I know it’s been a while since these last two episodes aired, but I wanted to get them in before the second series starts. In case anyone has forgotten from my saying them in previous Nitpicker’s Versions, I do love this show. But as a genealogist, there are so many things I think they could do better, certainly to educate the general public about genealogy research.
The sixth episode of Who Do You Think You Are? focused on Susan Sarandon seeking information about her grandmother, Anita. From the introduction, it sounded like Susan had already done some research, but her grandmother’s information had always escaped her. She recalled some family stories and headed to Virginia to interview her mother.
Meet the Family
This is the typical beginning to this show and is the correct beginning for genealogical research. Then again, had she ever tried asking her mother about her Anita before? Her mother was “apprehensive”, so maybe that had stopped her in the past.
To New York City
Susan met with Megan Smolenyak in a cafe. There’s something about this show that everyone meets the genealogist in cafes. Megan produced Anita’s birth certificate, the 1920 US census, and Anita’s marriage certificate. They carefully examined some of the information on the records, including Anita’s parents’ information, the number of siblings she had and how many were still alive, and that her father was widowed by the time she was 12. Though her marriage certificate said she was 15, she was really only 13 and was already six months pregnant.
Susan mentioned her regret of not having talked to her grandfather while he was still alive. This is also typical of genealogists. Many find the urge to trace their ancestry when they are already part of the eldest generation still alive in their families. Even those that start young often don’t know what they should be learning from the older relatives and miss opportunities.
Susan met with Dr. Mary Brown, an expert on Italian immigration, and she produced Anita’s parents’ marriage certificate.
Get the Family Involved
At the New York Public Library, Susan brought her son to do some research, where they searched surname distributions in Italy, finding both of Anita’s parents’ surnames in the same region.
There was no indication in the episode if proper research was done to find the city of origin in Italy. Did they check ship lists, naturalizations, or any other US documents or did they just jump to the surnames in Italy? It may have been their only chance to find her roots in Italy, but the show didn’t mention if it tried any other methods.
Going to Italy
In Florence, she met Cinzia Rossello at the Riccardini Library who had found some records proving that Susan’s great-grandfather, Mansueto Rigali, was born in Tuscany and a conscription document showing that he owned land in the small town of Coreglia.
At the Loppia Church in Coreglia, Cinzia found records of more of Susan’s ancestors baptized in the church. She kept flipping to bookmarked pages and moving down the assembly line of books laid out on the table, tracing straight back to 1640. Of course, this line went straight back on the Rigali surname with no indication if they searched for siblings or up the family lines of the spouses.
This is another place where they have gone wrong and many amateurs will not realize it. Not only do you have to trace siblings — often because there will be missing records on ancestors and their siblings will be the link to the next generation — but you have many more family lines than just going straight back with one surname. Did they search for siblings? Did they search for spouses and their families? Or did they get lucky and just go straight back? Some people only want research on a certain name in their family, and nothing about siblings or other lines. If I were to do research like that, I’d rarely get anywhere.
Local guide, Gabriele Calibrese, told Susan more about her great-grandfather Mansueto and others of his profession, showing the passenger ship list and telling the story about how many statue makers went to America from the small village.
Back to New York
Susan visited the Rigali family plot in a cemetery but didn’t say how she found it. This is another bit of research that was completely skipped over and didn’t even get a mention. How did they find it? Whose death led them to the cemetery? She had a list of nine people who were buried with no marker. I was glad when she said she should put one up. I hope she did.
To another restaurant, Susan met historian Burton Peretti. After discussing a bit of history about night clubs, he produced a marriage license for Anita when she was 25, where she claimed no previous marriages. Susan knew that her grandfather had not divorced her until years after.
Back to the NYPL, Susan again brought her son, Miles, and searched city directories to find Anita under her newly discovered married name. Finding the names of Anita and her husband listed at different addresses, Susan started a sentence with, “If that’s them…” instead of assuming she had found the right people. This is how many genealogy sentences should start. Sometimes you can’t be sure you’ve found the right people until you verify with more documentation.
Turning to the obligatory search on Ancestry, they searched for Anita’s death record. Miles suggested searching for Anita using her given name and birth date and skipping her surname. This was clever advice. When you’re not sure of some of the information, and you’re faced with a searchable database, you have to try different combinations of the information that you know to find the record you need. I have often searched for records using given names, ages, other family members, without using surnames. Sometimes information needs to be left out of the search because you don’t know the correct information (Anita’s final surname) or because it was transcribed incorrectly or spelled differently.
At the New City Library in Rockland, Susan followed up on the death information and found Anita’s obituary. Visiting the address from the obituary, Susan met a neighbor and learned about Anita. From there, she visited nieces of Anita’s last husband who lived nearby. They were able to tell her more about Anita and share pictures.
As with other episodes, there were some great comments when discovering details in the records, excitement at verifying information, and there were huge gaps in the genealogy research. However, looking at the genealogists involved, seen in the episode and listed in the credits, I can only assume that the proper research was done and simply not shown on screen. Unfortunately, that’s what gives viewers the wrong impression about what can and should be done to find this much information and how much work and time went into it.
As Susan learned more about Anita, she connected to the grandmother she never knew. She found more compassion for the woman, learning about her shortened childhood and short marriages, but finally finding happiness for her last 35 years.
Every time I see these episodes that dig deep into a single person’s life, it makes me want to know more about the individuals in my ancestry. I know many details but I’ve never really connected with their life stories. With so many, sometimes I feel like I don’t know which one to start with.
This article is the six in a series: