In 1972, Elaine Wolf was 23 and looking forward to a night out with her husband and 25-year-old cousin when her pleasant evening evaporated.
Forty-two years later, the 65-year-old Wolf can still picture the scene. She was wearing a long-sleeved ivory dress with navy buttons, waiting her turn in the restaurant’s buffet line. Out of nowhere, her cousin said, “I don’t understand your family — all the secrets about your mother. Why can’t we talk about them?
“For starters,” the cousin continued, “just the fact that she was married before and divorced; why doesn’t anybody know that?”
Wolf was stunned. Her mother, a German immigrant, had never said a word about a previous marriage. So how did her cousin know?
Wolf’s cousin had thoughtlessly opened a family secret in the worst possible way.
“I was embarrassed to tell my cousin that I had no idea what she was talking about,” Wolf said, adding that she felt as though a seismic shift had occurred when she discovered that her parents were not who she thought they were.
When she got over her shock, the Northampton, Mass., resident telephoned her parents. Her father answered the phone. “Dad, why didn’t you ever tell us Mom was married before?” she remembered asking him. Her father feigned ignorance. She then told him what her cousin had said and asked if she had any half-sisters or brothers. Her father said, “We don’t talk about that — and don’t be ridiculous. Of course you don’t have any half-siblings.” Her father made it clear that no further conversation was possible.
As it turned out, her mother had kept other secrets. For years, she had maintained that she was four years younger than Wolf’s father when, in fact, she was four years older. The children found out one by one and were sworn to secrecy when they applied for passports as teenagers.
Although Wolf conceded that her three siblings were not bothered by their mother’s truth-bending, to her it was significant. She worried that her parents might have hidden other things as well. And even though she grew up with a mother and father who loved each other, she nonetheless felt betrayed by them.
The desire to keep secrets from other family members or within the family is more common than you might think. Every family has secrets, said Evan Imber-Black, author of The Secret Life of Families: Making Decisions About Secrets, and a marriage and family therapist who has studied secret-keeping in families for more than 20 years. In her book she wrote, “Every secret is like a member of a family, reflecting familiar patterns handed down generation after generation, while simultaneously embodying its own unique soul.”
Often, the secrets we keep are about what embarrasses us, could lead to our being ridiculed or excluded or are just too painful for us to confront: a marital failure, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, an illness such as cancer, a sexual matter or even ongoing pain from a long ago event such as the Holocaust.
Of course, not all secrets cause problems. In an interview, Imber-Black pointed out that there is an upside to keeping some secrets such as the surprise party planned for a family member. Moreover, adolescents need to keep some aspects of their lives hidden from their parents. She said, “I worry about kids that can’t keep secrets because of too much closeness” to their parents. “To find out who you are, you need to step away a bit and keep some things you are trying to yourself or to your friends — and as long as they’re not dangerous, that’s a good thing.”
She pointed out that each secret, and the circumstances that surround it, needs to be evaluated on its own. “Surely, dealing with secrets is the high-wire act in the circus of life,” Imber-Black observed.
In helping her clients, Doris Jeanette, of the Center for New Psychology in Philadelphia, knows firsthand the isolation and distance that secret-keeping can have on families. She said that by closing the door, as Wolf’s parents had done, it kept their children at a distance — a situation in which everyone loses.
However, some secrets are best left unspoken. Lori Kanat Edelson, a clinical social worker and marriage and family therapist in Troy, Mich., recalled the intractable position of one young Orthodox woman who spent nearly two years in therapy with her more than a decade ago. The mother of two had become attracted to another woman in the Orthodox community. Their friendship graduated from attending playgroup together to having a sexual relationship. Edelson’s client began withdrawing from her husband, who resented the time his wife was spending with her friend. Their marriage grew tense but neither considered divorce an option. In the end, the woman left therapy and, as far as Edelson knows, stayed in the marriage. She chose to live a lie within the Orthodox community rather than face the ostracism she would have experienced for her forbidden attraction.
“When you have to fit in, with little wiggle room for diversity or individuality, there is greater likelihood secrecy will occur and cause tremendous pain for members of the community,” Edelson said.
She added, “Not every story has a happy ending; not every therapy, in all good conscience, encourages people to be as open as they possibly can be. Repercussions can include being disowned, ostracized, excommunicated and parted from children. It’s a real dilemma.”
Even so, Edelson said, “in my field, I have seen how revealing secrets and opening up and talking about events people were ashamed or embarrassed by or victimized by is typically a healthy experience.”
Ruthy Kaiser, senior staff therapist at the Council for Relationships in Bryn Mawr, recalled one couple who came in for counseling after 30 years of marriage. He was a professional whose business began to fail. Ashamed to tell his wife that he could no longer provide for her as he had in the past, he began to gamble, losing the couple’s retirement money. Despite what had happened, the couple still loved each other. They were willing to work with Kaiser on the husband’s shame issues and to repair their breach of trust. The couple has now reconciled.
What advice do therapists have for people who suspect there are family secrets; for those who are contemplating opening a secret; or even for parents who want to make sure that secrecy never takes hold in their families?
Is There a Family Secret?
Is it OK to broach the topic of a suspected family secret? Imber-Black encourages doing so. She said, “What’s the worst that can happen? We have to respect that some things just may be too painful to talk about, but by not asking, we may eliminate the opportunity to talk when the person is ready. The worst thing that can happen is the person will say they don’t want to talk about it.”
Suppose You Are the One With the Secret
“As a psychologist, I know that the more secrets I can get my clients to reveal, the faster they will relax, the better they will feel and the stronger they will get,” said Jeanette of the Center for New Psychology. “We can’t be self-confident, mentally secure and healthy if we are keeping secrets.”
What people may not think about, she added, is that it takes a great deal of energy to keep a secret hidden. And secrets have a way of isolating those who keep them.
Often, though, when people think about telling their secrets they focus more on the potential risks and disasters that could occur as the result of telling and less about the benefits of unburdening themselves, said Imber-Black. Instead, she wishes they would think: “If I open this, there will be some work for a while — and my family may be rocked for a while — but at the end of the day, I will be in a better situation with people I care about.”
Once the decision is made to let go of a secret, care needs to be taken with whom the secret is confided. “We need to share our secrets only with those who are emotionally safe and will not judge us,” Jeanette said.
So before a secret is shared with a family member who is likely to be judgmental, it should first be broached with a caring friend, a therapist and/or a rabbi. That way, the person can gradually prepare to deal with the consequences of telling the truth to the person that matters most.
How Parents Can Encourage Openness
The most important thing parents can do is to not keep secrets themselves and to create a safe, loving, supportive family atmosphere. For example, Kaiser of the Center for Relationships told her children that they could tell her anything without being ridiculed, punished, judged or rejected.
Wolf shares a similar message when she gives talks about her young adult novel, Camp: Every Secret Has a Price. Wolf found her own closure by writing the book, which is about a young girl with a German immigrant mother who kept her own secrets after fleeing the Nazis. As an unexpected bonus, Wolf found that second-generation Holocaust survivors embraced both her and her book. Previously, she had not self-identified as a second-generation Holocaust survivor because her parents never talked about the war. But now, she said, “I feel as if I am so much more grounded, know who I am and understand myself better.” o
Gail Snyder writes from Chalfont and is a frequent contributor to Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.