From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
5. Thou shalt protect family secrets.
Sample Situation: A member of the family commits suicide. Since this is not acceptable to discuss even in the family, all pictures, memorabilia, and anything else which would indicate that this family member had ever lived here must be discarded. After all, no one in our family would commit suicide, would they???
Application: Our family doesn't have any problems, does it? Even if we did, we don't have to discuss or deal with them. After all, they're not that important. We can simply deny their existence so that we don't have to deal with the grief.
Motto: Life's too painful to have to deal with the pain and the problems. Just ignore them, they'll go away.
This may sound a lot like Commandment 4, but there is a subtly significant difference: Commandment 4 is primarily aimed at keeping secrets about individuals: you can’t tell anybody that you are a scapegoat or that Daddy is an alcoholic or that Mum takes drugs or that sister is promiscuous; Commandment 5 focuses on keeping secrets—denial—inside the family, lying to ourselves to protect the image of the family not only to outsiders but to ourselves as well.
Off the top of my head I can think of several instances of this in my family—no effort required. From my early adulthood onwards I was aware that I had lived with my maternal grandparents from about the age of 2 to almost 4. I didn’t know why and there was an unspoken disapproval about asking. Nobody talked about it. In the family photo albums there were no pictures of me or my younger brother during that period. It was just a big hole in the continuum of my life. It was not until someone on my father’s side of the family brought it up that the story of my being abandoned by my mother for adoption at the age of 2—while she kept my infant brother—came out. But still, nobody was forthcoming with any details and over time I had to piece together what I know of the story from random remarks made by family members, which had the odd effect of opening a few doors into long forgotten memories.
I wasn’t allowed to talk about it nor was I allowed to ask questions. When I did, my stepmother took me aside and hissed that talking about “those times” made my father sad, so I was not to bring the subject up, ever. My mother, of course, denied it ever happened and her parents would only say that I lived with them until I was almost four years old, but never why. And so now my mother and father are dead, my stepmother and my grandmother also gone, and I never learned the whole truth. This was one family secret that pretty much stayed a secret: nobody alive today knows all of what really happened back then.
Another secret is still being actively kept a secret and I have only been able to glean the barest of details. My brother’s son apparently has been in prison…more than once, according to some sources…but this is “not discussed.” Furthermore, I heard from one source that the son has essentially been spurned by his father as a result, although other family members keep in contact. Given that this brother was the GC in our family, it does not surprise me that he behaves towards his only child the way NM behaved towards me...if your kids do something you don’t like or disagree with, abandon them. So, my nephew is presently the central figure in another Family Secret that must be kept quiet not only to the neighbours, but to the rest of the family as well. It reflects poorly on my brother that his son is a felon, and we are never, ever allowed to reflect poorly on the Ns in our lives without paying a heavy penalty.
When my oldest son was 21, he was mugged in a parking lot and left for dead. While he was in a coma, his sister flew to Boston to take the role as “next of kin” (why I didn’t do it is a whole other dysfunctional family saga). When she arrived she met my son’s girlfriend who was heavily pregnant. She advised this young woman to abandon my son and when her baby was born, list the father on the child’s birth certificate as “unknown.” I know this happened because my daughter told me what she did, and the girl took her advice.
When he came out of his coma and went through rehab and was able to function again (although he has permanent damage to the right side of his body), he wanted to see his child. I am not proud of the fact that I did not tell him the truth right away—I fully expected the girl to reconsider and when that didn’t happen, I expected my daughter to own up to what she did, re-contact the girl and re-advise her. I kept expecting my daughter to “do the right thing” by her brother and fix that which she had broken, but it became of those Family Secrets—only my daughter and I and the child’s mother knew the truth and they weren’t talking. Eventually I came out and told my son the truth…now I am a “liar” and am “trying to stir up trouble” because nobody will admit the truth.
When my NM died, she divided her estate between my GC bro and my daughter, NM’s Mini-Me. I did not attend the reading of the will, by my GCBro, who was executor of the estate, read to me the portion of the Will pertaining to me over the telephone. NM specifically named me and my two sons and GCBro’s son saying we were disinherited for reasons we already knew (which was bullshit in the case of at least two of the specifically disinherited individuals). Did my daughter, who inherited a six figure sum, tell her brothers the truth? No, she told them that NM had left half of the estate to her and her brothers but she was to be the administrator of the funds.
Since I believed she was going to share the money, I let her lie stand. No point in stirring up trouble where it’s not necessary, right? And so my NM’s perfidy became another Family Secret, my brother, daughter and I all aware of the terms of NM’s will, but my sons and other family members kept in the dark. Why did she do this? I assumed at first that she wished to continue to fiction of my grandmother’s virtuousness in counterpoint to my revelations of the truth about her but I realized sometime later that this gave her a stranglehold on her brothers and cemented their loyalty to her. But still, she planned to share, I decided to keep my mouth shut.
My oldest son, the one with the brain injury, approached his sister a year or two later and asked for enough money to buy himself a new car, his old one having become highly unreliable. It was with great indignation that he phoned me, demanding that I call her and reprimand her for spending “his” money on her brand new McMansion. It was then—and from me—that he learned the truth. So another Family Secret bit the dust and there went another nail in my coffin...I was again a “liar.”
When I was a girl, illegitimate pregnancies where considered shameful events that often became Family Secrets. The offending daughter would be shipped off to a home for unwed mothers, her baby taken from her and given to strangers to adopt, and when she resumed her place in the family, nothing more was to be said about it. Alternatively, the girl married and had her baby and people counted on their fingers and whispered behind their hands, but this became an “open secret,” where many people knew but no one acknowledged.
It was no surprise, then, when I turned up pregnant and 17 and unmarried, that NM wanted me to either abort my pregnancy (illegal in all 50 states at that time) or go to a maternity home and come home without the baby. My adamant refusal was a shock to her, as I had never stood up to her before. NM was doing her best to create another Family Secret, a fiction in which my child never existed, that only a select few family members knew I had been pregnant and NM’s image remained unsullied (as this reflected poorly on the parents of the pregnant girl—they shared her shame). She failed…I got married to a man who was not the baby’s father and that became the Family Secret—she refused to acknowledge that I did not meet the man until I was four months pregnant and even made up stories that I went off to his apartment when I was supposed to be at the movies with a boy from my high school class (she even told me this in a letter, saying she followed me to such places which, of course, never happened because, among other things, I had not yet met him and he didn’t have an apartment, he lived aboard a US Navy ship!)
This Family Secret continues to be believed by my daughter even though I have been able to present her with at least three witnesses—including my first husband—to corroborate what I had to say. Ironically, that baby my mother tried to force me to abort in Mexico (another Family Secret that was not believed when I told), that same child she tried to force me to give up for adoption, is my daughter. That baby I fought so hard to keep alive in utero and whom I adamantly refused to give up for adoption, became NM’s Mini-Me, believed all of NM’s lies, inherited half of NM’s estate and took up the mantle of the N-Queen in the family when NM died.
Every family has skeletons in the closet but dysfunctional families create them…and they hide them so well, you may not even be aware that they exist. If you live in an N family, you may be so blindered, as I was, that you do not even suspect the existence of a dark little secret even in the face of clues like nobody talks about a certain time frame, no pictures in the family album, the subject is changed when you bring something up.
Keeping family secrets is damaging to everybody involved. Those who must keep the secrets must deny reality and truth to do so; those who are not privy to the truth operate under deceit without even being aware; those who insist on making and keeping the secret avoid rightful consequences. Honesty and transparency are always the best policies, but in the dysfunctional family, they are anathema: secrets that protect the image of the family--or certain family members--from the stain of an unpleasant truth are the order of the day.
If you come from a dysfunctional family—and all families that have a narcissistic parent are dysfunctional—you are probably helping to keep a Family Secret or two…or there may be Secrets being kept from you. Uncle Bob who died a hero in Desert Storm? He committed suicide; Cousin Alice, that quiet, withdrawn little mouse of a woman who follows your overbearing aunt like a shadow? She hasn’t always been quiet and withdrawn…she was forced to have an abortion when she was in her teens and her mother has been punishing her every day for it since…more than ten years. Your brother Zach whom everybody thinks is in Africa bringing Jesus to the heathens…he’s gay, and after your father threw him out for being a “goddamned faggot,” he moved to San Francisco. Your sister Katie is in a psychiatric hospital because she quit taking her meds for her bipolar disorder, not working her way around the world like your parents told you. Relatives with mental illness, criminal behaviour, converts to religions or adherents of lifestyles your family disapproves of, suicide, interracial marriages…all of these and more are fodder for the Family Secrets machine.
So what do you do about it? You think very, very carefully if you think you want to reveal a truth. Consider what the consequences are likely to be…and there will be consequences…and whether or not revealing the truth you have to speak is worth the penalty you will have to pay. Don’t assume that just because someone instrumental in keeping the secret has died that there will be nobody to defend it…there will be and you will be called a liar and worse. Weigh the pros and cons carefully before you decide to open your mouth and even then, expect that nobody will be willing to believe you. Family Secrets often outlive those who needed and created them…and few people, if any, will appreciate a Secret being spilled.
Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
6. Thou shalt not feel.
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.