Miles Kington: My name is MK and I'm not tracing my family

The signs of obsession include an urge to write letters to complete strangers in New Zealand
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The Independent Online

Forget avian flu. There is another, more insidious disease, already infecting large numbers of people in Britain. Its technical name is "genealogophilia". Its medical name is "obsessive family history disorder". But you and I probably know it better as "doing a bit of research into the family tree".

"Oh, yes, that's how it often starts," says Peter Quirkroyd, founder and president of Ancestors Anonymous, the help group for sufferers. "Someone says they might look into Uncle Stanley's family, and where Auntie Vera came from. It sounds innocent enough. A bit of family gossip. But before you know where you are, that little bit of research has turned into a passionate activity, and the condition may already be chronic."

Very often the patient is convinced that what he is doing is people-related; only he or she is unaware that the activity comes at the expense of communication with real people

"You can find a sufferer in almost any family in the country," says Quirkroyd. "Someone who has retreated from the reality of our everyday world into the shadowy, alternative world of lost great-uncles, old diaries and family homes removed by the bulldozer. It's like losing someone to a cult, to Scientology or something. It may be no coincidence that the Mormons have developed an extraordinary interest in records of births and deaths themselves ..."

The signs of the obsession seem quite mild to begin with - loss of attention, fondness for libraries, a need for stronger reading spectacles - but soon the symptoms become more extreme. They can include:

a) A tendency to frequent lonely churches and graveyards

b) A new, passionate interest in the Mormons

c) The illusion that family history is interesting to others, even to non-relatives

d) An urge to write letters to complete strangers in New Zealand, often starting: "Although we are not known to each other, I have reason to believe that we are distant cousins through Aunt Madge, who emigrated to Auckland in 1931, and I wonder if you would be interested in ..."

e) A tendency shortly afterwards to receive letters from New Zealand starting: "No, I flaming well would not ..."

"I contracted an advanced form of this disease myself, so I know what it's like," says Peter Quirkroyd. "Quirkroyd is a very unusual name, you see. I know of only two others in Britain. The Quirkroyds themselves are a most interesting family from the West Riding, who moved south in the 1860s to Oxfordshire, where my great-great-grandfather, Josiah, married ..."

He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes and pauses.

"I'm sorry," he says. "I'm still a recovering genealogist. I get these little moments. Perhaps if I had been a Jones or Grant or Taylor, I would never have been dragged down."

He shudders again.

So he started meetings of AA, Ancestors Anonymous, where people could talk through their obsessive disorder.

"You know how at meeting like Gamblers Anonymous, people don't use their names ? Just their initials ?" says Peter Quirkroyd. "They get up and say, 'My name is B and I am a drinker'. At Ancestors Anonymous it's more important for us not to use names. Because names are our very temptation. I knew a man at a meeting once who got up and said: 'My name is P. P is a very old Welsh name, belonging to a family related to the Ms of Merioneth, whose history goes all the way back to ...' by which time we were pelting him viciously with cushions, because he was relapsing in front of our very eyes, using initials as a substitute for names. "

The typical sufferer is very often in his or her forties, perhaps feeling they have achieved at work all they are likely to achieve. Perhaps, especially if women, they need grandchildren, or, if men, a new interest. Family history seems to provide the interest (and the new relatives) they need. But it is often a cruel delusion, leading to a life-threatening condition.

If you think you need help, write to me and I will put you in touch with Ancestors Anonymous. And do please address your letter to Miles Kington, not Kingston. Kington, interestingly enough, is an old Bristol name which dates back to ... continued some other time.