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Family Secrets: Is There a Skeleton in Your Closet?

As our parents age, and often after they die, all sorts of hidden things come to light

By Lori Tobias

I was 28 when my mother dropped her bombshell. We were cleaning up after lunch one Sunday, and she started talking about the man she’d been married to before my father, who was still very much alive but out of the house.

“I already knew about him, Mom,” I said, assuming she meant her first husband, the father of my oldest sister and brother.
“Not him,” she said. “There was another one.”
I shrugged and feigned indifference so she’d keep talking.
But the next thing she said was like a sucker punch to my solar plexus: “There’s another daughter, too.”
In that moment, everything I thought I knew about my world and my family was turned on its head. Apparently there had been a marriage in between the two I knew about and a child left behind to be raised by her father. Certain relatives, including my oldest brother and sister, knew about it, but no one talked about it, ever.
Once back in my own apartment, I sobbed for hours. It would be years before I could make peace with the fact that my mother, a loving warm woman known for putting her children above all else, had abandoned a daughter who lived barely an hour away and refused to ever see her again.
(MORE: How to Heal a Rift With Your Adult Child)
How Secrets Come to Light
A family secret can erupt at any moment, as mine did. I'll never know why my mother chose to share her revelation when she did, but I'm grateful to her for finally doing so. But plenty of people stumble upon secrets on their own. And rarely do such revelations catch them at a more vulnerable time than when they lose their parents. It's like the genie in the bottle — once released, it can never be pushed back inside. And once out, the personal anguish can be life-altering.
“When a parent dies, their children start going through their things,” says Evan Imber-Black, author of The Secret Life of Families and program director of the marriage and family therapy program at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. “Often they find letters, diaries orother bits of evidence that a parent has been hiding a secret.
“These revelations tend to involve extramarital affairs, sexual abuse, disease, suicide, race, paternity issues or events that happened during wartime,” adds Imber-Black, whose book grew out of her three decades of experience as a family therapist. “But I’m always astounded at the new things people can find to be secretive about.”
My mother later told me she had been forced to give the infant to her husband because he said he’d harm the two older children, both toddlers, if she didn’t. Still, her secret challenged everything I believed about her. Even though I knew she lost her own mother when she was 8 and had been raised by a number of different relatives, how could I call her a “good” mother now? How could I enjoy our closeness knowing another child had been denied a mother?
More Common Than You Might Think
“I’ve heard about secrets emerging right at a funeral or shortly thereafter,” Imber-Black says. “You will hear grown sisters tell each other that their father or stepfather abused them. Often they’ve waited for the person to die to finally talk about it.”
There are no precise numbers — how do you research people who are keeping secrets? Still, the abundance of such revelations suggests they may be the rule rather than the exception.
Doug Block, filmmaker and photographer, was so unsettled by the world of secrets he uncovered upon his mother’s death 11 years ago that he made a documentary: 51 Birch Street. (In short, mere months after his mother died, Block’s father announced he is moving to Florida to live with his former secretary, sending Block on a quest of discovery that revealed a shockingly troubled marriage). 

Block screened the award-winning film all over the world, and after each showing held a Q-and-A session. He discovered that people were less interested in asking than in telling. “People couldn’t wait to share their own experiences, so we created this whole section on called Share Your Story,” he says.
One woman wrote of learning her brother had been switched at birth with another child, another told about her mother’s confession that the man she thought was her father was not, and still another learned that her grandmother killed her grandfather when her mother was an infant.
“Once a secret is out in the open, it’s not just, ‘OK, now we know, let’s move on,’” Imber-Black says. “In fact, that’s when the real work begins: around things like rebuilding trust and trying to understand why in the world someone would have kept that a secret in the first place. Often there is a lot of fear.”
(MORE: My Father Is a Hoarder)
Playing Detective
If you've been troubled by things that don't add up in your family history, before you go digging to uncover secrets, ask yourself three questions:

  • Do you really want to know?
  • Are you prepared for the consequences of what you may discover?
  • If you do learn something, what do you plan to do with that information?

Bear in mind that once you unearth one secret, you might find more secrets just keep coming. “For some families,” Imber-Black says, “it’s just the way they do business."
For many people, the first hints come in relationships or conversations that don’t quite make sense or seem too coincidental. Here’s how to start trying to unravel your own mystery.

  • Talk to family “outliers.” Often friends and distant relatives, like a great aunt, have access to your family but also emotional distance. They may have been privy to secrets or observed enough to draw their own conclusions.
  • Research the records. Visit your county courthouse and ask to see the files on birth and death certificates, marriage licenses and baptism records. These may reveal unknown information about birth parents, previous marriages and divorces or the manner of someone’s death.
  • Check old newspapers. Many people keep clippings of important events. Read these looking for a common thread, personal notations or other suggestions of why the pieces were kept. They may not reveal the whole secret, but they could provide a clue that suggests where to go next.
  • Read diaries and personal letters. Often these are a treasure trove of secrets or additional clues.

Once the Cat Is Out of the Bag
Before you divulge a secret, ask yourself: How is the other person likely to take the news? How might it impact your relationship? Is this something worth revealing — or information that is no one else’s business?
It’s a different matter with secrets that are potentially dangerous, like physical or sexual abuse. In that case, you need to inform the appropriate people to make sure the victim is protected from further abuse and prevent others from being harmed.
Finally, you need to examine your own motivation to tell. “Some people may be looking for support or healing, or to get closer in a relationship,” Imber-Black says. “Or they may be looking to punish someone. It behooves a person to deeply consider this.”
Dealing With My Own Family Secret
After my mother dropped her bombshell, I wrote a letter to my newly discovered half-sister, Yvonne. I was somewhat surprised when she responded warmly, saying that she’d been waiting to hear from me. We met a short time later and have sayed in touch. Her hope was that my mother would eventually agree to meet her, and mine was that I would get to engineer such a reunion. Sadly, it never happened, because Mom died last summer.
The day after her funeral, I took my sister and her daughter to meet the half-sister and aunt they never knew. The meeting was a little awkward at first, but curiosity and affection eventually won out.
It has taken me decades to understand that my mom simply could not face up to what she'd done as a 22-year-old new mother wed to a man who was, from all accounts, a violent drunk. But I’ve also come to believe that in telling me her secret, she was giving Yvonne someone who might care for her in a way she never could.
As for any secrets I may harbor, I’m planning to follow Doug Block’s advice. “It’s funny,” he says. “People always ask me, ‘After 51 Birch Street, do you have any takeaways about marriage and secrets?’ And I just say, ‘Burn your diary.’”
Lori Tobias is a staff writer for The Oregonian covering the Oregon Coast.

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