Family secrets: Should we take them to the grave?

Not all families have skeletons in the closet, but some do. Before it became fashionable to admit to convict heritage,

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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