Secrets Unravelled

My blog this week offers a very different perspective on secrets. My guest, Philipa Rees, offers the view that some secrets are well-kept and may be a source of strength.

Marna 001Phillipa’s Story

Secrets are of many kinds, some buried beneath a significant event, some like fungi that spore underground and mushroom when the light is right to poison the unwary. On the surface my family seemed to have no secrets. That was the doing of ‘Marna’, my galleon grandmother, whose high disdain and certainty of her natural superiority sailed the high seas of our misfortunes, trimming her sails to every wind, and charting our independent course of proud poverty.

It was only after her death that I learned her secret, which explained everything. Triumphing over the secret was, I now see, her raison d’être.  It’s why independence of mind and courage was all she fostered and cared about, why we were all shaped by that ancestral thorn.

Thinking about this guest blog, it occurred to me that secrets are usually thought to be destructive. In her case, by contrast, I see the transformative potential of a closely guarded secret. I suspect without her secret to stiffen her spine, my grandmother, an educated woman with little to do but to direct African maids and entertain tedious Colonial grandees, would have sagged under the weight of boredom.

The secret? Her mother was murdered, stabbed to death as she slept, though she must have struggled before the gruesome end. That explosion of violence was witnessed by a small boy of three, my grandmother’s son, in the corner of a dark room, clinging to the bars of his cot. As the two Zulus who committed the act turned to leave, they caught sight of him, wide-eyed with terror. One said, ‘Now we must kill him too.’

‘I can never kill a child’ said the other. Putting down a bloody knife, he placed the small boy on his back, covering him with a blanket. ‘Sleep gently little master’ he said.

I can already hear you saying ‘Now we are into fiction, how could she know that?’ I know because that child was my uncle and it was his testimony that hanged the two murderers.  He was the youngest witness ever to send men to the gallows. Zulu was his first language, but after the trial he never spoke of it again, and nor did my grandmother.

I learned the facts, twenty years after my grandmother’s death, from a stranger passing through a Wiltshire village pub. An extraordinary synchrony, it seemed we were plucked like migrating birds, perched momentarily together to complete each other’s memories. He was a rural post boy, detained at every doorway to hear the details of torture. Not just the murder, but the torture of my grandmother, beaten as a toddler on the soles of her feet with thorn branches, or tied to a chair with cotton thread for hours.  Both the murder and my unlikely hearing of it convinced me that everything has its deep thread of purpose.

So, it turned out that this murder liberated my grandmother from a deeply sadistic mother. For her, God had intervened. The murderers, farm workers who came to kill their torturer, had come for nothing but a sacrificial service. To save the other farm workers cowed by the mistress of their lives, they had drawn the short straws round a kraal fire, saviours for the rest.

That harrowing liberation had certainly traumatised her small son and bonded a relationship no one else could share. Marna’s first husband, more interested in flying than farming, flew away (literally, in a canvas biplane sewn on her Singer), leaving her free to marry Heli, my grandfather. Heli was an educational missionary who escaped the social prison of Northern working-class Britain. From a dutiful Methodism and a clerical desk, he set sail for Natal, to ride through hills of grass, master Zulu, and take upon himself the untapped field of African education.

Oh, brave new world.

My grandmother was at home in the world he sought to make his own, with nothing but a joyful and supportive liberty to invest. Her small son took Heli’s name; the births of my mother and my aunt soon followed. Photographs reveal that the sails of my grandmother filled, and floated above everything thereafter. She had a unique perspective on both life and death; nothing small ever mattered, not money, not clothes, and least of all the opinions of others. Conformity had no place in anything she did: on a beach, this grand Victorian stripped to a petticoat; at pompous gatherings she dissolved with laughter.

As an only child with a bereft and hard working mother, I saw Marna as the early centre of my existence. I adored her constant irreverence. There was nothing she feared, except that her children would settle for less than confident liberty. Something deep and constant lay at the root of what she gave to us—the permission to be exactly what we were, without apology. I am sure that was her dark secret translated into strength and celebration.

From her I learned almost everything I still value. Her maverick genius for finding the unique and amusing has sharpened all the characters I like to spend time with as a writer. My characters are all solitaries; even when, historically, they were famous and important. I have chosen to seat them with the monosyllabic labourer, just as she would have done.


_Phillipa ReesPhilippa’s early life was spent in remote parts of Southern Africa, often on safari. At University, she studied science, theology and literature and graduated in Psychology and Zoology under the seminal palaeontologist Raymond Dart and the father of Embryology B.I Balinsky.

She has recently published the ‘book that wrote the life’. Involution-An Odyssey (Reconciling Science to God) retakes the  journey of Western thought to discover an alternative to Darwin’s evolution. Her other published work is a poetic evocation of the sixties ‘A Shadow in Yucatan’

 Writing apart, she has lectured to University students, built a music centre, and raised four daughters. She lives in barns she converted in Somerset, England.

 Her blog can be found at

She would welcome contact at or through Twitter @PhilippaRees1



If you are interested in participating in this discussion about themes in my novel, A Fitting Place, please check out the guest blog guidelines here.


  1. What fascinating richness we’re finding in this deep topic of secrets. Thanks to Philippa for sharing yet another thought-stimulating aspect and to Mary for including it here.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      I agree, Sharon, that secrets have proved a very rich topic, and I am most grateful to Philippa for offering such an uncommon perspective. It was a very moving story indeed.

  2. Sharon, thanks for your comment. Writing it provoked me to think differently about something I had not really visited for years! I enjoyed exploring my memory with a fine toothcomb.

  3. A fascinating story, Philippa. People find their strength in so many different places. Your grandmother conveyed many wonderful values to you; I can’t help but wonder if she could have shared even more if she’d told you her secret story.

  4. Philippa, writing memoir of any sort has a way of doing that, encouraging us to dig deeper and look at things from different corners. Glad to hear it worked so well for you.

  5. Carol, I suspect once that horror was aired it would have polluted everything! It was it’s containment that gave her the strength to give her abundant generosity to everyone else, who never ever saw her as a victim, or in need of pity.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      I am inclined to agree with Philippa. There is such horror in the story, and I suspect psychologists would have a field day discussing her denial. As Philippa tells it, she dealt with in a positive way, for herself and for her family.

  6. Philippa,
    What an amazing story! Often we like to believe that such tales are works of fiction. Unfortunately, too many have their basis in real life. I’m so glad your grandmother and her son went on to enjoy their lives.

  7. What an amazing story. My heart always sings when I learn of someone who rose above bad circumstances and lived life to the fullest. Bless her heart. She can serve as a role model for many.

    I will share this with others.


  8. Thanks for leading me to Mary’s interesting blog, Philippa, and for the sharing of this poignant story.

    This strikes me as a pivotal image in the drama: … Putting down a bloody knife, he placed the small boy on his back, covering him with a blanket. ‘Sleep gently little master’ he said …
    Some truths are so complex it takes a strong spirit to bear their secret until a wider context is found, as in the learning of added facts from a stranger passing through a Wiltshire village pub, which is indeed an extraordinary synchrony. And the notion that from another perspective the deed was a sacrificial service echoes from a deep oppressed place. A place we can all relate to, and from which life sometimes forces us to rise.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Ashen. Welcome to the site, and I hope you come back from time to time

      I agree that Philippa’s story touches us on so many levels … the horror of the event … the synchrony of learning the truth … the model her grandmother provided for dealing with things that go wrong (a model to us all, indeed!)

  9. Philippa, Thank you for sharing this extraordinary story. Wow!

  10. Thank you Linda, a very warming response. She needs some celebration!

  11. Philippa, this story is both fascinating and horrifying. What strikes me the most is the strength and integrity of your grandmother to rise above the tragedy and choose to shape the next generation in a positive way. Truth truly is stranger than fiction. She paid a heavy price for keeping that secret but certainly used it for the greater good. Thank you for sharing your story and thank you Mary for featuring Philippa.

  12. Thanks for expressing your pleasure Kathleen. The greatest loss ( of anything material) was the loss of her diaries in which such gems as how many sewing machine needles she had broken on the canvas for a Bleriot plane that arrived by ship in pieces to be assembled but which ‘ in the end only just cleared a couple of hedges…horses do it more gracefully’. Yes I was greatly blest in her sardonic views of life! Life , for her , was too important to take seriously. If anyone would like the short story I wrote on this bijou anecdote do visit my blog and sign up as a friend which will provide an email. I will send a pdf forthwith The link is above.

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