After writing these posts I have been asked: “What sorts of things can become a family secret?” The short answer is: anything someone doesn’t want to talk about openly. Certainly there are always private concerns about your family you don’t share with your neighbours or friends. I’m not talking about this type of privacy: something that’s no one's business. But these are not secrets within the family. Everyone knows that old Uncle Harry is like that, whatever “that” is.
I’m talking about secrets that are hidden from others in the family because someone felt shame and thought it best not to talk openly about it. These secrets are then perpetuated down the generations.
What is considered a secret can vary by family, by culture, by ethnicity and by time. These secrets may be health issues e.g. epilepsy or mental retardation which wasn’t widely understood or accepted in the 19th and early 20th century. Or they could be some form of mental illness like schizophrenia or a bi-polar disorder which also wasn’t understood or accepted. Having a sick family member was perceived as a stain on the family and kept hidden.
Other secrets might be accidents or a death of a child if the circumstances were dodgy and the family felt guilty or responsible. Suicides were rarely mentioned but a trail to the truth can be found when Catholics or Greek Catholics were not buried in their own churchyards. Dementia wasn’t accepted by some families. Stories of family addictions, violence, abandonment, sexual abuse or incest were also rarely passed down or, if so, told in a way that diluted or denied any wrongdoing. Illegitimate children, adoption or raising someone else’s child might be kept hidden. Sexual philandering or divorce might be a secret. True sexual orientation might be denied and never discussed.
Sometimes certain hardships e.g. immigration and poverty were considered noble and some families talked about overcoming their humble beginnings. Other immigrants denied their roots and ethnicities, changing or Anglicizing their names when they moved to cities or needed a job.
Family proclivities for thievery or other illegal activities might become a family secret. Jail records or time unaccounted for may have been glossed over in the family story. A successful family might deny the origins of their financial gains during prohibition.
After writing this post, I found a comprehensive piece by Dr. Allan Schwartz which explores Family Secrets. John Bradshaw has also written a book called: FAMILY SECRETS: THE PATH TO SELF-ACCEPTANCE AND REUNION.
I’m sure there are many more kinds of family secrets. Do you have any to add?