinical assessment of clients as a graphic tool for organizing the mass of information gathered during a family assessment and exploring patterns in the family system (McGoldrick & Green, 1986). Other authors advise medical patients on use of genealogical research techniques to map inherited diseases, physical traits conducive to disease, mental health problems, and addictive proclivities to alcohol and other drugs (Nelson-Anderson & Waters, 1995).

Entrepreneurs like WonderWare, and perhaps others, have capitalized on the intersecting market segments of genealogists and family therapists, offering special software for sale on the Internet, inviting the public to "explore the interpersonal universe at the speed of enlightenment." But many modern clinicians simply use a blank notepad, a blackboard, or a simple form to record simple or complex family patterns and examine inter-generational and inter-personal trends in clients' family histories on genograms like that portrayed by Gerlack (1997).

The growth of the Internet has greatly expanded public access to information of genealogical value, which was previously only available by writing to or visiting record repositories or centralized libraries. One on-line clearinghouse for amateur and professional genealogists alike is, which maintains a high-volume e-mail discussion list on the broad topic of genealogy, called ROOTS-L. A database search for the word "genogram" produces few hits, perhaps due to the fact that the list is not heavily traveled by family therapists. However, in response to a question about notation on genealogical charts, Kimber
(1994) replied:

A graphic format that is used in medicine and psychiatry to convey a lot of information visually is a genogram. A starter source is McGoldrick, M., & Gerson, R. (1985). Genograms in Family Assessment (New York: Norton). Computerized versions also exist: see Gerson, R., & McGoldrick, M. (1985) "The computerized genogram." Primary Care, 12, 535-45. (Or search MedLine or PsycLit at a university library for more recent publications.) I doubt the medically oriented version would interface neatly with GEDCOM, unless you're handy at patching things.

A genogram can show who lived in a household at a given time, extramarital liaisons, births in chronological order, births by multiple marriages, who's living (at a cross-sectional point in time) and who's dead, which relationships were close and which conflicted, people's occupations, illnesses, and other relevant data.

There are symbols that can be used for psychiatric, medical, or substance abuse histories, but one warning: in the context of family history recording, it is debatable how appropriate this information is and also it may make your correspondents much less willing to provide you information.

One privacy concern about including psychiatric, medical, or addiction related information with genealogical data is the risk of discrimination. According to The Arc (1996, formerly the Association for Retarded Children in the United States), genetic discrimination is the differential treatment of individuals or their relatives based on their actual or presumed genetic differences as distinguished from discrimination based on having symptoms of a genetic-based disease. For example, of people who carry the gene for fragile X, the most common inherited cause of mental retardation, 20% will never display any form of mental retardation. Yet, because they carry the gene for fragile X, they could be treated as though they had mental retardation even though they do not (Boyle, 1995).

The best solution, clearly, is to be mindful of the possibility that some data can be misused, and to store disease-related data sets separately from genealogical information which might be published. Existing professional ethical codes hold that personally identifiable information contained in clinical records, for example, should not be made public. However, it is may be helpful for family members to review and interpret such data, with professional assistance when indicated, in light of its known or possible bearing to them.

Baker, Kotkin & Yocum (1976) also point out ethical concerns in gathering family folklore:

Because of the personal nature of the folklore that you will be collecting, you should be very careful to protect the privacy and rights of all family members. Be honest about your intent from the very beginning. Explain your reasons for doing the research. Is it a school assignment? Do you simply want to learn more about your family? Do you plan to publish your findings? The ultimate disposition of the collection may affect their willingness to talk about certain subjects (p. 6).

In the spiritual realm, genealogy can strengthen the connective ties to the faith of one's ancestors, be those ties Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Pagan, or other. Some moderns find current spiritual meaning in reconstructions of ancient religions which may have been suppressed for centuries. In conducting Celtic genealogical research, for example, searchers may discover modern relevance in learning the stories (FitzPatrick, 1991) or reverencing the ancient deities worshipped in those lands prior to their military subjugation by Roman armies during the last millennium.

The precise meaning which the student places upon these old stories and the old gods and goddesses will vary between listeners, depending in part upon what other religious influences may have been brought to bear, but some find spiritual meaning in reclaiming non-patriarchal mysteries which came near to being lost to the modern ages.

A searching study of ancestral traditions from any land may lead the student to examine the state present-day gender relations or sex roles (Markale, 1986) are viewed; the nature and place of sexuality and intimate relationships in life (Rue, 1998); current-day race relations in a nation originally predicated upon a slave-based economy (Gettleman, 1968); or the degree of reverence which the person may feel for the earth itself and connection to other life-forms who inhabit the globe (Campbell, 1968).

More conventional world religions, certain Jewish organizations for example, have made great strides in recent decades in collecting and preserving historical records. The Mormon church in Salt Lake City, though relatively modern in its founding, has become the unrivaled collector of genealogical data worldwide. The church's objectives in preserving and interpreting such data are exclusively spiritual and religious, based upon church teachings that the Biblical prophet Elijah directs church members to assemble the records of humanity's ancestors in preparation for a final day of reckoning and to afford those who have died the ability to choose to accept Mormon temple ordinances (baptisms, endowments, and sealing to spouses and parents, pursuant to Mormon priesthood authority) which are performed daily in the names of the world's dead by living proxies. Likewise, Mormon volunteers systematically extract genealogical data from records of all religions and governments which allow it, to the point that the LDS church possesses the largest publicly accessible, and undeniably priceless, collection of genealogical material in the world. The National Archives and Record Administration is another excellent source. Searchers who are uncertain where to begin might do well to commence by contacting the National Genealogical Society, or a local historical association.

Invariably the best place to start a search, when possible, is with living relatives. The simple exercise of visiting or writing to older family members (Baker, Kotkin & Yocum, 1976), and asking them about shared heritage, can be a healing experience in itself which can prove as memorable and valuable as any information gathered.


Baker, Holly-Cutting; Kotkin, Amy; and Yocum, Margaret (1976). Family folklore: Interviewing guide and questionnaire, Smithsonian Institute, Family Folklore Program, Office of American Folklife Studies : Washington, DC.

Bowen, Murray
(1966). The use of family theory in clinical practice. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 7 : 345-374.

Boyle, P.J. (1995). Shaping priorities in genetic medicine. Hastings Center Report, 25 : S2-S8.

Campbell, Joseph (1968). Creative Mythology: The masks of God. Penguin Books : New York.

Champagne, Delight E. (1990). In the Field: The genealogical search as a counseling technique. Journal of Counseling & Development, 69 : Sept./Oct., 85-87.

Curtis, Betty J.L. (1984). "The Role of the Family History in Preventive Medicine: An Introduction for Medical Librarians." Medical Reference Services Quarterly, 3.4 : 35-44.

FitzPatrick, Nina (1991). Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia. Penguin Books : New York.

Gerlack, Peter K. (1997). Using genograms to help fix membership confusions and conflicts, Stepfamily Association of Illinois : Oak Park, IL. htp://

Gettleman, Marvin E. [Ed.] (1968). Black Protest: History, Documents, and Analyses, 1619 to the Present, CBS Publications : New York.

Gibson, Richelle (1994). Discovering Your Roots: Extended Family History with Implications for the Systems Therapist. Progress: Family Systems Resarch and Therapy, 1994, 3 : 53-67, Encino, CA : Phillips Graduate Institute.


The personal genealogy of Richelle Ann Gibson is studied for four to five generations. Her Scandinavian and Polish ancestors immigrated to Chicago, Illinois in the late 1800's and early 1900's. This cross-cultural study investigates the impact of a transcontinental move on the dislocated family members and present generations. This research affects the present dynamics of the family system and is investigated in itself as part of the study. This genealogical study reconnects the dislocated family to its past and develops a cultural identity in the nuclear family of the author. Information was gathered by traveling back to Chicago and retracing the steps of her ancestors when they arrived in the United States from Europe. The project is analyzed from a Bowenian theoretical position and applications for the family therapist in practice are discussed.

Green, Clarissa P., et al. (1983). Skeletons in the Closet: Exploring personal family background as a prerequisite for family nursing. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 8 : 191-200.

Hart, Bruce (1995). Re-authoring the stories we work by: Situating the narrative approach in the presence of the family of therapists. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 16: 4,181-189.


This paper evaluates the work of the narrative school of family therapy, as developed by Michael White. This is examined in relation to the field of ideas in family therapy out of which it emerged, highlighting some of the similarities and differences. The lack of acknowledgement by narrative school of many of the commonalties that is shared with others is then considered. A second order perspective is taken situating the therapist's theory in the presence of the family of therapists to examine the development of the narrative approach to theory and practice. Constructionist contributions are considered in relation to the development of an eclectic approach where the therapist adopts a multiverse of theories to draw upon in practice. Development of theory becomes then a dialogue between different lenses rather than the development of any truth.

Kimber, Anne (1994). E-mail message [], "Re: standard graphical notation for genealogy charts?" to Larry McWilliams on ROOTS-L Genealogy List [then ROOTS-L@NDSUVM1.BITNET], Thu, 2 Jun 1994 19:43:00 CDT. Message retrievable at

Markale, Jean (1986). Women of the Celts. Inner Traditions Press : Rochester, VT, tr. by A. Mygind, C. Hauch & P. Henry (originally La Femme Celtic [Fr.], 1972, Editions Payot : Montreal, Quebec.)

McGoldrick, Mary & Green, Randy (1986). Genograms in Family Assessment. W.W. Norton & Co.

David M. and Harper Gaushell (1988). "Family Autobiography: A Useful Method for Enhancing Counselors' Personal Development." Counselor Education and Supervision, 28 December : 162-168.

Marguerite deAngeli Library (1998). Helping patrons with genealogy: Understanding geneaogists, Lapeer MI. On the web at

Nelson-Anderson, Danette L. & Waters, Cynthia V. (1995). Genetic Connections; A Guide To Documenting Your Individual And Family Health History, Sonters Publishing. On the web at

Reed, Myer S. (1994). Digging up family plots: Analysis of axes of variation in genograms. Teaching Sociology, 22: 255-259.

Rue, Thomas S. (1998). Knowing and sharing your sexual heritage, private web page at

The Arc (1996). Facts about genetic discrimination. The Arc (formerly Association for Retarded Children in the U.S.): Arlington, TX.

Vergolias, George L. (1996). An exploration of psychic closets and Hermes in the consulting room, 26 October 1996, Donald Williams, LLC : Boulder, CO. On the web at

WonderWare, Inc. (no date). Genogram and Ecomap software (commercial site), Silver Spring, MD.


G.H. Schott (2005). Sex symbols ancient and modern: their
origins and iconography on the pedigree, BMJ, 2005;331:1509-1510 (24 December), doi:10.1136/bmj.331.7531.1509

Patricia Farrell (2006). Genealogy and health, WebMD: Anxiety and Stress Management, 31 May 2006.

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