In Defense of Telling Family Secrets
Why you should write about what your parents told you not to.
Here are three secrets my mother wishes I wouldn’t tell you about our family:
- We’re inbred to hell and gone. Mom’s parents were third cousins, and years after getting married, Mom found out that she and Dad are fifth cousins.
- I’m not straight. When I told Mom I’d written an essay about coming out, she said, “Good Lord, with your real name!?”
- During my childhood, my parents fought over a dead woman named Wanda. Dad slept with Wanda twenty years before I was born while Mom was out of town at Grandma’s funeral. Mom never got over it and brought it up once a week as bizarre dinner entertainment for us kids.
Bonus secret: I accidentally shit my pants a lot until I was sixteen.
I’ve never had any respect for secrets. Maybe it’s because I like the thrill of disclosure, or maybe it’s because my most painful memories are about those things which I had to keep secret.
Either way, I don’t believe in locking up our stories. Secrets are imprisoned stories that can’t teach anything but shame. Instead of hiding our painful strangeness, we’d be better off if we jerked our skeletons out of the closet and danced them around the room.
Family members afraid of what you’ll dig up might try to stop you. They’ll shame you for telling, and some days you’ll want to disappear into the closet with the skeletons.
Don’t. The world needs your stories. Here are a few tips from a fellow big mouth on how to keep freeing secrets.
Remember you own your stories.
I live by this quote from Anne Lamott.
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
— Anne Lamott
If something happened to me, it isn’t off-limits.
I know writers who are waiting for parents to die before they start working on their memoir. I used to be one of those writers. Now I say just write it.
You can censor it, publish under a pen name, or call it fiction later. For now, let the raw, uncensored version pour out on the page with the knowledge no one will ever see it except you.
That’s healing, and that authentic place is where the best writing comes from.
You’ll feel better if you don’t hide your work.
Mary Karr, famous memoirist of The Liars’ Club, says in her book The Art of Memoir that she ran all her material by her family before it was ever put into print.
I don’t do that. I have enough voices in my head telling me what I should and shouldn’t say without inviting Mom and Aunt Sheryl to the party.
Call me selfish, but I publish what I want without asking, and once finished, I don’t hide my work. That would be trading one set of secrets for another.
After my first essay was published, I made myself read it to Mom. When I finished, I felt naked waiting to hear what she thought and wondering if she’d validate my version of events.
“I just pray I don’t live long enough for you to sell a book and embarrass me to death,” was her response.
Ouch. I’d wanted her to be proud, so I cried for hours. That pain was still better than the anxiety I would have carried had I not read it to her. I’d have lived in fear someone else would show her.
Don’t make yourself look good while you make everyone else look bad.
Remember earlier when I confessed to shitting my pants? I did that to balance out the story about how Mom never got over Dad’s affair.
Mom made Dad’s infidelity a part of my daily life as a kid. To this day, it influences the way I think about men and women. To not write about it would be like tying one hand behind my back as an artist.
At the same time, I love Mom. I don’t want to humiliate her, nor do I think she has anything to be humiliated over. Holding a grudge over something so painful as infidelity is a very human thing to do.
So is shitting yourself.
When you write, it’s important there are no one-dimensional villains. Discover and show the humanity in everyone in your story.
Only publish the secrets you’ve processed.
I heard this at a writer’s workshop last summer and it’s been on a post-it note next to me ever since: your trauma is only as valuable to your reader as the lesson you learned from it.
Learning lessons takes time, but the writing itself can help. The act of writing — of trying to find the story and meaning of an experience — can lead to new insights about a situation you thought you already knew everything about.
While you’re writing, a critical voice in your head may scream your family is going to disown you. Keep going. Reassure that voice this version of the story is only for you, and the sooner she stops screaming and helps you find the real story, the sooner it’ll be over and you’ll both feel better.
Writing is healing, but until you’ve found insights and rewrote them in a way that connects to your readers, your writing is for you and no one else.
Turn your secret mess into a beautiful disaster.
We’re all messed up, and if you’re not, maybe you’re jealous of us messed up people for having had more interesting lives than you. Being jealous of someone else’s trauma is pretty messed up, so welcome to the club, buddy!
Life is just one big mess, and creativity is taking pieces of the mess apart and putting them back together inside a frame you like better.
My family is inbred and that makes us less than those who aren’t inbred. That’s how my mom’s generation looked at our mess: as a liability of character that had to be hidden.
Another way to see it is that my family is inbred and that makes us survivors. My ancestors lived alone in the mountains of West Virginia with dirt floors. They called us the Chestnut Ridge People and we were ostracized to the hills because of our darker complexions. Other, light-skinned people were reluctant to breed with us.
Same mess, but it does look different when put in another frame.
Writing about your secrets frees us all.
Secrecy is about shame. Shame is a destructive emotion that resists facts and turns you into an ostrich. Don’t put your head in the sand.
Stay upright. Tell your stories. Tell them honestly, with compassion for everyone involved, and the intention of finding meaning in what others don’t want to be heard.
The quickest way to remove shame is to flash the lights on our own secrets. If we all do it at once, those who’d still shame us will have no choice but to join us or scatter like cockroaches.