Exploring ancestry can be a difficult experience, especially if the researcher’s family history is riddled with hardships and pain. Actress and comedian Rosie O’Donnell’s genealogical journey on season two of NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” is no exception.
Her mother died of breast cancer when O’Donnell was still a child. After her death, the family never really spoke of her mother again, resulting in emotional pain and disharmony between O’Donnell’s siblings. This led O’Donnell to focus on her mother’s side of the family while filming “WDYTYA?” because she didn’t know much about them.
She enlisted her brother Ed, the one sibling with whom O’Donnell is in contact, to help search for her family history. The experience of “WDYTYA?” was not only therapeutic and healed their relationship, but also gave her insight into her own life. “It definitely changed the view of my own history, my own childhood, and it also helped explain to my children where their grandmother was from and what she was about,” O’Donnell said. “They have never met her, because she died when I was 10, and they often ask questions about her. It was nice to be able to fill in some of those blanks.”
The information found in records about her mother is somewhat limited. O’Donnell really wants to know more about her adult life, so she is working with playwright Dick Scanlan to produce a one woman show about her. To find out more about her, Scanlan tracked down a few of O’Donnell’s mother’s friends and her classmates at Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School. “I’ve been able to sit down and talk with some of them and that’s been really interesting see my mother through adult eyes as opposed to a child’s eyes,” O’Donnell said.
With the aid of professional genealogists, O’Donnell utilized photographs, work records, censuses, baptismal certificates and newspaper articles in her research. “It was a pretty intensive research project, and I was very impressed with the staff [at Ancestry.com] and what they were able to find—things that I couldn’t believe that they found,” O’Donnell said. “It was pretty intense and pretty surprising for me to know that many details still exist.”
On the show, O’Donnell was also able to explore her Irish heritage. She compared her Irish ancestors living conditions to that of Frank McCourt’s in his memoir Angela’s Ashes. The extreme poverty and hardships endured by her family shocked O’Donnell, changing the view of her own history and completely reframing her life.
“I didn’t know the history of my family and the struggles that brought them to the United States and what they had to endure,” O’Donnell said. “You take your own reality and put the frame around it as the most difficult thing that anyone can survive, when you come to find out that your life is pretty blessed comparatively.”
O’Donnell’s episode of “WDYTYA” airs Feb. 18, at 8 p.m. EST on NBC. Check the Genealogy Insider blog for a brief recap of each episode, and post a comment to be entered to win in our Discover Who You Are Sweepstakes!