Every family has secrets – skeletons no one mentions, or mentions only in whispers and half-sentences.
Some families keep their secrets in clean, mold-free, cedar-lined closets, taking them out and dusting them off occasionally, placing them back in their proper order neatly, and closing the door tightly on them.
Other families, however, have so many secrets the closet is stuffed full. They seldom open the rickety door, so the carcasses molder with time, until they are so noxious the door to the closet bursts open unbidden, and anyone standing too close is buried in a pile of musty old toxic bones that submerges them into an abyss of darkness no light can penetrate.
A lot of secrets involve family members. There are those aunts who took the Women’s Lib movement far too seriously, chucking all responsibility – and often clothes – and moved to a commune in the wilderness where they live freely and unfettered by lingerie or expectations. There are sons or daughters who took their Wild West outlaw ancestors’ way of life to heart, and live on the wrong side of the law. Then there are those whose crimes are so awful, so unspeakably sinful, their names have been erased from the family Bible, and no one remembers them – out loud, anyways.
Aside from the colorful ancestors, most family secrets seem to involve birth dates, “love lives,” or medical conditions.
In the past, babies that arrived sooner than nine months after a wedding date were cause for shame and embarrassment. That’s no longer so in most places, but when I was growing up, finding out your grandparents anticipated their honeymoon by a couple of months was a big scandal, and therefore, dates were fudged a little.
In the same manner, a baby that was a few months “early” was commonplace, although I often wondered how those early babies could be so big and healthy if they’d only been in the womb for seven months.
It seems rather amusing these days to look back at that. Since it’s no longer a source of shame, younger folks wonder what’s the big deal? They’ve grown up with special high schools for pregnant girls, day care at the schools, and many have had at least one friend graduate next to them with a huge belly. There’s not the sense of shame their grandparents and great-grandparents felt.
I remember, back in the late 1970s, my friend Cheryl** suddenly stopped coming to school about three-quarters of the way through the year because she was “in the family way” and unmarried. Although she had shared her secret with me, no one else in school knew where she went or what happened to her. I lost touch with her before graduation, and to this day don’t know if she had a boy or girl, if she kept the baby, where she is now, or anything. It’s a hole in my life, but back then, a girl who got pregnant before graduation usually disappeared from school and was never heard from again. Although that sounds slightly gruesome, it just meant she quit school, had the baby, and spent the rest of her life supporting and caring for it. I can’t say the shift to ‘less shame, more acceptance’ is a bad one.
Back in the unenlightened days, if you found out a friend or relative had bizarre sexual tastes, (and I’m using those words the way my elders did, not because that’s how I think), one didn’t speak of them at all. And coming out of the closet – whew. That was fraught with danger – physical as well as mental – because being gay was as bizarre and wrong as it got.
My very best friend through junior and senior high, Rosa**, was always a tomboy – best softball player I’ve ever seen, tough, profane, and loyal. Her Catholic mother (my friend was Mexican) couldn’t understand why she didn’t have a frilly little girl who had lots of boyfriends. Our little gang, though – two boys and two girls, who spent every waking minute together in and out of school – didn’t care about being conventional – and who needed boyfriends and girlfriends when we had each other. To us, Rosa was Rosa: caring, compassionate, and a good friend to have your back when walking through the Mission District at night. I don’t know that I ever thought about her sexual proclivities then – it wasn’t important to me. I just loved her because she was Rosa.
A few years after we graduated, I received a letter from her, in which she told me she was gay and had always had a crush on me. That was hard, since I didn’t reciprocate, but what was harder was the rest of the letter – when she told her mother, Rosa was thrown out of the family, dismissed as if she had never been born. That hurt her far more than my letdown. It hurt me too, and confused me. How can you dis-born a daughter just because she loves differently than you do? To this day, I know families who haven’t accepted that homosexuality is a biological impulse, not demonic life choice.
The other family secret that fills the closets has to do with medical secrets – illnesses both physical and mental, although I’m betting the latter outnumber the former by a lot.
Before we became enlightened beings—or partially enlightened, as the jury is still out on that — mental illnesses were shameful, and families did everything they could to hide the fact – “What will the neighbors think?”
Obviously, the neighbors would believe the family had done something horrible and sinful to have this type of misfortune visited down on them – rather a Biblically medieval way of thinking.
Even now, this way of viewing mental illnesses persists. And this is where I think secrets have no right to be kept.
Since doctors are finding many illnesses, including mental disorders, are genetic, it is irresponsible to keep secrets about mental illness in the family. Imagine the horror you might face when your teenager threatens suicide, and you wonder what you’ve done wrong – only to have your mother admit your older brother, the one we don’t mention, suffered from depression and other mental illnesses before taking his own life. Knowing this little tidbit could have meant the difference between getting the girl treated and losing her to self-destruction. There is no excuse to keep this kind of secret – none.
Physical illnesses suffer the same fate — when my husband’s grandmother died, it was discovered she had suffered from breast cancer several years before Alzheimer’s disease robbed her of her senses. She went through a double mastectomy, chemo, and radiation without telling anyone. When the news filtered out, there were some very angry family members. Since breast cancer seems to be one of those things that curses families over many generations, to keep an incident secret out of shame is selfish. Now, of course, they know and look for it, so maybe it’s no harm, no foul.
Humans live their lives trying to be different people than they really are. We hide our true natures, play games and put on masks, hoping to fool those who look at us. But trying to fool our families, those who love and trust us, and those who come after us, can lead to more disaster than a little shame or embarrassment can cause. Secrets have no place in a family – ever.
And there’s this to remember – that door always opens, even the well-kept one. And it usually opens at the worst possible moment. Personally, I’d rather be the opener than the one buried underneath all the secrets.
** I have chosen to use a pseudonym for people in this article, not because I’ve forgotten them, but because I don’t have their permission to detail their lives before the world.