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.


  1. Mary, thanks for continuing this line of posts, and thank you Frances for the enlightening history of skeletons in the closet. Frances, you have me hooked with that pinhole view of your story. I’m so curious to know what that secret was, how you found it, and how its effects flowed down to you in the form they took. Obviously that’s the reaction you hope for as buzz for your forthcoming book. Well done!

    • Hi Sharon,
      So glad you enjoyed the piece. Until I did this research for this blog, I didn’t realize how much of an impact a secret could have – I knew how it had affected me, but had no clue that secrets could cause so many other emotional issues. Thanks for your comments, and I will keep you on my mailing list to let you know when the book comes out.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Thanks for stopping by, Sharon. I agree that Frances’s blog has a wonderful balance between a thoughtful analysis and a “lure” to her book. I too am looking forward to reading it!

  2. What a graphic and powerful description of why keeping secrets is so toxic not only to the person but also to the family throughout generations. It reminds me of the saying, “we’re only as sick as our secrets.” Thank you Mary and Frances for an interesting and insightful post.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Hi Kathleen. I love the word “toxic” as applied to secrets. Keeping secrets is not a “core” issue for my novel, but the impact of them has a debilitating affect on several of my characters.

  3. Frances,

    You’re so right about the damage that keeping secrets unknowingly does to us.

    The saddest part about some of the secrets my family kept is that they often weren’t a big deal to me at all once I discovered them. But when I think about why they guarded them so carefully, I realize that a generation or two ago, many things were thought to be shameful and could have had serious repercussions for families.

    My kids and grandkids criticize me for being an open book. I find the truth so much easier to manage than deception. For that reason they sometimes withhold information about themselves from me for fear it’ll “get out.” I do believe in respecting privacy, and perhaps they fear that I’ll judge them, but some of their secrets seem unbelievably harmless to me.

    I just watched a video by a great grandson of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, in which he explained that his father changed their surnames and feared for their lives once they criticized and distanced themselves from the church. Keeping his blood ties to Hubbard secret may have saved their lives.

    • Flora, you are so right. The moral standards of yesteryear just don’t apply anymore. And lots of that fear of the secret “getting out” has to do with fear of judgment. I’m sure that’s why my mother kept her family secret until her deathbed. She truly thought she was protecting her children. Thanks for your comments!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Flora. An going dilemma, I think, is what information “ought” to be kept secret and what should not. One of the points I try to make in my novel, as you have suggested, is that many things that we keep secret out of shame prove insignificant once you expose them to the light of day!

      Thanks for stopping by, and I look forward to your guest blog!

  4. Frances:
    Brilliant post. I am not sure if I ever told you about the secret in my husband’s family. After his parents had been dead for almost 20 years and rumors had floated around that his dad was not his biological dad (but family members denied this to their grave), his aunt calls up and says: Yes, we’ve been keeping this a secret from you for all these years–it’s true. Your dad was not your biological dad.

    WOW! Can you believe that? He actually handled it quite well–he loved his dad, and just wished he could know the truth.

    • Margo, that’s one of those secrets that actually could have much more serious consequences – what if there was a hereditary predisposition to a disease that your husband didn’t know about? Or perhaps he was worrying about inheriting his dad’s ailments, giving them as history on his medical exams – and the man wasn’t even biologically related to him! Oh, the tangled web we weave…
      Thanks for your comments.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Thanks for dropping in, Margo. I think your point, much like Flora’s, is that cultural notions of what should or shouldn’t be revealed have changed dramatically over the last century. It’s a very good thing. Frances so clearly highlights the adverse impact of feeling you’re not trustworthy enough to know the truth … even if you don’t know exactly what the truth is.

  5. Thanks, Mary and Francis, for these insights into skeletons in the family closet and their damaging effect on descendants/us. My mother made sure we knew most of the family secrets/skeletons. However, I knew next to nothing of my paternal grandfather’s line. My grandmother was tight-mouthed concerning his past. Recently, my sister found out that my great-grandmother, Susan James, whose name I was given, was in service, had my grandfather out of wedlock, and he was educated as a “pauper academic.” He died when I was eight; my memories of him are of a man who was always happy, a storyteller, fun, mischievous, twinkling eyes, who read Dickens to us, and chased us around the garden until one day he fell down and that was the end. I used to dislike the name Susan; now I’m proud that I was named after the skeleton in the family closet.

    • Penelope, thanks for sharing this. It’s amazing the difference it can make in how you feel about yourself when you know the truth about where you came from – and who your ancestors really were. That revelation changed my life, and brought everything that had been puzzling to crystal clear.
      Thanks for reading!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Pennie … a wonderful story about the positive effects of learning the truth! Thanks for sharing it.

  6. It was a phenomenon I never realized existed until I did the research. Thanks for reading!

  7. Fascinating post, Frances and Mary! Skeletons in the closet truly fester and eventually they share their toxicity with the people who are protecting them and like dust on a tabletop, they can be rubbed off onto another. Knowing the truth and being able to embrace it is key to who we are and how we feel about ourselves. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Mary Gottschalk says

    Frances … thanks so much for joining the discussion on secrets. You’ve clearly touched a lot of readers. I can’t wait to read your book!

  9. Thank you Mary and Frances.
    What history and oh my does my
    family have skeletons.

  10. Family secrets fester within a generation and have a powerful, multigenerational impact. One of my family’s secrets cost family members physical and emotional health eventually resulting in disease and death.

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