Old Bones: The Cost of Keeping Secrets


The cost of keeping secrets is the focus of my blog this week. This discussion has been contributed by historian and writer Frances Susanne Brown, who explores the impact of secrets for those who do not know quite what the secret is.


Skeletons in the Closet

SecretsThe phrase came into use in 19th Century England and originally referred to hereditary or contagious disease. Folks whose families suffered or even died from an illness preferred to keep the information private, lest they be shunned or judged in social circles.

From this, the idea of a hidden body found its way into Gothic fiction, such as in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Black Cat. Author William Makepeace Thackeray used the exact phrase “skeletons in closets” in his novel, The Newcomes: Memoirs of a most respectable family (1855). Occasionally, the skeletons of unwanted infants are still found hidden behind the walls of old houses.

Notice here the emphasis on the social repercussions associated with keeping secrets. The basis for keeping certain information out of the public eye seems directly linked to the notion that it will preserve a family’s reputation, or their status in society.  

But keeping secrets has a cost. Like rotting corpses, these secrets fester, lingering as never-healing wounds. And secrets, we all know, seldom stay confined to one person. If they are shared with other family members, particularly children, the repercussions multiply exponentially.

In January of 2013, Psychology Today published an article entitled “Keeping Secrets” by Frederic Neuman, M.D., Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center in White Plains, N.Y.  He found that phobias in adults are commonly traced to a secret their parents told them to keep. These range from the trivial – we have wine in the house – to the more profound – don’t tell anyone Daddy has been treated for alcoholism. Dr. Neuman claims that by telling our children to keep secrets, we teach them shame, inferiority, vulnerability, and fear.

Other research reveals that a secret represents an actual, physical load we bear. In May 2012, Tufts University psychology researcher Michael Slepian concluded, “The more psychologically burdened the participants were, the more physical burden they experienced.” This study was based on cognition, the theory that the body and mind work together to process information. Slepian asked participants to recall a secret – either big or small – and then presented them with a picture of a hill. Those with big secrets perceived the hill as much steeper than those whose secrets were, in their own opinion, of minor importance.

Don’t Tell Anyone 

These three little words can actually affect our health, and make our everyday physical tasks more difficult. They can shape—or warp—a personality, cause phobias, and, ironically, impose as much damage on family members as the original public judgment or scorn they were trying to avoid. A particularly frightening realization is that a family “skeleton” can be passed down, like a genetic defect, even if the actual secret is never disclosed. 

How do I know this? I have lived it.

I grew up with a crippling lack of self-confidence and a poor body image, perpetually plagued by a fear of failure. It was as though a huge chunk of me was missing or inferior. Although I had no physical deformity, I felt emotionally disabled. It was not until I was in my fifties, had raised a family and buried both parents that I discovered the cause. My mother’s birth certificate, which I had never seen, allowed me to embark on an ancestry search. 

The secret I uncovered has explained me to me. My mother’s “skeleton” wasn’t even her own – it was my Grandma who said don’t tell anyone. I believe her family secret made my mother timid, self-conscious, and afraid to assert her independence. She never shared the secret with me, and tried all through her life to protect me from knowledge that she felt would be harmful.  Evens so, its effects, like the miasma of a rotting corpse, clung to her. Unintentionally, she passed those damaging effects on to me.

Every family tree is partially constructed of skeletons. We teach our children to treat others with honesty, respect, and acceptance, but how can they go out into the world and embody these concepts if we have also taught them secrecy? How can we hope for them to enjoy full, happy, loving lives if they secretly harbor shame, guilt, and fear?

The cost of keeping secrets can be profound, and can affect future generations, even if we believe the skeleton is safely, and permanently, hidden in the closet.


Frances.S.BrownFrances Susanne Brown grew up in New York State, earned her MFA from Lesley University, and presently resides in Massachusetts. Her historical articles have appeared in Herb Quarterly, the Family Chronicle, and Renaissance Magazine. 

 Her memoir, Maternal Threads, is due out in 2014 from High Hill Press. You can find her on Twitter @francessbrown, on Facebook, at www.francessusannebrown.com and www.maternalthreads.com

 Herewith, we resume the series of blog discussion on key themes from my upcoming novel, A Fitting Place. If you’d like to join the discussion, please contact me here.

A Fitting Place – Another Comfort Zone


In my memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam, leaving my comfort zone meant intentional travel in a small sailboat to unfamiliar locations around the world.  By contrast, the protagonist in my novel, A Fitting Place, is hurled out of her comfort zone when virtually everything she takes for granted in her familiar New York City environment is upended.

The premise of my novel, as with my memoir, is that stepping outside your comfort zone offers myriad opportunities for emotional, intellectual and professional growth.  Over the course of the next several months, as I complete the final draft, my blog will explore a number of the themes that recur throughout the novel.

Among them, not necessarily in order of importance or scheduling, are:

  •  the illusion of control,
  •  betrayal vs. loyalty,
  •  honesty vs. integrity,
  •  success and failure
  •  friendship,
  •  parenting,
  •  the cost of keeping secrets,
  •  mindfulness,
  •  intimacy,
  • communication,
  • gender identity and sexual fluidity,
  •  myth as a cultural narrative,

My intent is to open up a thoughtful discussion in some challenging arenas that, from time to time, generate strong opinions.  I am less interested in defending a particular point of view than in providing a forum where my readers can and will comment based on their own experiences.

As part of this strategy, I will be inviting individuals with personal experience and/or professional expertise in these areas to do guest blogs. If you would be interested in providing a guest piece on one or more of these topics, let me know and I will send you my guidelines.


Shaping Your Journey


scan0002_2A reader recently asked whether the process of writing Sailing Down the Moonbeam had a role in “shaping” my understanding of a journey that took me from one career to another via three years on a small sailboat.  My first response was “not really,” but within moments, I knew the answer was “yes.”

It related to our sojourn in Panama.  When I first outlined the story, I viewed Panama, along with a host of lovely island stops across the Pacific Ocean, as places where we’d had interesting adventures, but not experiences that specifically contributed to the life lesson—learning to love living out of control—that inspired Moonbeam.

I couldn’t omit Panama entirely, if only because we spent seven months there. But I anticipated half a dozen pages, focused on the challenges of getting through the Canal. 

In fact, Panama takes up 41 of the final 209 pages. It was only as I started writing that I understood the role that Panama had played in my journey:

**       It was in Panama that I first understood how much of “me” had disappeared over fifteen years of marriage.  

As many women do, I had allowed my husband–an extrovert—to make so many decisions about ordinary everyday activities.  Not surprisingly, I’d almost lost sight of my own ability to organize life and make friends without his help. 

But much of our early time in Panama revolved around his surgeries (first a hernia, then a melanoma).  I had no choice but to take the initiative. In Panama, I not only re-discovered who I had once been, but also who I could become.

**      It was in Panama that I first began to think about the benefits of “stepping outside your comfort zone.”

Through an incredible bit of serendipity, my husband and I both got part-time jobs that utilized our professional skills. As a result, we transitioned from travelers to residents and had to adapt to a way of life that challenged many of cultural mores and norms we’d taken for granted for four decades. It was often humbling to realize that “my way” isn’t always the best way.

Writing Moonbeam did not change my “memory” of Panama, but it certainly shaped my understanding of the experience, much like journaling can provide a new perspective on a familiar situation.  It helped me to understand that Panama set the stage. Without Panama, I doubt I would have been receptive to the lesson that was reinforced each day as we crossed the Pacific Ocean—that a living a life that was out-of-control might be a very good thing indeed.

How has writing shaped your memory?


Fine Wine and Memoir



With the recent move, I have let my blogging responsibilities slip.  I will be back with regular blogs later this week, but I thought I would point you to my guest blog on Kathy Pooler’s lovely website, Memoir Writer’s Journey.  My subject is memoir writing, and the notion that a good memoir, like fine wine, requires aging.