Tuesday, April 9, 2013

One Family Value Needs to Go - Keeping Secrets

Whether it's the family we grew up in or the families we form as adults, under all the stability, commitment, communication, and trivia of daily life lurks the question of information control:  Who gets to know what and when.  We have some mental laundry bins to help sort bits of information, bins with names like "privacy," "need to know," "never to be mentioned even inside the family," and "age-appropriate."  Stuff gets put in those bins with little thought about the consequences, what happens later.  Perhaps we assume it will all come out in the wash, like stains on the laundry.

The purpose of this post is to drag the family secrets subject out of the laundry room and onto the internet, and to suggest that not only do we need to re-assess what secrets we keep within and without the family, but whether secrecy serves any reasonable purpose at all in the current century.  Is it even possible to keep a secret?

Wikipedia defines "Family Secrets" like this:
A family secret is a secret kept within a family. Most families have secrets, but the kind and importance vary. Family secrets can be shared by the whole family, by some family members or kept by an individual member of the family.
The secret can relate to taboo topics, rule violations or just conventional secrets. Issues like homosexuality, adultery, divorce, mental health, crime, substance abuse, physical or psychological abuse, human sexual behavior, premarital pregnancy or cohabitation, alcoholism, or deviance. More simple secrets may be personality conflicts, death, religion, academic performance and physical health problems.[1]
Any topic that a family member thinks may cause anxiety may become a family secret. Family members often see keeping the secrets as important to keeping the family working, but over time the secrets can increase the anxiety in the family.[2] The confidentiality of family secrets revealed by a patient is a common ethical dilemma for counselors and therapists.
WNL:  The view here at WNL is that imagining there is such a thing as a family secret, some fact or occurrence that can be blotted out across generations, is a fantasy.  The reality is that these facts (like dad not being the one who contributed half the genes to some of the kids) or events (molestation, jail time, financial ruin among many others) DO come out, and those who are not in on the withholding of information are more relieved than shocked to know the truth, and incredibly angry at the information withholders for lying to them.

MORE:  "Family Secrets" by Deborah Cohen - If you'd like to know more about Victorian-into-modern secret keeping, with a continuing discussion of the pull between privacy and secrecy, this ground-breaking book is worth reading. (Follow the link to an intriguing review by Kathryn Hughes at UK's Guardian website.)  Here are Hughes' concluding remarks:
What marks out Family Secrets as an important book is not so much its breadth – there are also chapters on race, divorce and family therapy – as its depth. Each chapter has a painstaking architecture of original sources, Cohen having spent years working through the archives of institutions including the Tavistock Clinic and the Edinburgh Marriage Guidance Centre. The result is a clear-sighted investigation into what our forebears felt was private, and what they kept secret – and, most importantly, the difference between the two.
"Keep Grandma Upstairs: Jackie Kennedy’s Family Secrets & The Lie Her Mother Told" by pop culture writer Carl Anthony.  Nothing that will knock your socks off, but a beautifully researched account of how a family used secrets and misdirection to advance the interests of each generation.  She's famous, but I'll bet your family did similar things with their history.

From the famous to the down-home version, blogger Toxic Mom Tool Kit writes a post many can identify with about crazy stuff she was told as a child and some tips on how to look back and evaluate it all as an adult.  She makes a good point when she says "When we don’t go back and review the things we were told about ourselves as children with our adult brains we are risking accepting false information that can limit our whole lives."

And if you are thinking of using the internet to figure out your family tree, here are some tips about the conventions our ancestors employed to show/hide bigamy, incest, and illegitimacy when they kept property, tax, and birth records.  Are you sure you want to go there?

(top, "Snails," art by Lyn Southworth)

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