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Can You Keep a Secret?


A few days ago a friend asked me what I had learned on my recent trip to Belgium and I told him that I discovered just how good my family is at keeping secrets.  But does this make my family special?  Doesn’t every family have more than its share of secrets?

And really, some of the things that I found out for the first time–stories of alcoholism, violence–both physical and emotional, infidelity–are these kinds of secrets necessarily bad?  After all, there are reasons to keep secrets and sometimes it is to protect people from being hurt.

Still, I keep thinking about this word: secrets, and how it struck me as the major theme of my trip.  I now realize that just by using that term, I was holding on to a fantasy about my family, in particular, my parents’ marriage.  I wanted to believe that there was a Garden of Eden period for them, a time, no matter how brief, when my parents were happy and truly in love. 

I don’t believe that time ever really existed.  But clearly, it was important for me, on a subconscious level, to hold on to that myth.  (I’ve spoken to my brother and sister some during the past few months and my impression is that they see my parents far more clearly than I do.)   The more I delve into my family history, the more sadness I find.  But I am not afraid to look at it now.  And the most important word–or theme–for me has nothing at all to do with secrets. 

Instead, it is about something more complicated and difficult:  compassion.

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1 Mattpat11   ~  Mar 31, 2009 10:34 am

I think my extended family takes a 'let sleeping dogs lie" philosophy. I'm sure we all sort of know things about each other, but there's no reason to talk about them.

2 Will Weiss   ~  Mar 31, 2009 11:27 am

[0] Great post, Al. Every family has secrets. Some hold grudges. Sometimes is spills into the immediate family, too. I think once you tear down the myth and find out how your family members truly are as people, it makes it easier to hold onto certain myths. In the end, what's important is how they treated you and how you treated them in return.

3 Chyll Will   ~  Mar 31, 2009 11:47 am

I agree with all of you. I'm the baby of my family in more ways than one, and having missed much of what I thought was the fun part of everyone's lives I felt isolated from my own family for years. Especially because there's a whole section of my family I know very little about (my father's side), I sometimes felt empty.

But Mom enriched our lives so much on her own that I don't have much reason to feel that way and I'm continuing to build my own legacy. I knew there are a whole lot of secrets in my family that I'm better off not knowing; if for nothing but to remained focused on what I can do as opposed to feeling bad about or restrained by what was done in the past. In fact, I think that's mainly why families keep secrets in the first place.

4 Alex Belth   ~  Mar 31, 2009 12:11 pm

"I think once you tear down the myth and find out how your family members truly are as people, it makes it easier to hold onto certain myths."

I actually think once you can see beyond the myths and see the humanity, warts and all, it is easier to let go of the myths, or the need to believe in them. For me, the biggest thing is to get over being judgemental and not try find solutions but to understand why things happened, what were the circumstances, etc.

Anyhow, interesting stuff.

5 Rob Abruzzese   ~  Mar 31, 2009 12:12 pm

I'm sorry, all I can think about is all of the great varieties of Belgium beer.

6 Will Weiss   ~  Mar 31, 2009 12:22 pm

[5] Chimay, all the way.

7 Yankee Mama   ~  Mar 31, 2009 12:29 pm

I think in famlies where there is alcoholism involved, there is a big investment in keeping up appearances. Things aren't always what they seem. My mother went to great lengths to encourage my brother and I to progagate the myth of our family life. I even came to believe it until I had to face my own issues and began the unraveling of my illusions.

As for secrets, all families have them. some come to the surface, some stay under the rug. I didn't find out until my grandmother's funeral (she was 92) that my father was adopted by the man he thought to be his father. My father found out when he was 69. My mom found out before she married my father and never told a soul, not even him. Talk about keeping secrets.

It all comes down to shame and fear of judgement. Ultimately, who are we hiding from?

8 Rich   ~  Mar 31, 2009 2:00 pm

Compassion is an apt word in this context. Some families try to hide various problems, sometimes out of shame or embarrassment, but other times out of a need to live up to an unrealistic view of what normal is that very few people or families could ever meet. Then, when the issues are exposed and re-examined with the benefit of time and changed societal norms, it's hard not to feel a mixture of sorry and sympathy for the pain that close family members went through that probably could have been reduced if different coping strategies had been employed, including the support that other families members could have offered if only they had known the truth.

9 ms october   ~  Mar 31, 2009 2:45 pm

interesting post alex.
definitely agree with yankee mama - shame and fear of judgment are at the center of much of the secrets, which is largely about projecting a certain image.
there's been a fair amount of secretive stuff in my family.
my mom is not from the us too - i think being able to go somewhere else and "reinvent" yourself and your family is part of it - though there are plenty of secrets even if that is not a part of your life story.

10 RIYank   ~  Mar 31, 2009 2:50 pm

I think it is about compassion, but it's also something else. It's the love or trust or forgiveness that you don't have to earn. Robert Frost said it about home:

'Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.'
'I should have called it
Something you somehow haven't to deserve.'

(In "Death of a Hired Man" -- two different characters are talking, it's a bit hard to sort them out.)

11 Mr. OK Jazz TOKYO   ~  Mar 31, 2009 9:15 pm

One of the beautiful things about baseball is how it unites different members of the family that would otherwise be at each other's throats (or just keep a deadly silence..) It doesn't necessaruly heal wounds or make the skeletons go away, but it does make family gatherings smoother for all concerned..

12 Rich   ~  Mar 31, 2009 9:44 pm

[11] There's a quote in a movie about that, but the name of it escapes me.

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