More on Family Secrets

Family secrets can be the juice of your story whether you are a writer of fiction or memoir. Family secrets can mould character, develop plot, or create a crisis in your story. The power of trying to suppress the secret can create a tension any writer would die for. Discovery of the secret can be the climax if you’ve structured your book as a search or a mystery.

Conflicts can arise between those who want to maintain the status quo and those who want to reveal the truth. Characters may pay the price for suppressing the secret and suffer health or mental health problems. Sometimes the whole family pays the price. Dysfunction is rampant. Why do some characters suffer more than others? Is the price greater for those that suppress the secret or those that want to expose it? Is the family motto "if you don’t think about it, it will go away” better than “the truth will set you free”?

The power of a secret is in its repression. When a secret is suppressed, chronic anxiety, family conflict, personality problems or a need for reinvention of the self can result. When the truth is told, your characters can move on and live their lives, free of the powerful force that had been running them. The emotional charge has been lifted. The family can be viewed by a character as if on a stage, and with about as much emotional investment as if a member of the audience.

But what is an author to do if the family secret is true and you are writing a memoir, not a mystery or a novel? What if your ancestor really was an ogre who abused the family? What if there are still living family members who bear the scars of the abuse? In this case, the answers are not so clear. In my memoir and family story I will have to keep the focus on myself and my story. I need to be sensitive to others’ feelings and keep the backstory where it belongs, in the background.

A Family Secret

A family theme may be a family secret, but a family secret is always a family theme. There are no secrets in families, even if nobody talks openly about it. A child learns to collude with norms set up by parents to keep and perpetuate a secret. Often the secret continues because of a perceived sense of shame and a need to protect children and force compliance to a standard set by a previous generation.

For example, if your grandfather was a horse thief and went to jail, your parents would likely have known about it; but they never speak of it to you and your siblings. That part of your history is a blank. When you ask questions: "What was Grandpa doing in 1930?", you get a vague response: "Oh, I guess he was farming." But something nags at you. You’re at the age of wanting to know about your roots. You want the details of your family history. Something doesn’t make sense.

So you begin a quest to find the answers. You delve into genealogy. You interview old-timers in the family. You talk to older cousins. Some stonewall you and some are willing to talk. In their branch of the family this story may not have been such a secret. You push on and get the records. There it is in black and white.

You go to your parents if they are still around and ask about it. "Why did you never tell us?" Suddenly they’re talking freely. "You never asked. We were trying to protect you. We wanted you to not carry this stain. We wanted the best for you." You learn the details of the family secret at last.

If you’re working on a memoir, this secret can present a problem. Do you break the rules and write about it publicly? Do you just allude to it? Do you consider fictionalizing your story from memoir to free yourself up, even though readers in the family would recognize the details?

This is the dilemma for the memoir writer: to tell the truth and perhaps alienate family? Fictionalize and still alienate some? Omit the secret, even though it’s the driving force in your family dynamics? Or write about it in a sensitive way, taking into account all points of view and the mores of the times?

This is what Shandi Mitchell did in her novel UNDER THIS UNBROKEN SKY where she fictionalized the heartbreaking story of her grandfather’s life but told the truth of what happened to him. I’m inclined to follow her lead.

What about you and your family secrets? How will you handle them?

A Family Theme

I’ve been thinking about family themes since reading an article called “A Family Theme, a Family Secret” by K.L.Cook that appeared in Glimmer Train in 2008.

Family themes. Family legacies. Family myths, stories and secrets. Hot topics for exploration in a memoir. Sometimes we get different messages from each side of the family.

I try to unravel the threads first from my mother’s side. Her legacies came to us over the years more by example than verbally.

1. Work hard
2. Take care of the men and children
3. Go to school: enjoy learning
4. Look on the bright side
5. Always offer a visitor a cup of tea
6. Listen to people and try to understand them
7. Act like a lady
8. Set a good example (for younger siblings, friends’ children, cousins)
9. Save your money in secure term investments

Like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average”, in my mother’s family, “women were strong”, the men were good–looking, but mostly “dreamers” in some way. Women were the glue that kept the family together. Men tried, some harder than others, but often stumbled. Women kept going, supported each other, their children and their husbands; some, only until they no longer could, others for the duration.

“We were poor, but smart and good-looking” was another theme that we heard. The implication was that you could make something of your life in spite of your humble roots. No excuses were permitted. The riches of Canada could be yours if you worked hard. After all, wasn’t that why our ancestors left their homeland?

On Dad’s side the picture was dimmer. His parents remained in his village in Ukraine after he emigrated to Canada at the age of 16. He remembered his mother as “perfect” and his father an “autocrat” he hardly knew, and didn’t get along with. It was hard to detect a theme amongst the small number of cousins I met when growing up here in Ontario.

Dad’s family legacy is revealed in his advice to us:

1. Go to school. Get an education.
2. Work hard
3. Be loyal and take care of your family (including neighbours and people from your village)
4. Tell the truth, even if it hurts
5. You’ll have to live with the choices you make
6. Pick your friends carefully
7. Help your mother.
8. Exercise your freedom and vote. (or “wote” as he would say with his accent)
9. Drink in moderation
10. Shovel the walk
11. Plant a garden and fruit trees
12. Look after your roses
13. Don’t skimp on quality: shoes, clothes or furniture

These themes were the underpinnings of our lives when we were growing up and contributed to our values, emotional lives, dreams and anxieties. I’ll continue with this “theme” in the next post.

What were the predominant themes in your family?