Using Reverse Genealogy To Find Answers and Solve Family Mysteries

What do you do when you are attempting to research an ancestor and you hit a brick wall?  When no matter what avenues you investigate, you simply can’t find the records you need to reveal the answers to your family’s story?

I hit a lot of those brick walls, too– but I wasn’t looking solely for my own family’s story.  I was investigating dozens of different, long-dead people, who figured into my father’s life before he met my mother.

When I began the research project that would become my book, His Other Life: Searching For My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams, I had never heard of reverse genealogy. I discovered its techniques only through trial and error, and it was only after my manuscript was complete that I stumbled upon the term and realized that this was what I had been doing all along– out of sheer necessity.

By the time I decided to uncover the truth of my father’s past, he had been gone for more than forty years, and sadly, many of his relatives, friends, and associates had also passed away.  Where could I turn for answers about the mysterious woman, Hazel Kramer, who had once been Tennessee Williams girlfriend, and who had broken young Williams’ heart when she married my dad?  Who might provide me with insight about stories played out so long ago?

I quickly realized that if I wanted to uncover the truth, I would need to find living people to speak to.  If my primary sources were dead, then I must find their children and grandchildren, and hope that they knew enough pieces of the story to help me make sense of the whole.

This is what reverse genealogy is– not searching backwards, into the past, but searching forward, to find living people who might have the facts you are seeking.

Here are some the sources I sought out, the strategies I employed– and how they panned out for me:

1. First and foremost– census records.

Unfortunately, the most recent census available online is the 1940 census, so this is somewhat limiting, but I still found a bounty of information in the censuses I searched through.

I was looking for people who might still be alive in Hazel’s family.  I knew that she had died in 1951, and that her mother and grandparents had preceded her in death.  She was an only child and she had never had children of her own. But I also knew that she had an aunt– a woman whom she had challenged in a court dispute over her grandmother’s will.  Had this aunt had children?  Might they still be alive?

I quickly found evidence of her two sons through the census records– but alas, also found death records for both of them.  However, just a bit of Googling also uncovered for me the names of the children who these men had fathered, and one of these children I found on Facebook– now a man in his sixties.

Though it turned out that he did not know much about his second cousin, Hazel, he and his wife were able to put me in touch with his sister and another cousin who knew much more.  Those contacts led to emails and phone conversations– and the exchange of much valuable information and many photographs that greatly enriched my knowledge.

One of these sources even traveled from her home in New York to meet me at my home in Virginia, and she and I have become fast friends.

2. Online Obituaries

Since the advent of the internet, obituaries are often posted online.  If you discover that someone you are searching for has died in the last 15 years or so, it is often possible to find an obit through a quick Google search.

What is the benefit of this?  Generally, the names and towns of survivors are listed, providing you with people to seek out and make contact with.

This is precisely how I found the grandchildren of Hazel’s biological father, who had given up his parental rights and allowed her to be adopted by her grandparents.  He had remarried, and had had two more children.  One of these children had fathered four children of his own.

It took me only a little bit of online searching to find addresses for all four of them.  I wrote them snail-mail letters to learn if they knew anything about their Aunt Hazel.  Two of them wrote back to me, and one of them continued to write to me for well over a year, and to share information and photographs. In this way, I learned a great deal about Hazel’s life in the years after she split up with my father.


I could never have uncovered all that I did about my father’s first marriage without Ancestry.

I often joke that while most people might have one or two family trees on this site, I have well over 40.  Every time that I stumbled across a name in my research that I wanted to learn more about, I would make a family tree for this person.  In each case, I was not interested in finding their long-departed ancestors, but rather, learning the names of their children and grandchildren so that I could make contact with them.

Because I managed to obtain a copy of Hazel’s will, I had a list of names of people to whom she had left money,  Each of these people was of great interest to me.

One of the most fascinating was a man to whom she had left a small fortune.  I immediately assumed he must have been her lover, and set out to find out as much about him as I possibly could.

Through creating a family tree, I discovered names of many of his cousins, as well as names of people in his ex-wife’s family.  Through searching via Google and on Facebook, I was able to find and successfully contact six of these connections. Each contact that I made enriched my overall knowledge of this man.

The convoluted tale that emerged about his life and the part that he played in Hazel’s never came fully into focus– but by assembling the various stories from different informants into one narrative, I was able to make a reasonably accurate surmise as to what had happened between him and Hazel– and how their relationship may have contributed to the demise of her marriage to my father.

Without my use of reverse genealogy, I would not have been able to write the book that I did.  A great deal of the information I uncovered came to me through this method.

If you have reached a place in your own genealogical searches where you’ve hit a dead end, by all means, give reverse genealogy a try.

I was always sure that somewhere out there in the world, there were living people who knew the very answers that I was seeking.  All I had to do was find them– and over several years of persistent trial-and-error, I gave my all to those quests.



Whatever happened to Hazel Kramer, Tennessee Williams’ high school sweetheart?

As a young man, growing up in St. Louis, Tom Williams was in love with Hazel Kramer, and hoped for a future with her.  But the two were split up by their families, and sent to different universities.

At the University of Wisconsin, Hazel met and married my father, Terrence McCabe– breaking young Tom Williams’ heart– and then she seems to have disappeared from history.

My book, His Other Life: Searching For My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams fills in the story that was never told.  The book is now out from the University of New Orleans Press.  Have a look!

You can read the first chapter online!


Winner of the University of New Orleans Press 2016 Prize

It took me 40 years after my father’s death to begin to learn the secrets of his first marriage to a woman who had been Tennessee Williams’ high school sweetheart.

But once I began to uncover the truth, a book was born, and that book has now won the University of New Orleans Press’ 2016 Lab Prize, and will be published in June of 2017.

I will also be a panelist at this spring’s annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in New Orleans!

2017 Speakers (More to be confirmed!)

Stay tuned for more announcements to come.


Remembering Summer

As  I write this, the first real snow of 2015 is falling outside my window.  Summer seems very long ago to me now– perhaps even more so this year because so much has changed in my life since those lazy and simpler days.  Back in the hazy heat of August, my sister was still well, still in remission, and was on her way to a new career and a brighter future.

Everything came undone in September when she got the news that her cancer had returned.  She fought very hard– far more bravely than anyone I have ever known– but despite her determination and hope, she passed away on January 3rd, having made it only a few days into this new year.  Losing her has been more heartbreaking than anything I have ever experienced.

She was my closest friend– and more than that, my most faithful supporter and fan.  She was so proud of every success that came my way, and especially of the latest book, WHAT THE NEIGHBORS KNOW, because of the many poems in it that sprang from our shared childhood.  Amazon would have you believe that it is a book about a failed marriage– and it is, in part.  But it is about much more than that.  My sister recognized herself and our story in many of the pages, and loved it for that reason.

All of Part 2 of the book deals with those memories of childhood days.  It opens with a poem called “Going Home” and the lines “At twilight I tug you down my childhood streets./ This is how it would feel if I could take you/inside of my dreams.”  My sister had a very strong bond with our past.  Her life was not an easy one, and she recalled those days as the sweetest and the safest times she ever knew.

One of the poems, “The Air Then,” is directly about that simpler time, when the air “was more amber and there was hickory in it,” when “pianos played from the open windows and insect wings beat/in our hair.”  Nothing that came after those days was ever quite the same.  Something unnameable, ineffable, was gone forever.

In celebration of the one-year anniversary of this book– (it was released in February of 2014)– I am re-posting this interview that I did with the poet J.P. Dancing Bear on his San Francisco-based radio program, “Out Of Our Minds.”  In the interview, I talk about the poems in the book and read from them.

My sister was so thrilled when the podcast went live and she could listen in to all I had to say on that hot August night– back before our lives changed forever.

This is for Terri– and for you, too, if you missed it.


New Nonfiction! My Father, His First Wife and Tennessee Williams

When I first launched this website, I thought that titling it “Melanie McCabe- Poet” was ideal.  All of my work at that time had been confined to poetry, and I had no plans to write anything else.

But everything changed in May of 2013.

I have known ever since my father died when I was 16 that he had been married to another woman before he married my mother.  And I knew that this woman had been Tennessee Williams’ girlfriend when the two of them were growing up together in St. Louis.

It was a tantalizing bit of information that I savored and would share with my students when we would begin reading A Streetcar Named Desire in class.  But I knew very little else– about this woman, about Williams, or about the nearly fifteen years my father had spent in this first marriage.

But that day in May, a friend asked casually if I also knew that Williams had written a play late in his life in which there was a character named after my father — Terrence McCabe.   I had not known– and I was intrigued.  So intrigued that I set out on a quest to learn more– and what I have learned since that day has gone far beyond that one play to include a far-reaching investigation into my father’s “other life” and what actually occurred between him, his first wife, and Tom Williams.

I am now more than two-thirds of the way into a book on this topic– a book I never anticipated writing.  And I am very pleased to announce here that the first chapter of this book has now been published as an essay in the current issue of SHENANDOAH.

Please click below to read the essay!

Now you can look inside!

Holden Caulfield did it.   So did Jimmy Stewart’s character in “Rear Window.”   I do it.  I’ll bet you’ve done it, too.

            When my sophomores read Catcher in the Rye, they sometimes express disapproval when Holden Caulfield stares a long while out of his hotel window at all the strange goings-on in the windows across from him.  “Weird,” they say.  “Creepy.”

            “Really?” I ask.  “So if you glanced out of your hotel room as Holden did and spied a man trying on women’s clothing and a couple spitting water at each other, you’d be able to turn away and continue unpacking your suitcase?  You’re finer folks than I am.  I’d be riveted.”

            In Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” Jimmy Stewart plays a character stuck in a wheelchair because of a broken leg.  Bored out of his mind, he takes to spying on his neighbors in the apartment building across the courtyard.  And he gets really serious about it, too—employing binoculars and later, a telescopic camera lens.

           What motivates them both?  Holden is feeling alone and blue, once again kicked out of another prep school, afraid to go home to face his parents’ disappointment and anger.  He feels cut off from others, and yet incapable of reaching out to anyone.  Why would the bizarre eccentricities of strangers hold his interest?   Is there a kind of comfort for him in discovering others with secrets to hide, who also do not fit neatly into acceptable society?

            Stewart’s character is bored and lonely.  He is used to a fast-paced life as a photographer, always on the go.  Unable to go out into the world as he normally does, to socialize and be entertained, he looks for something to fill the emptiness.  He has no TV to watch; it is many decades before the internet.  He looks out that window for the same reason we now scroll through Facebook—to divert himself from his solitude, to remind himself that he is not entirely alone.

            I haven’t actively spied on anyone since I was a child.  And I am generally way too busy to be bored.  But I do love to take long walks at night through my suburban neighborhood, and I confess that when a house is lit up and the curtains open, it is hard not to look inside, to wonder about the lives that are being lived inside those walls.

            I think we all have a fascination with other people.  Not only with celebrities living their big-splash lives, played out for us on the web and in the headlines, but also with the quiet, ordinary folks we work beside and live next-door to.  Are they like us?  Do they love what we love?  Do they also have secrets, sorrows and fears they try to keep hidden?

            This curiosity was one of the impulses behind my new book of poems, What The Neighbors Know.  The book is now available on Amazon, and the feature “Look Inside the Book” has just been enabled, making readable the two opening poems!

          “Opened Houses” deals with many of the ideas I have described above.  And “This House” explores the speaker’s mixed feelings about a home that must soon be sold.  In the first poem, the speaker is on the outside, looking in at the lives of others.  And in the second, it is the reader who looks in on the secret world the speaker inhabits.

           Hope you will take a minute to check the poems out!  Click on What The Neighbors Know above to find the book on Amazon.



The Next Big Thing

I was intrigued when poet Cynthia Atkins approached me about being one of her tagged writers for “The Next Big Thing,” a self-interview series.  I liked the idea of being able to say something more about my book than was being conveyed on Amazon or on my publisher’s website.  I also liked the idea of writers helping each other to promote their work.

It entailed me having to quickly put together a blog so I could make this post, and that resulted in a fair amount of hand-wringing, as I am generally clueless about all things technological.  My thanks to Keith Reeves for his help in making this blog a fast, functional and attractive reality.

And my thanks to Cynthia, for tagging me.  You can read her post about her book, In The Event of Full Disclosure, at

1. What is the working title of your book?

History of the Body.  And this is the actual title.  The book came out in September.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

A good friend pointed out to me one day that many of the poems I was writing focused in some way on the idea of the body—as it is inhabited by us in childhood, as an adolescent, as we grow older, and as we experience desire, love, children of our own, illness, aging.  I was looking for a way to take poems I already had and to add to them to make a cohesive manuscript.  So I began writing new work with this larger idea in mind.

At that time, I was also struggling with the loss of a relationship with someone who meant a great deal to me, and with whom I had been close for decades.  The book also traces the experience of that loss.

3. What genre does your book fall under?


4. What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

The speaker of the poems appears at different ages—as a child, a teenager, a young woman, in middle age.  It wouldn’t be a role any one actress could play.

The idea of a film made from a book of poetry is both hilarious and captivating to me.  In my wildest dreams, I’d like to have Uma Thurman, with her Pulp Fiction hairstyle.  Unfortunately, though, I think Shelley Duvall might be a more apt choice.  Maybe Anjelica Huston, when she was a bit younger.

But there is also a child in these poems.  There is a young woman, as well.  There are mothers and daughters.  And the story is not a chronological one.  There are jumps back and forth in time.  Whoever was tasked with developing it for the screen would have to make some creative choices for it to work.

5. What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

(Hmm—this will have to be one long sentence, I think…)

We live inside of our bodies, and though they are only vessels, and not who we truly are, they are the only means available to us to allow us to experience the physical world, to be seen by others, to be loved—and so, the body serves us, but we are also at the mercy of the body’s needs, desires, and ultimately, its decline.

6. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

About half the poems in the book were once part of a different manuscript—one that I sent out about five years ago.  Once I began thinking of the book as centered around this idea of the body as the vehicle through which we experience our lives and come to know the world, I began adding poems.  The shaping and reshaping of the final book took a couple of years, before I was really satisfied with what I had.

7. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I have always loved writing.  Going through George Mason University’s MFA program helped me to discipline that love, and after I put together my thesis, I kept reworking it, and tinkering and changing, until finally I had the book that is now available.

I was also greatly inspired by both my father, who was a writer, and by the poets I came to know at Mason.

Although not purely autobiographical, many of the poems in the book welled up in me from powerful and life-altering events– the loss of love; my relationship with my daughters; a struggle with illness; the impending death of my mother.  These were poems that I couldn’t not write.  Whether or not a book ever came from them, I was compelled to convey these ideas into words.

8. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Well, I hope the poems themselves will do that.  They cover quite a range.

There are poems about the awakening of desire in a young girl—two that come to mind are “In Bed With Rhett Butler” and “Paperboy,” a poem that appeared in Best New Poets 2010.   There are poems about being both a mother and a daughter, about growing older…

There are poems that deal with loss, even heartbreak, and yet, the poems often have an element of humor to them.  At a recent reading, someone in the audience raised her hand and told me she really admired my sense of humor, and this pleased me a lot.  Given that the subject matter of these poems has the potential to be very heavy, even sad, I was glad to hear that this was balanced by a kind of wry observation of the world.  I reference all kinds of popular culture from my years growing up—Gladys Knight & the Pips, Gilligan’s Island, film noir, Alfred Hitchcock.  People respond to these references.  They recognize the allusions, smile and remember; it establishes a connection.

The cover art is gorgeous, too!  My daughter, Taryn Riley, painted it, specifically for my book.  This makes the book all the more precious to me.  I enjoyed the collaborating that we did on what the cover image should be– and why.   We also did a preliminary photo shoot at Dumbarton Oaks Gardens in D.C., to get the exact composition I wanted.  Gardens, trees, the natural world, are significant in many of these poems.  The American Beech that appears in the cover art is a favorite of mine, and some of the poems in the book were actually composed beneath it,

9. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

History of the Body was published by David Robert Books in September of 2012.

10. My tagged writers for next Wednesday (2/13) THE NEXT BIG THING:

Lorene Delany-Ullman:  Camouflage for the Neighborhood, Firewheel Editions, 2013–ullman

Susan Laughter Meyers: My Dear, Dear Stagger Grass, Cider Press Review, Fall, 2013

Melissa Tuckey, Tenuous Chapel,  ABZ Press, May, 2013