“The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic poison which alienates the possessor from the community.” – C.G. Jung
Family secrets are toxic. Family secrets destroy families and lives. Secrets bury truth, hide reality from the light, and by so doing, allow for an intergenerat
ional psychological cancer to metastasize.
The person carrying the secret lives under constant stress – stress that can make her physically sick. The parent that secretly tells a child something that affects both parents places the child in the no-win position of feeling the need to be loyal to both parents. If she is loyal to the parent in the dark, she betrays the one who told her the secret. If she keeps the secret, she betrays the parent left out of the loop.
Family secrets prevent healing by hiding the truth. If grandma’s alcoholism is never spoken of, never acknowledged, her great-grandchildren grow up not knowing they may be predisposed to a disease that will destroy their lives.
My maternal grandfather committed suicide leaving a widow in her late 20s with four young children. No one ever spoke of it. The two youngest children, one of whom was my mother, were not told how he died. They overheard some garbage men talking about it when they were 5 and 7 years-old. They instinctively felt they could not share what they heard. Their older sister found the body and never talked about it. To a limited degree, they could grieve a death, but never fully. Several years later, their mother (my grandmother) contracted tuberculosis and was sent away to a sanitarium for a year. The four children were divvied up among relatives. No one grieved mom’s absence. The official story, maintained by all, was that life was happy and light.
I was an adult, married with children, having dinner with my parents and other relatives one evening when my mother said something about her father’s suicide. I dropped my fork. I was shocked and aghast. My mother brushed it off.
Several years later, when my oldest child was not quite 15, he killed himself. His suicide is directly tied to the family secret. Had there been no secret, had the family brought the truth out in open where it could be dealt with, worked through, and healed, a great deal of the depression and dysfunction in my family could have been admitted and healed.
Once the proverbial cat was out of the bag, my mother and her siblings resorted to a fictious narrative. They reframed the suicide of their father as the loving sacrifice of a good man whose business failed in the great depression and who sacrificially took himself out so there’d be one less mouth to feed. They reframed him as a hero. Nevermind that his young wife struggled the rest of her life to raise four children under 12 alone and died of heart failure in her early 60s. Nevermind that a bunch of us were robbed of a grandfather. By hiding the secret, the family gave implicit permission to deal with difficulties by suicide.
Trauma in a family apparently does not exactly alter genes, but it does alter the way genes transmit characteristics. Ancestral wounds carry through generations. They help define who we are. My guess is that the same is true with family secrets. They reverberate through generations, leaving a poisoned trail. New generations come along, unaware until it’s too late that the berries along the path are lethal.
It doesn’t only happen in families. When a nation tries to keep secret, for example, its history of genocide, colonization, slavery, and white supremacy, and replace it with a white-washed version of glory, it poisons the very soul of the nation, which allows for the rise of dictatorships, purges, and oppression.
The solution is obvious. Stop keeping secrets. Be open. Be honest. Be vulnerable. Own the negative things in the past as well as celebrating the positive. Truth liberates, sets us free, breaks the toxic chain so history need not repeat itself.