Lines And Ladders Performance Diary 05: Privacy Matters

Margaret Forster offers us the story of her own life until the death of her mother in Hidden Lives. She comments that it is necessary to know where she has come from to understand who she is now. Forster has been frustrated because she has struggled to find detail about her grandmother’s life before the age of 23 and states that she finds ‘women like Margaret Ann Jordan [her grandmother] virtually incomprehensible in their passion for privacy and secrecy’.

Yet for all Forster’s willingness to share her life with us through her written pages, she remained a private person. When Hidden Lives was published, I worked in a bookshop in Carlisle and I remember Forster coming in to sign books in the back. This contradiction – the willingness to share in a given framework, but the importance of being able to choose your own terms is one that I sympathize with and is at the core of my research.

The new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) includes a right to be forgotten, but no right to be remembered. I have argued throughout my research project, that the participants should be able to choose if they wish to be named. Players of Lines And Ladders are invited at the start to choose whether they want to be anonymous. I think it is vital that the decision is theirs, not mine and not the institution’s. These are family stories, some people choose to tell them as a part of the performance game, but would prefer not to have the stories attached to their name later. For others it is important that when their family stories are retold that they are acknowledged. So far, just over 80% have chosen to be named.

Family historians are often quite keen on sharing. Shared knowledge can lead to the breaking down of brick walls. DNA samples are only useful when compared with those of others. Facebook family history groups can provide connections and some online databases enable users to share family trees, which can be copied and pasted into your own tree.

But there is also considerable anxiety about this sharing. Many of the conversations that I have had playing Lines And Ladders concerns the potential misuse of DNA data. And the copying of others research without checking can lead to inaccuracies and misunderstandings.  

It is interesting to see how keen people are to share their stories within the framework of the game. Whose stories are shared? How much recent history is discussed? This is a public sharing, but is there less to be gained than from the other forms of sharing, such as writing or recording, which can be more easily distributed afterwards? Or is, as I hope it will be, the act of sharing enough of an adventure?

Reference: Forster, Margaret, Hidden Lives: A Family Memoir (London: Penguin, 1996)



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