As someone who has studied and practiced family therapy for 37 years, I am repeatedly struck by a secret’s impact on a family. With the best intentions, parents often strive to protect a child from a shameful or painful event that happened in the past. But keeping a secret usually has the opposite effect. It can take a toll on bearers and their families for years, even generations.
One way a secret surfaces is via an “anniversary reaction,” a physical or emotional response to a calendar date. A study of Hurricane Katrina survivors shows a rise in depression, headaches, and stomachaches every August, the month of the 2005 tragedy. When recognized in a supportive social context of family and community, these symptoms tend to be of short duration. But anniversary reactions stirred by private events last longer. Their origins are harder to uncover and explain, and portend long-held family secrets the keeper finds too traumatic to reveal.
We each carry an inner calendar, just at the edge of awareness. Anniversary reactions might be experienced by the secret bearer or another family member. Either way a secret exacts a steep price on family relationships and individual identity. But just as I have been struck by the damage done by secrets, I have been repeatedly struck by the healing power of exposing them. It’s an insight that was impressed on me by two families in particular.
Several years ago, I worked with a family where the mother compulsively washed her hands several dozen times a day. I’ll call her Carol to protect her real identity. In her early 70s, Carol was a healthy and energetic woman who refused to leave the house, except for doctor’s visits. Her husband, Bill, complained of feeling like a prisoner. Grown children and grandchildren were exiled from her home. He and Carol had fruitless arguments centering on her hand washing. Her symptoms handicapped her life.
Carol’s anxiety worsened every year in March and November, often resulting in brief hospitalizations. Although the family told me they didn’t like outsiders, they paradoxically dragged their mother to one new professional after another. The Littletons’ four children were competitive, each trying to be the one to find the answer to their mother’s agony. The two months were spent intensely trying to resolve “mother’s problems.”
What, I wondered, could have happened in this family?
When Carol was finally able to speak, I learned of a secret anchored in deep shame. Carol became pregnant at 17. Her two oldest children—two daughters—were born prior to her legal marriage in 1950. She would later marry their father but in the meantime faced strong disapproval from her parents, who sent her away to deliver the baby, and her future in-laws, who sent her a note blaming Carol entirely for the situation. Carol did not reveal the letter to her husband till they arrived in therapy with me nearly 50 years later.
Carol was a healthy and energetic woman who refused to leave the house, except for doctor’s visits. Her symptoms handicapped her life.
Despite going on to have a full life with her family, Carol felt compelled to keep the secret. She hid her wedding license in the bottom of an old trunk in the basement, and the date of her wedding was off limits in family conversation. Her pre-teen children found it, understood the meaning of the date, grasped the shame, and compounded the secrecy. The couple never celebrated their wedding anniversary because that would give away the fact that they were married fewer years than the age of their daughters. They didn’t celebrate their daughters’ birthdays in November and March. Instead of marking those milestones, this was the time Carol disintegrated emotionally.
When Carol finally shared her long-held secret, her grown children responded with care and compassion, affirming that they knew all that was hidden in plain sight. They had not connected their mother’s biennial extreme anxiety to the secret. They identified their mother’s compulsive hand washing as a problem but they had never connected it to her personal shame.
After I worked with Carol, I marveled that in hindsight, she suffered so much for doing something that is considered almost quaint today. Carol didn’t wake up one morning and decide to create a secret. It formed based on the strong disapproval from her family, future in-laws and the wider culture. The code to unlocking family secrets is often the shame and humiliation felt by individuals and families when one’s personal reality departs from wider social, cultural, and political contexts. Shame and secrecy live together in a tight circle—the more shame, the more secrecy; the more secrecy, the more shame.
While a person harboring a secret often suffers emotional damage, so does a person from whom a secret is being kept. The latter was the case with my client, whom I’ll call Jaime.1
Jaime was a promising 17-year-old high school senior—a scholar and an athlete—when he began hearing voices telling him to harm his stepmother, Anna. He was quickly hospitalized, diagnosed with schizophrenia, and put on anti-psychotic medication. At the same time, the family was told to enroll in therapy. We soon discovered that Jaime’s “episode” coincided with the second anniversary of his beloved grandmother’s death. No one in the family had made any connection between the anniversary and Jaime’s behavior.
Jaime was raised from infancy by his grandmother in Mexico. The summer before her death, Jaime’s father, Alberto, brought him to New York to be with him and his stepmother, keeping his grandmother’s terminal cancer from him. “I didn’t want to upset him. I just wanted to protect him and let him have a fun summer,” his father explained. When his grandmother died that August, Jaime remained in New York.
No rituals in New York marked his grandmother’s death, and because of immigration concerns, Jaime was not allowed to go to Mexico for her funeral. Conversations in the family about this relationship, perhaps the most important one for Jaime, were non-existent. The silence echoed the absence of any talk about his biological mother, as well as any story of his father and stepmother’s migration, or his life with his grandmother. As in many families, secrets were multiple and linked one to another.
Jaime spoke little to his father and less to his stepmother. What was the mystery that would account for the “voices” telling him to harm Anna? And where was Jaime’s biological mother? The story remained out of reach until his stepmother Anna revealed a secret she held. She told Jaime that while his grandmother loved him deeply, took very good care of him, and encouraged him to be an excellent student, she was not welcoming, and in fact mistreated, his real mother and her. With the best intentions, Jaime’s father and Anna kept this a secret from him. When Anna had a daughter, the family migrated from Mexico to New York, leaving Jaime with his grandmother. Growing up, his grandmother told him terrible stories about his stepmother.
As in many families, secrets were multiple and linked one to another.
Multiple layers of secrecy and silence in all corners of this well-meaning family nearly created a permanent tragedy of psychiatric misdiagnosis and irreparable relationships. Just prior to the anniversary of his grandmother’s death—an anniversary with no markers and no conversations—Anna had begun to help Jaime with his college applications. “I felt so confused—my grandmother told me never to let Anna in to my life—I needed to be loyal to her—yet here was Anna, being so sweet and loving. No one acknowledged my grandmother’s death. I knew she would not want me to be living here, and especially to be letting my stepmother help me. None of it made any sense—I felt like my head was going to explode.”
Resolution dawned for Jamie as he shared conversations with stepmother and father, and learned to acknowledge his contradictory feelings about his grandmother and stepmother. Not long after the family secrets were revealed, Jaime stopped hearing voices.
These two cases illustrate how secrets entangle relationships. Anniversary reactions help bring to the surface secrets which may be of recent creation, as with Jaime and his family, or decades old and permeating every corner of an extended family’s life, as we saw with Carol. Jaime’s turmoil was anchored in death, while Carol’s was generated by birth. What they share is their steep price to family relationships and individual identity.
Evan Imber-Black is a professor in the Marriage and Family Therapy Masters Program at Mercy College. She is also the director of the Ackerman Center for Families and Health at the Ackerman Institute for the Family and the author of several books, including The Secret Life of Families.