Guilt breeds shame, shame births secrecy.
My family has a lot of secrets. Some of these secrets we’ve safeguarded so long, the only thing still secret about them is our actual silence. We don’t talk about it because speaking it makes it real. As long as we suffer the consequences of our secrets in silence, we tell ourselves the world is oblivious to our sins. But it’s no actual secret that every cookout turns into a drunken brawl or that most of the women in my family have been victimized by previous partners, nor is anyone on the outside fooled by our primped packaging and picture-perfect holiday posts. Still, we maintain the facade, convinced there’s something noble about our silent suffering. And in a community where family business stays in the family, no matter who it hurts, we’ve had no issue hiding our hardships. We all took the oath, whether knowingly or unknowingly. From childhood, we’d been taught to protect our family’s appearance from the attack of the truth, and in protecting ourselves from the ugliness of our human truth, we’d all grown comfortable living our lies. And growing up, I never questioned whether or not our little code was constructive. That was until our secrets got heavier, and I found myself struggling to carry them.
Healthy families don’t have secrets. People don’t like when I say that and truthfully, neither do I. But I say it to remind myself that secrets aren’t solutions, they’re suppression. Mind you, not all family secrets are created equally. There’s that surprise 30th anniversary you’ve been quietly planning for your parents and the gender of your unborn baby that you and your husband have decided to keep private, secrets like this hide no harm and cause no harm. And not only are these victim-less secrets, but they come with built-in deadlines. The intent is simply to keep the secret only for as long the information is significant, at which point the secret is no longer important. But most family secrets aren’t so simple. We didn’t get this way by hiding our celebrations, we got this way trying to mask our shame. Most of our family secrets center around far more sensitive subject matter like finances, physical and mental health issues, abuse, trauma, debt, death, and divorce, the subjects you absolutely need to talk about.
In high school, I’d convinced myself that my parents were on the verge of divorce. Sure, they looked fine and I had no legitimate reason to suspect they were headed towards separation, but almost half of my classmates went from completely oblivious to obliterated when they learned the ugly truth about their parents’ partnerships our senior year. It made sense to them to play perfect until they felt their imperfections would have the least amount of impact. But no time is an ideal time to get a divorce, and no time is an ideal time to talk about it. It was the secret they were hellbent on protecting, and in doing so, their children suffered the real damage. It wasn’t just a stick of dynamite to their predictable day-to-day lives, it destabilized the parent-child relationship for some, caused suspicion and resentment for others, and fanned a firestorm of guilt and distrust that spread through the halls of my high school and spilled out into the real world. Not only did our parents’ secrets skew our sense of reality, but they also destroyed our sense of stability within it.
Now that may not sound like a big deal to most of us, especially given the cultural misconception that children should be kept in the dark on just about everything. But we have no legitimate argument for that other than we don’t like “people knowing our business”, those people often being the very people impacted by said business. Not only are children naturally inquisitive and extremely perceptive, but for the most part, they experience these experiences right along with us. That means that things that directly affect them are indeed their business too, yes, that includes divorce. Children don’t need to know the intricate details surrounding the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, but there are millions of other things to communicate pertaining to the matter other than who is at fault that can attribute to their understanding. We have to draw the distinction between protecting our children from the ugliness of humanity and hiding our own humanness from them. Because being human in front of your child is not a crime.
But now that we’re on the subject, let’s talk about what is a crime. We’ve established that not all secrets are created equal. There are the victimless, temporary secrets we mentioned earlier, like birthday surprises and exciting news, and there are the secrets that victimize us by making our reality appear unpredictable and unstable, things like divorce and bankruptcy. But then there are the secrets that suffocate us psychologically, the ones that slowly destroy us, oftentimes resulting in the deterioration of our physical and mental health, those secrets are undoubtedly criminal. Not just morally criminal, but legally criminal as well, no matter how much we see our silence as a shield. Molestation is not family business, neither is incest, nor domestic violence, or any other form of physical, psychological, or financial mistreatment. And that is that on that. The code of secrecy we swear to uphold binds us to our abuse, and as families become bonded to and through their trauma, they begin to believe that it’s the actual trauma that keeps them bonded. The idea that if an outsider discovers a family secret, the family is then permanently destroyed isn’t just incorrect, it’s entrapment. It prioritizes the secret itself as opposed to the people keeping the secret, and more often than not, the secret stays well kept while the secret keepers gradually fall apart. It’s not the truth that damages us, it is living in avoidance of it that keeps us in the dark.
Guilt breeds shame, and shame births secrecy. It’s not enough to chastise people into transparency when the guilt and shame that has them in hiding is still present in their everyday lives. Not to say all family secrets center around abuse and/or victimization, but enough of them do that we should want to address why abuse is so prevalent in our families, to begin with. Guilt is an abuser's best friend and what could be more welcoming to an abuser than a community full of people too ashamed by their own pain to acknowledge they’re being hurt. We don’t suddenly roll over and die because we unearth a lifelong family secret that Uncle So & So has had an affinity for young girls in the family for the last twenty years, but we do hold that Uncle accountable, both within the confines of the family as well as according to criminal law. Yes, that means going to law enforcement on family members who violate the law by hurting and abusing other family members. We simply can’t expect to grow healthy families in households governed by the laws of the streets. Healthy families prioritize healing over the appearance of harmony, no amount of collective reputation is worth sacrificing the sanity of ourselves and/or our loved ones. Truly loving ourselves and our loved ones means not giving a damn how that love appears from the outside, and love doesn’t ask us to bury our blame, it asks us to heal from what we think we need forgiveness for. If anyone is offended by your decision to heal from your secrets, a decision that requires a great deal of openness, remember that their opinion doesn’t override your obligation to yourself, so stay the course. People have every right to be guided by their secrets, you have every right not to be governed by yours.