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.


Kathleen Pooler said...


This is a great post on a core issue for memoir writers,"airing the truth" I think we have to initially just get it all on paper then work on the details,i.e do we change names? what do we keep in? Linda Joy Myers new book The Power of Memoir addresses this very topic. There are lots of great resources through her organization as well (The National Association of Memoir Writers You bring up some very good questions.

Kathy Pooler

Ruth Zaryski Jackson said...

Hi Kathy,
Thanks for your comments and suggestions. I'm looking forward to reading Linda Joy Myer's new book.

Mary said...

You've hit the nail on the head with this analysis of family secrets. No family gets through unscathed. But what to reveal? Sensitivity is the key word. If you hint (foreshadow) the secret as backstory, the reader will get the idea. A feather, instead of a hammer.


Ruth Zaryski Jackson said...

Good advice for the memoir writer, Mary. Thanks for your comments.