Spoiler alert! This post reveals details about the Brooke Shields episode of “Who Do You think You Are?” so don’t watch if you haven’t seen the episode and you want to be surprised.
The theme tonight: how genealogy can help you understand—and forgive—your ancestors, and how it can give you a sense of belonging.
Tonight I sat back on the couch and flipped open the laptop in preparation for learning about Brooke Shields family history. At the beginning (after the annoyingly long series promo), Shields talks about her childhood: Modeling by 11 months old, then acting in movies. (Read more about her career on the “Who Do You Think You Are?” website.) Her parents, who divorced by the time Shields was 5 months old, she says, “were the antithesis of one another.” She describes her dad as aristocracy and mom as working class. “I never knew where I belonged,” she says.
She heads to Newark, NJ, where she was born but about which she has no early memories. Shields doesn’t know anything about her mom’s parents, other than her grandma’s name, Theresa Dollinger, and the fact she had a sister.
“I think my grandmother was horrible to my mother and I started disliking her at a very young age,” Shields says. How sad.
She meets Michelle Chubenko, a genealogist specializing in New Jersey family history. They search birth certificates on microfilm. They find Theresa’s and learn her mother’s name, Ida. Next, they look for the sister. Excellent strategy.
Surprise! Ida had two other children! Brothers John and Edward were born in 1910 and 1914. John died in infancy. But what happened to Edward?
Shields is eager to find out. “You feel like you’re a detective,” she says, which is exactly what I think so many people like about genealogy.
On a busy street, she meets historian Tom McCabe. He shows her a 1910 image of the same street, where Theresa Dollinger lived as a child.
Chubenko has more vital records to show Shields. Ida, Theresa’s mother, died of uterine cancer when Theresa was 10. Shields realizes her grandmother probably had to be an adult and a “parent” to her younger siblings at a young age.
Another tragedy: Edward died by accidental drowning at age 13—presumably while in Theresa’s care. Chubenko gives Shields an article about the drowning, and she goes to the spot where it happened. Local boys were bathing in the river on a hot day, and Edward couldn’t swim.
Shields’ feelings toward her grandmother have turned to empathy. We’re seeing how understanding your ancestor’s lives can help you forgive them.
Next, we follow Shields to research her father’s family at the New York Historical Society, where genealogist Gary Boyd Roberts has prepared a family tree. Shields’ father died in 2003, and she doesn’t know much about that side, but she believes they were well-off in Italy.
Giovanni Torlinia, her 5th-great-grandfather (I think; could be off by a great or two) who died in 1829. It’s thought Giovanni’s father Marino changed the family name to Torlonia. Shields wants to know what came before, and travels to Rome.
She visits the building where her ancestors had a bank, as a crowd gathers to gawk. Marino Torlonia was a cloth merchant who supplied the invading French, and he opened up the first private bank in Italy with branches in several countries. He became wealthy enough to buy properties, including one near Rome, and Shields tours Villa Torlonia. It’s an opulent palace filled with murals and sculpture.
We’re looking at a record (I didn’t catch what it is) showing Marino Torlonia’s origin in France.
She goes to the region of Augerolles and learns from another expert Marino was actually born in France as Marin Torlonias. An abbott who Marin worked for was exiled and Marin helped him escape to various places in Europe, ending in Rome. They’ve found THE house, a humble stone structure, where the family started. Shields feels a connection—she loves France and was a French literature major in college.
She explores another branch of her dad’s family: Christine Marie, who has the tantalizing word “royale” after her name on a family tree. Shields searches Ancestry.com while on the train (I was beginning to worry the site wouldn’t make an appearance!) and learns Christine was born in the Louvre, which used to be a royal palace.
She meets Charles Mosely, a expert on royal genealogy. He tells Shields she’s related to Henry IV through Christine Marie. In the Saint-Denis cathedral, they visit a chamber storing the hearts of many French kings. Shields climbs onto a shelf and touches the container with Henry IV heart, as Mosely stammers, unsure whether to stop her. Don’t try this at your local museum, kids!
At Versailles, which Louis XIV built, Mosely tells Shields Louis XIV—grandfather of Henry IV—is her first cousin many generations removed. Mosely ticks off a list of other royals Shields is related to. She’s amazed.
“Being able to find your place in the grand scheme of things—there’s something empowering about that. By going on this journey, I feel more complete as a person.” I think even if your roots are a lot more humble and pedestrian than this—more like Shields’ mother’s side, perhaps—you’ll feel empowered when you know the people who came before you.