Is ‘Genealogical Bewilderment’ really a thing?
It is. Psychologists Erich Wellisch and H.J. Sants named the phenomenon in 1964, while working with adoptees. The term refers to their observation that missing details about your own ancestry can lead to an experience of ‘genealogical bewilderment’.
I’ve been on a quest recently to find the biological family of my deceased father-in-law, who I never had the chance to meet. Every answer my husband and I celebrated created dozens of new questions and emotions. When I stumbled on the term genealogical bewilderment in a May, 2018, article by The Atlantic, the long and clumsy term made sense right away.
Ashley Fetters wrote about the concept in her article, Finding the Lost Generation of Sperm Donors:
There’s a name for that feeling—that curiosity, that sense of a missing piece, that anxiety that some dormant aspect of themselves might one day show up and have no traceable root. In 1964, the psychologists Erich Wellisch and H.J. Sants, who studied and treated troubled adoptees, understood the lack of knowledge of one’s genetic background to induce a state of what they called “genealogical bewilderment.”
Since then it seems only a niche group of psychologists have published anything further about the term.
I believe the term is due for a resurgence. I think it could be like the mighty at sign (@) or hashtag (#) symbols that might have faded into oblivion had technology not introduced the need for them in email addresses and social media respectively. The term genealogical bewilderment was originally used to describe the experience of adoptees. But as the popularity of ancestry DNA testing grows, I wonder if we’ll see a renewed use of this term that also seems to relate to people of other backgrounds. For example, beyond the donor-conceived that Fetters mentioned in her article, there are those getting “not parent expected” (NPE) results from ancestry tests, such as a child they never knew existed or that a parent who raised them is not actually biologically related. Not to mention all the half- or full- siblings, uncles and cousins who are discovering new family members as well.
Wellisch and Sants called the opposite of genealogical bewilderment, ‘ancestral closure’. I suspect ‘ancestral journey’ is a more accurate description. For now, I’m finding some comfort (while I wish for closure) just in that the bewilderment label exists. Something about the existence of the term, with the word ‘logical’ right in the middle reassured me that we’re going to be OK on this journey of learning my father-in-law’s story no matter how many more twists we decide to follow.