By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Lisa Maddox, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst, has big plans to give ancestry.com a run for its money.
With a passion for genealogy and a background in intel, Maddox established family history business Narratio Vitae about a year ago.
Narratio Vitae is Latin for “life story.” A one-woman operation, Maddox builds the life stories of her clients and their ancestors, often starting with only snippets of unverified and sometimes inaccurate information.
Unlike ancestry.com and other popular genealogy sites, Maddox goes beyond names and dates to create dynamic, engaging family histories.
“You have people that have their photo albums and their scrapbooks, and then you’ve got the ancestry.com people that love the research and are digging into the details,” Maddox said. “My services can kind of bring those things together and complete the loop in a way.”
Maddox packages her final product as a private website that clients can share with their families. Each family history is unique, composed of a collection of timelines, family trees and text. Maddox writes the narratives herself, focusing on whatever ancestors or time periods her clients request. With the website format, Maddox is able to create a multi-media history with photos, newspaper clips, audio clips and hyperlinks.
“Most people who say they’re going to do genealogy for you build you the tree, but that to me is where Lisa starts,” Maddox’s father-in-law, David Maddox, said. “She builds the tree, but [she adds] the stories, the insights, the understanding of your family that’s related to that tree, and I think she does a great job doing that.”
Before launching Narratio Vitae, Lisa Maddox spent about 15 years in the intelligence world, seven at the CIA and the remaining divided between the U.S. Department of State, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Maddox spent most of her intel career working in counterterrorism, motivated after witnessing the Sept. 11, 2001 attack against the Pentagon during her first week of graduate studies at Georgetown University.
“At [the] CIA, I was an analyst and an analytical manager there for all those years, working on a variety of issues, but it was kind of the skills that I gained there, just the research, the writing, argumentation, identifying leads and going after them, always verifying information, attention to sourcing, detail, pulling together tons of data into a concise story … those skills, I’ve actually been able to apply to this new business,” Maddox said.
Maddox began working on Narratio Vitae before she left government. She was inspired, she said, by her family.
“I have two daughters that are eight and nine, and after having them, your perspective kind of changes,” Maddox said. “I started to really think about legacy and caring about family and them knowing my story and knowing my family story and my husband’s family story and making sure that that wasn’t lost on them.”
Maddox was also inspired by her mother and grandfather, both of whom had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“Firsthand, watching them lose their memories – and when you have those questions, they can’t answer them anymore – had a big impact,” Maddox said.
Since she began Narratio Vitae about a year ago, Maddox said she’s had between 15 and 20 clients. Each project is different, and Maddox works with her clients to determine exactly what they want to find out.
“We’ll scope a project with a client and it’s all dependent on what kind of information is out there,” Maddox said. “… I don’t need much to start usually, so I need to understand what the client wants. Do they really want to learn about just their father’s side? Do they want a broad brush of both sides of the family? And I’ll typically go back three generations, but if I find an interesting story – and I usually do; every family has one buried – my goal is to really dig it up.”
Maddox has traced families back to Plymouth Colony, George Washington and the founders of the U.S. Navy. Taking her clients’ requests and initial information, Maddox uses books, search databases, immigration lists and old newspaper articles to fill in the gaps. She’s also tracked down and interviewed some of the family members to add a personal touch.
“I had a client come to me and go, ‘So [my] grandfather’s name was John Jones, [my] great grandfather’s name was John Jones. They’re from Ireland. Here’s a couple birthdates.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, are you serious?’ But I found it. … I think because of my former intel and targeting work I kind of have good techniques to suss out information and figure out the story,” Maddox said.
Maddox said she makes a special effort to include details and family stories that are left out of other genealogy services.
“I don’t just capture their huge accomplishments,” Maddox said. “Like, what was their family life like? And the women are often forgotten in genealogy, so I make an extra point of researching who the wives were and what they went through and where they came from, and if I find something interesting up their family line, you betcha I’m going to go research it and pull it out.”
Andy Million, a client who won Maddox’s services at an auction, had Maddox focus on his family’s ties to wars.
“I specifically asked her to focus on the big war events: War of 1812, Revolutionary War, Civil War,” Million said. “A lot of my ancestors, there’s some really neat stuff. I have ancestors that go back to the Colony of Virginia. … It’s really kind of a crapshoot how lucky you get with these archives, what you can find, [but] she provided a lot more detail than I thought she would.”
Million said the website prompted discussion in his family.
“It started the ball rolling for some of my other family members of what they could find,” Million said. “… Eventually we’re going to probably use her services to go a little deeper and find some of these characters in my family tree.”
Another one of Maddox’s clients, Mary Ann Meigs, hired Maddox because of a longtime fascination with one of her husband’s ancestors. Maddox tracked down the relative, then traced that person’s story to present day.
“It was just a wonderful thing that she created,” Meigs said. “I look forward to getting other family members involved and adding pictures to it because everyone has a little bit of information, and they have letters and pictures, and it’s kind of spread across the U.S. It’d be nice to get it in one website.”
Because Maddox packages the histories on websites, the narrative doesn’t end when she delivers a final product to her clients, and families are able to edit and add to their sites over time.
“It’s a blog, so you expect family members to keep the conversation going,” Maddox said. “They can add to it, which is where that scrapbook might have ended. So, as stories of the grandchildren come up and you want to preserve them as part of the family story and the legacy, you can just add to them. It’s very easy to do, so it promotes the discussion basically, which is the exciting thing about genealogy.”
Still in the early stages of the business, Maddox spends two to three weeks on each project, doing everything from client consultations and website design to research and writing. Maddox said once she gets Narratio Vitae off the ground, she hopes to expand.
“I am, at this point, pretty much a one-person shop, and I’d love to scale up if I get enough clientele,” Maddox said. “I’d love to hire researchers and kind of build this out because I do think it’s a really cool and viable idea.”
While some questioned Maddox’s decision to leave a successful intel career and start her own business, Maddox said she’s proud of what she’s begun.
“I love how it’s made people excited about their family histories and sparked those discussions, and I’ve seen it bring together family,” Maddox said. “It’s really gratifying and cool to be able to do that.”
To learn more about Narratio Vitae, visit narratiovitae.com.
Correction: The print version of this article incorrectly identified Andy Million. The Times regrets the error.