Family secrets

WHEN THE NEWS ABOUT OUR RECENTLY NAMED SECRETARY OF STATEskeleton Madeleine Albright's Jewish roots exploded in early February, I scurried to my book of quotes to find one I clipped a few years ago. Written by the Rev. James A.Simpson, it asks, "Why pay money to have your family tree traced? Go into politics and your opponents will do it for you."

Since Albright was not facing any opponents, I take the liberty of changing the last sentence to read, "Go into politics and the media will do it for you." The simple truth is that no public figure is immune from media invasion into private lives today, past or present. Family secrets will out. The remarkable difference in Albright's case is that, if she is to be believed (and I, for one, believe her), her family secret was kept from her, as well as from the public.

Like most readers of this magazine, Albright grew up in a solid Roman Catholic family. While living as a child in exile in London, she recounted that she would ask her parents about their childhood in Czechoslovakia, the family's native land from which they fled just before World War II.

"My parents talked about how they met and how they were high-school sweethearts," she said. "They talked about getting ready for various holidays, for Easter and Christmas." Since both parents grew up as Jewish children, the stories they told of their childhood Christmas and Easter holidays were obviously fabricated and passed on to their own children as family lore. Three of their four parents perished in Nazi concentration camps, but the young couple escaped and converted to Catholicism, which was the dominant religion in Czechoslovakia.

For 59 years Albright believed she came from Catholic roots. "As a child, I was a very serious Catholic," she said. She remarked that she was particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary and also remembered times when she "played a priest—I was already playing male roles." She became an Episcopalian when she married in 1959.

I was intensely interested in her response when a reporter asked if she thought her parents had done the right thing in fabricating a new identity for their children. After a long pause, she said in a voice filled with tears, "I think my father and mother were the bravest people alive. They dealt with the most difficult decision anyone could make. I am incredibly grateful to them, and beyond measure."

There are those who disagree, who see her parents as opportunists who converted to Catholicism to save their lives, and others who claim that fabricating a new family identity was more cowardly than brave. Others question the validity of the parents' conversion. Did they really convert to a belief in Christ, or was their action political expediency?

I don't have the information, inclination, or right to judge those parents. I don't know what I would have done in similar circumstances.

I do know that I am not particularly courageous in the face of danger,and fleeing has always been an attractive alternative for me. I will leave it to others to judge, if they feel the need to do so.

Judgment, however, is not the point of this article. I bring up Albright's story only to illustrate a more basic question that affects many families: To what extent do we have a right to know or a responsibility to divulge our family secrets? Was the adult Albright entitled to the truth about her Jewish roots? Was I entitled to know about my great-grandfather's suicide? Where is the line drawn between protecting children and denying them rightful information?

Shame on us
At one time families hid all so-called shameful behaviors and illnesses from their descendants. Fearful diseases like cancer and tuberculosis were the AIDS of yesteryear and marked a family as one to avoid when marrying, so great pains were taken to spread the story of death by other causes. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people living with conditions like diabetes and Parkinson's, Huntington's, and heart diseases are unable to trace genetic predispositions present in previous generations that would be invaluable in their treatment today.

Victims of mental illness were hidden away, adoptees were led to believe they were natural-born children in the family, and desertions by fathers were explained away as "traveling jobs." These behaviors and more were invoked with good intentions, mainly to protect the family name. The problem that emerges, then and now, is the likelihood that the grown child will learn the truth from a stray comment, an old newspaper clipping, or town gossip. Then, pain and anger emerge, less from the shock of the withheld information than the lie perpetrated by parents.

There's a saying among family researchers: Don't go into genealogy if you can't accept skeletons in your family closet. When I embarked on studying 150-year-old baptismal records in Ireland, I found several illegitimate babies listed along with the names of the fathers nestled in my family tree. Only one case disturbs me. Reared by his mother, aunts, and unmarried uncle in the family home, a boy was led to believe that the uncle was his father and that his mother had died in childbirth. One particular "aunt" took charge of him—his mother, of course.

Migrating to America as a young man full of confidence, he did well until he decided to apply for citizenship. He was stunned when he obtained his Irish birth certificate labeling him illegitimate and naming his mother, whom he had always believed to be his aunt. The information devastated him. He never returned to Ireland. He embarked upon a career of alcoholism, which eventually killed him. He was buried by a cousin, the only attendee at his funeral.

Would he have been better off learning the truth of his birth as a child or as a young emigrant? Who is to know? By withholding the truth, his family gave him a happy childhood, at least, but, according to old family letters, it was the family lie that destroyed him, not the illegitimacy. He couldn't accept that his uncle whom he loved dearly had not been his father and, worse, had not been able to reveal the truth to him. His loss of trust in his family coincided with the onslaught of his alcoholism.

We are much more open today in sharing family skeletons like those I've mentioned with our children and grandchildren. However, before we become too self-congratulatory, we need to take inventory of ourselves and our potential for divulging or withholding information on some of the newer skeletons in the collective family closet. Should parents reveal their college use of marijuana and other mind-altering drugs to their young adults? If there could be eventual medical problems resulting from such use, do parents have a responsibility to divulge and children the right to know?

Most such parents would rather forget their four or five years of drug use, and do not want their children aware of their use because it gives offspring tacit permission to experiment. As a result, withholding family secrets becomes as protective as it was a couple of generations ago in families of cancer. Our quick and easy judgment of our ancestors' behavior becomes a bit more complicated when updated to include our shortcomings.

Statistics indicate that one-third of all brides today are pregnant. Do these parents have a responsibility to divulge the reason for their marriage to their grown children, knowing that it might instill discomfort, loss of respect, and even a sense of betrayal in them? Is it preferable to nudge their wedding date back a few months and let the children believe their presence didn't force an unintended marriage and experience resulting guilt whenever conflict arises? Few children ask to see marriage certificates, after all.

Similarly there's the question about initially unwanted children within marriage. Should parents tell their children that they were unplanned or not joyously welcomed into the family because their gender was dreadfully disappointing or because it meant loss of a job or school for Mom? What is to be gained by such revelations other than guilt and insecurity on the part of the child? Conversely what will be lost if the child learns one day from well-meaning relatives that everyone in the family but he himself knew he was an unwanted child?

Darker secrets like generations of family incest and other forms of abuse are rearing their ugly heads today. Rarely a month goes by without a letter to Dear Abby or Ann Landers from a young mother, who suffered incest by her father, asking how to prevent it from happening between him and her children. Most of these letters say something like, "I want my children to know and love their grandfather, but I don't trust him with them. How can I caution them without telling them the truth?" Does she have a responsibility to divulge the truth to her children, and do they have a right to know that truth, thereby destroying their trust in their grandfather? If she seeks to separate them without telling them why, will they someday accuse her of denying them a warm and loving relationship with their grandfather?

Compulsive behaviors like gambling, philandering, and alcoholism have often been labeled "the family weakness." One great-grandmother confided on her deathbed to her 62-year-old daughter that her father had been such a compulsive gambler that her mother was forced to collect his weekly paycheck.

"I'm only telling you this now," the dying woman said, "because it's in the blood, and I want you to keep your eyes out for any signs of it in your brothers or your children. But it isn't good to tell them about it because it might give them an excuse to gamble."

She lived with the shame and fear of her family secret for 80 years, but her daughter did not promise to keep the secret after her death. Instead, she shared her mother's fear of a family gambling tendency with her siblings and grown children, convinced that knowledge about the existence of a family predisposition is more likely to lead to prevention than permission.

Other common family secrets today include covert or overt homosexuality, longtime extramarital affairs, unpaid debts, bankruptcy, perjury, tax evasion, fraudulent papers and deeds, sexually transmitted diseases, impotency, marriages bonded by hatred, participation in violent Klan-like groups, plagiarism, rejection of the family's religion, the "broken" priest, cruelty to or neglect of the elderly, bigamy, embezzlement, a history of being fired from jobs, illegal alien status, AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, teenage delinquency, bribery, corruption, deliberate pollution as part of profiteering, covert participation in fomenting conflict, abortions, euthanasia, sex changes, legal-drug dependency, and past criminal records.

Think before you speak
As I write these, I realize the list seems endless and leads me to wonder if any family exists without secrets. In the same book of quotes that I collect and treasure, I found a delightful one given spontaneously to the press by former President Jimmy Carter: "We've uncovered some embarrassing ancestors in our not-too-distant past. Some horse thieves, and some people killed on Saturday nights. One of my relatives, unfortunately, was even in the newspaper business."

If, as I suspect, all families have secrets, then all families develop a way of divulging or concealing them from the community, the extended family, and the children. In determining the wisest decision on whether to divulge a secret, parents need to consider several factors: Will future generations benefit by knowing this secret? What will be the emotional cost to our children if they discover it from someone else? And, perhaps most basic, Can we admit and accept our family's weaknesses and failures as part of our human condition, and strive to overcome and prevent them in the future by learning from the past and depending on God's mercy instead of treating them as shameful events?

Stigmas—like cancer and divorce—that once tarnished the family image no longer hold that power. AIDS is likely to be similarly accepted without shame in the future. The point, is that family secrets need not be shameful. In fact some become matters of pride in subsequent generations. Twenty years ago, for example, it was hard to find Australians who admitted to being descendants of the convicts that peopled their land. Today there are groups in Australia whose members proudly claim such roots. Fifty years ago few African American families exhibited pride in surviving the evil of slavery. Today African Americans are searching their roots about their slave ancestors here, and in Africa, and honoring their memory.

For me, looking for one's history can be a humbling experience. Like any good Irish American, for a lifetime, I dutifully castigated the English occupiers and Oliver Cromwell for the misery bestowed upon of my Limerick forebears. What did I find in my genealogical research? Strong evidence that my first ancestor in Ireland was a foot soldier in Cromwell's army. In lieu of pay he was given nine acres of land, which was stolen from the defeated Irish. Apparently he or one of his sons or grandsons married into the "indigenous" population and became Catholic.

In a crucial five minutes of reading after years of research, I went from historical victim to victimizer. Will I judge Albright's parents? Not on your life. Will I share this "shame" with my children? I already have. Their reaction? "Who's Cromwell?" 

All active news articles