can't believe it," my client said.
"How is it possible that I never
The sentence can continue with many
possibilities: that my father was married
before he married my mom,
that my cousin had schizo-
phrenia, that my uncle was
in prison. How, in this age of
limited privacy, can secrets
Families are the best guard-
ians of secrets. No electronic
device can unseal a story that
was created for a purpose and
perpetuated through genera-
tions of collective mythology.
Family secrets are generally
buried for protection. They
protect people from feeling
shame or embarrassment.
They protect what they judge to be sinful,
disgraceful or intolerable at the time.
As times change, thinking changes.
Some generational secrets protect
information that no longer carries the
same stigma, and as those secrets are
revealed, they provide glimpses into the
rigid thinking of the past.
Secret keeping is hard work. It
involves arranging life to cover the
truth. That might mean constantly
watching what we say, ending relation-
ships with those who know the truth or
creating an illusory "alternate history"
built on lies and omissions. In the pro-
cess, we spend a great amount of energy
seeking to deny our authentic selves.
Lawrence Barselou, professor of
psychology at Emory University, states
that the language commonly used to
describe secrets, such as "being weighed
down" or "being burdened:' suggests
that carrying a secret is akin to a physi-
cal burden. When we feel burdened in
this way, it is often difficult to fully uti-
lize all of our abilities.
For example, many studies confirm
that people who try to hide their sexual
orientation during a conversation score
lower on both cognitive and physical
ratings scales, meaning that the burden
actually lowers their thinking ability
and physical strength.
Secrets, themselves, are not inherently
bad. Many secrets exist that protect peo-
ple from truths that may be damaging. In
some cases, the truth is inappropriate for
children or would exploit someone's right
to privacy. In other cases, the truth might
create physical or psychological danger.
When secrets are held in families,
an inauthentic dynamic results. Family
members form unspoken agreements to
avoid discussion of forbidden subjects, or
to act as if they are not feeling what they
are feeling. Especially for children, this
dynamic can be confusing and stress-
ful. In being asked to bury a secret, they
learn to deny their feelings to avoid rejec-
tion from their parents. The emotional
toll of this denial can result in anxiety or
depression. The physical toll may result
in chronic illness, substance
abuse, eating disorders or self-
mutilation. Sometimes secrets
fuse families together, which
makes it difficult for individu-
als to create independent lives;
and sometimes secrets divide
families, which causes irrepa-
rable damage to relationships
The Power Of Secrets
Often, families protect secrets
involving medical, adoption
or financial information. I
know a woman who lost her
mother to a prolonged illness when she
was a very young girl. The cause of her
ultimate death was never discussed, and
her mother was never mentioned in the
home following her death.
As a teen, she investigated and found
that her mother had died of breast can-
cer — important information for her to
know. At the time, cancer was not dis-
cussed. It was seen as something to be
stoically accepted, and silenced.
So this young girl grew up in a world
of pretending: pretending to be OK,
pretending not to miss her mom, pre-
tending that she was "fine" so that her
daddy wouldn't be upset. After losing
her mom, she couldn't risk pushing her
dad away as well. Instead, this denial
led to a life of anxiety and self-doubt,
unhealthy decisions and much despair.
So, what lessons can we learn when we
consider the power of secrets? Be aware
of the cost you might later bear from
holding a secret. Can you hold a secret
and still be authentically yourself?
Be aware that children inherently
recognize inauthenticity. This doesn't
mean that children need to know all of
our secrets — some are not appropriate
to share — but they can often sense the
things that weigh us down, even when
hidden. In some cases, children may
automatically take on a parent's anxiety
as their own. Help them know that you
are OK, and that they are OK.
On May 21, Jewish Family Service
and the Michigan Humanities Council
will explore the subject of family secrets
with Steve Luxenberg, whose family
memoir, Annie's Ghosts, is a testament to
the power of secrets. (This event is sold
out, but see the box on page 16 for other
Ellen Yashinsky Chute is chief community
outreach officer at Jewish Family Service of
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