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?


Mary said...

This issue never goes away. How far can we take it? Last weekend I learned of a minor, but notable issue that occurred in my family, that I won't write about because it didn't affect my branch. Endless threads.

Ruth Zaryski Jackson said...

i haven't finished with my thoughts on this subject. It is fascinating to unravel the threads and see where they lead. Thanks for checking in.