Archive for Category: WDYTYA


WDYTYA – Episode 1 – The Nitpicker’s Version

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Don’t get me wrong, I thought the first episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was great. I enjoyed watching it and look forward to future episodes. But I also know that genealogy is about the details. So now that I’ve had a chance to rewatch the episode, I am going to break down the details and ask more questions. Warning: this will be a long blog post, so I’ve tried to break it up a bit with headers. I also hope that in my nitpicking, I haven’t gotten anything wrong. I confused even myself while I was writing this, so I hope I didn’t mix up any of the details.

No Lineage

At the beginning of the show, Sarah Jessica Parker (SJP) visited her brother, I think as an introduction to her and her family. He made an unusual comment that he thought “there was no lineage”, referring to his thinking that both sides of the family were recent immigrants. There are people who think that once your ancestors are no longer from America, there is nothing else to do. I wonder why people think that? True, for some locations, you may never get a single bit of information, but he wasn’t speaking of a specific ancestral line, rather the whole family in general. In my experience, if you’re searching for any of your ancestors, there is at least one familial line where records can be found, and usually more than one.

SJP mentioned that her father’s side was Eastern European Jewish. Her mother, Barbara, mentioned that all she heard about was German ancestry. Obviously, they couldn’t follow her entire ancestry in the 42 minutes allotted, but I would have found those interesting too.

New Jersey

When SJP visited her mother in New Jersey, she just walked in the door without knocking or using a key. Some people (other bloggers) thought that was very sweet, how they had that kind of close relationship. But really, does she not lock her front door? And it was interesting how her mother was always just around the corner. Maybe it was a small house. :-)

Prime Time TV

Sitting at a microfilm reader for hours is too dull for a prime time TV show, but sometimes the traveling across the country puts some people off. In fact, Friday night, one of my non-genealogy tweeps was talking about watching Friday night TV and I suggested WDYTYA. She thanked me afterwards but said she doesn’t “have the money to fly back & forth across the country” though she did find the show interesting. That is an unfortunate effect of the show. Do people think that they really have to do that much traveling to research their genealogy?

Cincinnati

SJP’s first stop after visiting her mother was Cincinnati where she met with Natalie Cottrill. Natalie produced a death certificate, an 1860 census page, and an obituary. SJP’s ancestor John Eber Hodge was born in September 1850, while his father died in 1849. Can anyone count how many months that is? Here’s a fun voice-over from SJP: “I’ve asked Natalie to pull the California census information from ancestry.com…” Really? I doubt that SJP actually asked for that but more likely Natalie had already done the search and they needed a segue to show the result. Maybe the sponsor wanted an extra plug in the show? He showed up in the 1850 census, but one of the possibilities was that he abandoned his family. Did they look for him in the 1860 census? They did check that to narrow down their search for him, I hope. Trying to find out what happened to him, that seemed the logical and easy thing to search for next.

I like that Natalie mentioned that the 1849 death was a mystery, though not necessarily because it was more than nine months between his death and the birth of his son. I wish she had mentioned that mysteries and inconsistencies were a normal part of genealogy research, or had pointed out that the obituary is not a primary source for the deceased’s father’s death and that more research needed to be done. In all likelihood, she did mention those things, but they just didn’t make it into the episode.

Stephen Aron at Cincinnati’s Museum Center produced another document, showing that John Hodge teamed up with several others and went to El Dorado, California, sending her across the country to find out what happened.

El Dorado

Jon McCabe, the local historian in El Dorado, showed her where he may have mined, eventually producing a letter written by John Gish, his business partner, that mentioned his death. This entire sequence, I believe, was more for entertainment than for research. There was no real reason for her to go there as I think the letter was found in Cincinnati. But that’s prime time TV: it’s for entertainment.

Boston

SJP then headed to Boston, almost on a whim if you go by the voice-over, to see if her Hodge family was part of the old New England Hodge family, as Natalie had mentioned to her earlier.

She met with Josh Taylor of the New England Historical Genealogical Society. This was one of the parts I really didn’t like. Again, I sincerely hope that everything important was cut from the show for time. He told SJP her genealogy going back for several generations, without any mention of how he found the information. John S. Hodge was the son of Eber Hodge, born just after the Revolution, his mother was Abigail Elwell, her father was Jabez, son of Samuel, son of Samuel, and son of Samuel born about 1635 in New England. What kind of documents did he use to find that? There wasn’t mention of a single source.

Checking the Great Migration Study Project of immigrants from 1620-1635, they searched another new name, Robert Elwell, who was Samuel’s father. Why didn’t he just mention that person before? Was that few seconds of dialogue cut for time? The computer showed that Robert Elwell immigrated in 1634, but this wasn’t stated aloud. Further computer details revealed that his first three children were Mary, Samuel, and Josiah, and there were many more details that I don’t feel the need to mention.

When SJP read the name of Salem on the record, of course the Salem Witch Trials came to mind for her and probably most people who were watching. Taking place in 1892, Josh said that Robert died around 1670 or 1680 but that his son Samuel would have been alive at that time. The computer screen stated the exact date of 18 May 1683 for Robert’s death. Maybe he just didn’t remember that when he mentioned it.

Actual Research Shown

SJP went on to the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, where librarian Elaine Grublin helped her. In these scenes, they showed SJP doing her own research for Esther Elwell, wife of Samuel, looking at the computer database, copies of a document, and one original document. Many people complained that, with an original document, they were supposed to wear gloves and that the pencil shouldn’t have been anywhere near it. Another genealogist friend of mine told me that the gloves are not to protect the document but to protect the hands from the 300 year old grime that is on them. As for the pencil, well, I agree with that one.

Also, I don’t doubt that these documents were found and probably waiting for her to arrive. Really, would they travel to a library, film crew and all, if they didn’t know ahead of time that they would find something?

Danvers/Salem

After reading the warrant about her 10th great-grandmother, Esther Elwell, being accused of witchcraft, SJP went on to Danvers, Massachusetts, where she met with historian Mary Beth Norton. Mary Beth pointed out that SJP’s ancestor was lucky because the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which convicted and sentenced every person who was accused of witchcraft, was dissolved on 22 October and the accusation came on 8 November, so her ancestor was not tried.

The biggest part about this whole section of the show that bothered me was, when was Samuel born? I mean the Samuel who was the son of Samuel and Esther. That is kind of an important point. The details were not stated or shown on the computer screen. Was the next generation of SJP’s family already alive or not when Esther’s life was put at risk with the accusation? That would certainly change the course of her family’s history. Samuel was born in 1635 and Esther in 1639 (as seen on the earlier computer screen). It seems to me that they may have already finished having all their children by 1892. Or maybe by then they had already skipped on to the next generation Samuel? This is where skipping details is problematic.

The final part of her journey before returning home was to visit the memorial in Salem. But SJP was told that Esther lived to be 82. So why not visit that grave since SJP was so emotionally involved in learning what happened to her?

Strange Comments

SJP made a few comments during the show that I thought were odd. She said that she didn’t really feel American until she found that her roots in this country went back to 1635. Why did she need to trace her family back to feel like she belonged in this country? All four of my grandparents were immigrants, as is my mother. I am an American and I’ve never felt otherwise. That just seemed odd. She also thought, at the beginning of the show, that she wasn’t connected to anything historical. But why did it have to be American history to be historical? There is history in other countries as well.

After the commercial breaks, there were recaps of what came before, and before the commercials there were previews of what was coming up. Was that video montage at the end really necessary?

Genealogists

One other curiosity came in the credits. I have listed in this blog the names of the people who appeared on screen with SJP, but only one of those people was listed as a genealogist in the credits: Natalie Cottrill, Megan Smolenyak, Krysten Baca, and Allison Aston. Did those four do work for the entire series and some of the others were just specific to the episode? OK, so some of them were credited as historians during the episode and not genealogists.

Conclusion

As I stated at the beginning, I really did enjoy the episode. As Lisa Louise Cooke stated in her Genealogy Gems News this morning, the show is for entertainment and not as a how-to for genealogy, referring to so many blogs that pointed out genealogy research omissions and such. And I know this blog entry is exactly what she was talking about. But I’m just a good nitpicker and used this opportunity to put that skill to use. Genealogy research is in the details and some that seemed to be important were skipped over.

I think there was room in the episode to mention how many people were involved and how many hours of research it took to find so much information. People watching might get the mistaken impression that everything can be found indexed on the computer, historians and librarians have plenty of free time to be at your disposal, one must travel across the country to find a single document, and that all you have to do is find the right genealogist and they will already know all about your family.

Then again, the BBC version doesn’t do any of that either.

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Who Do You Think You Are? – Episode 1 – Initial Thoughts

Friday, 5 March 2010

I just finished watching the first episode of Who Do You Think You Are? on NBC with Sarah Jessica Parker. After seeing Faces of America (FoA), I definitely prefer the format of this show. It is very much the same as the BBC version, even using similar graphics.

It was exciting to see Sarah Jessica’s reactions to learning things about her ancestors. FoA seemed to be lacking in that a bit, probably because each of those people were simply sitting at a table where they were handed a book. There were some reactions, but it seemed like not quite enough. Sarah Jessica Parker (SJP) travelled to the locations and looked at some of the documents herself.

Of course, she didn’t really do the research herself. As some of us know, several celebrities were ruled out of having their own episodes because their stories weren’t interesting enough for a TV show. Clearly the work was done before the filming even began, as was evidenced when she visited with each professional genealogist and historian. In almost every instance, the professional produced documents they had already found or simply told her the names of generations of her ancestors until they reached the one with the interesting story. The celebrities are sometimes shown looking through books or searching databases, but they have already been searched by someone else to know that there was something to be found.

I don’t doubt that the research was done thoroughly, and hopefully it was shown and explained to SJP, but it’s something that is always lacking from these shows. Exactly how much time is spent tracking down all of those ancestors and the documents to prove it? It might give some people the false hope that if they call a professional, that person will already know everything there is to know about their family history, when in reality, it takes many hours of research sometimes to find just the smallest clue. And sometimes nothing is found at all.

Naturally, and possibly in part because it had to be interesting for TV, for every location that her ancestors lived, SJP had to travel there. There was no looking at microfilms or ordering documents by mail, which is what most people tend to do. She was at the location where her ancestor mined during the gold rush, she was in Salem to learn about her ancestor who was accused of witchcraft. So many genealogists would love the opportunity to travel to each location. All four of my grandparents were born in Eastern Europe, so it could never be as simple as a quick flight or a long drive across the country. I look forward to the day when I can go to Europe, but until then, I have to make due with microfilm and snail mail.

However, even without showing all the research that was conducted, not showing all the details of how so many generations were found, not finishing up and visiting the grave of her ancestor accused of witchcraft (though she visited the memorial for other victims), not explaining all the details of that ancestor (is SJP descended from a child born before or after the accusation?), it’s still a good show. I’ve enjoyed every episode that I’ve seen of the BBC version and I look forward to the rest of the NBC run.

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Lisa Kudrow and Who Do You Think You Are?

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Last night, I listened to Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems Podcast which had an interview with Lisa Kudrow about the upcoming NBC show, Who Do You Think You Are? I am excited about seeing this show. I’ve seen several episodes of the BBC version, but many feature British celebrities whom I don’t know.

After watching my first two episodes (David Tennant and Stephen Fry), I let Pamela Weisberger guide me to several others of interest by checking which ones she had aired at the film festival at various IAJGS conferences; the episodes featuring those with Jewish heritage.

It was interesting to listen to Lisa Kudrow speak about how she viewed her Holocaust history. What Lisa Louise Cooke seemed not to realize is that many Jewish families just don’t talk about it. While we know we lost relatives, and some even grew up knowing parents and grandparents who were survivors, it was not something that they wanted to relive. Lisa’s reaction to not really wanting to know the details about how her relatives perished seemed normal to me. In Jewish genealogy, everyone gets to a point where they lost relatives in the Holocaust, and it becomes really depressing if you start thinking about the details. We know what happened, we know what they had to endure, and now we’re trying to move beyond that and live our lives, in part to honor them. At least, that’s how I see it and I think others do too.

I do have one even more personal reason for wanting this show to be a success. Sometime last year, possible future subjects for BBC’s WDYTYA were announced and David Schwimmer was among them. When the official list was released, he wasn’t there. As someone with Schwimmer in my family (my great-grandmother Ester Malka Schwimmer from Fogaras, Hungary, now Zubovka, Ukraine), I was really curious to see his episode. My mother has been waiting for years for me to tell her that he is our cousin, so with Lisa Kudrow at the helm, maybe we have the chance to still see that story.

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