Family secrets: Should we take them to the grave? 73



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Not all families have skeletons in the closet, but some do. Before it became fashionable to admit to convict heritage, denial of such a heritage was common. Now if you have an ancestor who was a convict, particularly from the first fleet, it can almost give you celebrity status in your social network.

Unfortunately, some family secrets have a more serious or sinister ring to them. Some years ago as part of a post graduate qualification, I as one of a group of students, researched family secrets from participants who remained anonymous and whose identity was protected. I think that none of us was prepared for some of the family secrets that were divulged. Anonymity allowed the participants the freedom to divulge, some for the first time secrets they had found in their families.

The more serious aspects of the research revealed child abuse, incestuous relationships and unexplained deaths. Fortunately, these were not the majority of secrets that came to the fore.

In general, families tended to keep secrets about parentage. One participant found out in his 40s that his father was not his father by discovering a photograph of his mother’s marriage to a man he did not know and subsequently finding out that this man was actually his father. It was estimated some time ago in the UK that 1 in 25 fathers are not the biological father of one of their children and these men are not aware of this.

Children who have been adopted are not always told of their adoption. I recall one mother asking me whether she should tell her 25 year-old daughter that she was not her real mother. She had been wrestling with this for some time. The longer a family maintains a secret, the less likely they are to divulge it. The question arises is whether is it anyone’s best interest to divulge or should sleeping dogs be left to lie? The inheritance of genetic material affecting a person’s future health maybe an important factor in divulging parentage.

Sperm donation provides another area of non-disclosure of parentage. Instances of siblings and grandparents rearing children as their own and not divulging the actual relationship occur. Mental illness in families is another area of secrecy. For a time, aboriginal ancestry was hidden from some children.

People are now encouraged to seek out their family history via various websites. It may come as a shock to some people to find out that their family is not as they thought it was.

The question arises that if as a person gets closer to the inevitable day of reckoning and they are the holder of a secret that affects someone they know and love should as part of a final act divulge their secret or take it with them to the grave and remain forever silent?

Tell us your thoughts on family secrets: should they be guarded or set free?

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Michael Whitehead

Michael Whitehead attended uni as a mature age student in his 50s, completing multiple postgraduate degrees in health science and psychology. He has a canoe, a pushbike, a bodyboard, a tennis racquet and a fishing rod. He uses them all. Michael is now enjoying retirement after a wide range of careers, most recently as Manager of a Family Support Service.

  1. It depends on how genuinely important that information is to future generations. If it inviolves significant possible health information or details of past adoptions then yes it should be revealed. If it’s of no value other than scandal or heart ache then no. Why pass on misery of no worth.

    3 REPLY
    • To not pass the truth on displays a sense of entitlement. Like who died and made you the secret police!

    • Sarn Godwin – Does expand on the short phrase in your comment on my post. But I can’t agree with you – sometimes the truth is best hidden.

    • My great great great grandmother was transported as a convict. I’d love to know why she did what she did (I have her complete court records). I don’t know the reasons but is it going to change my life in any way – no. Some things you NEED to know and some you don’t.

  2. Parentage information can be important for health reasons. A child should be told if they are adopted that’s an easy one, but then other situations can be tricky. Who is a child’s father can reveal mothers affairs, rape, incest and other scenarios that can damage current relationships. A telling of secrets on the death bed shock and dismay. In these days of genetic testing untruths will be revealed and I can imagine the feeling of betrayal that you were lied to your entire life that may surface. Tricky! As for Ancestors, they can be a mixed bag, it is better to acknowledge the sins of our forefathers and resolve to be better.

  3. Glad my mother had passed when I found the truth about my father’s family. It would have ruined her memories of him.

  4. Given the distance of generations rendering family traumas into fascinating incidents, I am sad that so many family secrets are now hidden from me. I can only surmise at some secrets, garnering hints from birth and marriage certificates, occasional hints from this or that cousin, waiting for the release of the next census reports, and make educated guesses. It seems my surname should be Wilson, but who Mr Wilson was is totally lost, now.

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