WHEN MY GRANDMOTHER DIED IN 1983, it appeared that her secrets and the answers to riddles about her life were buried with her. I was left with family photos and legends, partial truths whispered by cousins in back bedrooms, silence, and angry, defensive outbursts from relatives when I probed too far. The family stories I had been told my whole life, I sensed, were a mirage hiding more than they revealed.
Something in my family's guardedness—and a self-protectiveness in myself that I could never quite understand—made me wonder about those stories. On the surface, we seem perfectly contented. Underneath, there are hints of a fear that never leaves. Love is never fully trusted; truth is never believed; the next friend may be an enemy in disguise. We are afraid of being misunderstood, anxious and doubtful of our own judgments. We are wary, suspicious, easily threatened and quick to anger. Defensiveness and suspicion have passed like a birthright through three generations of my family, for nearly 80 years.
In the summer of 1990, when I was 46, I developed an obsessive need to delve into the memories of my grandmother's past. like a grave robber, I began to search compulsively for answers to questions I couldn't yet form. I did not know what I sought—I only knew that I felt compelled to learn about my family's genealogy. I researched her past with a passion that carried over into my dreams.
That summer, I called my uncle Walt to check on some genealogical…