Secrets are as synonymous with families as happiness, the murky flipside of everything that’s supposed to keep us closeby Hephzibah Anderson / November 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
As a story-loving child more likely to be found playing detectives than the now-suspect doctors and nurses, I yearned for a family secret. My parents had both been raised with them: in my mother’s case, her dad’s Jewishness was kept hidden from her; in my father’s, paternity remained an unsolved mystery (Pétainist French Catholic priest or local milkman?).
But I wanted my own, preferably one that, hewing to the family theme, permitted a new and improved pa to step into the frame. Nowadays, I’d have done what every teenage sleuth is presumably doing and ordered a DNA testing kit online. Instead, I fired hopeful questions at my mum as I grew older: had there really been no passionate affair at the time of my conception? Even a tepid indiscretion would have sufficed—my parents met in a commune, after all.
Secrets are as synonymous with families as happiness, the murky flipside of everything that’s supposed to keep us close. Often, they fester in the deep disjuncture between the reality of family life and idealised visions of the same. They can arise from fear, shame, or tragedy, from the desire to protect another or to protect oneself. They can even be born of avoidance, as when the silence that is a family’s way of coping with conflicting values thickens over the years to become unbreachable, the topic unbroachable. When they eventually come to light, as most secrets have a way of doing, they can result in ruptured relationships and radically reconfigured family trees.
But along with so many aspects of the nuclear family, its power as a chamber of secrets is fast diminishing. The astonishing ease with which long-buried information can now be accessed plays a role. So, too, does the mass availability of genetic testing, as American author Dani Shapiro found. Three years ago, her husband told her he was ordering himself a DNA kit and asked if she’d like one. She wasn’t particularly curious—but sure, why not? That casually mailed swab led to a shocking discovery, one that made her feel as if she was looking at a stranger in the mirror. At the age of 54, she learned that the man who’d helped raise her was not in fact her…