The Secret Life of Families: Making Decisions about Secrets: When Keeping Secrets Can Harm You, When Keeping Secrets Can Heal You-and How to Know the Difference

The Secret Life of Families: Making Decisions about Secrets: When Keeping Secrets Can Harm You, When Keeping Secrets Can Heal You-and How to Know the Difference

by Evan Imber-Black

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Secrets come in all shapes and sizes. And for families as well as individuals, they are built on a complex web of shifting motives and emotions. But today, when personal revelations are posted on the Internet or sensationalized on afternoon talk shows, we risk losing touch with how important secrets are--how they are used and abused, their power to harm and


Secrets come in all shapes and sizes. And for families as well as individuals, they are built on a complex web of shifting motives and emotions. But today, when personal revelations are posted on the Internet or sensationalized on afternoon talk shows, we risk losing touch with how important secrets are--how they are used and abused, their power to harm and heal.

In this important work, Evan Imber-Black explores the nature of secrets, helping us understand:

The distinction between healthy privacy and toxic secrecy
What to tell--and not to tell--young children
How to safely confront a family "zone of silence"
Why adolescents need to have some secrets--and where to draw the line
The effect of "official" secrets, like sealed adoption records and medical testing
What to consider before revealing an important secret
And much more

Filled with moving first-person stories, The Secret Life of Families provides perspective on some of today's most sensitive personal and social issues. Giving voice to our deepest fears and to our power to overcome them, this is a book that will be talked about for years to come.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This involving book discusses the havoc that can result from either keeping or "opening" secrets inappropriately. Not all secrets are harmful, emphasizes Imber-Black, a family therapist and director of program development at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City. "Sweet" secrets (e.g., of a surprise party) or "essential" ones (intimacies between spouses) can nurture healthy relationships, but "toxic" or "dangerous" secrets (concerning someone else's life choices or well-being) can cripple, she notes. Using case studies (with names changed to protect privacy), the author discusses what she considers toxic family secrets and instances of misguided secret telling by institutions, including privacy-breaching talk shows (some now provide "aftercare" therapy); sealed records in cases of adoption or donor insemination; the veil of silence when clergy are accused of sexual abuse; and gag clauses in HMO contracts that forbid doctors to disclose financial incentives to limit care. The second half of the book advises how to "balance candor and caution" when deciding to reveal difficult secrets. The author opines that there is no right moment, the news may require retelling, some enigmas cannot be unraveled (e.g., the identity of anonymous sperm donors). This practical, informative work offers readers "a way to think about the secrets in their own lives and to revisit decisions they may have made about secrecy and openness with a new lens." (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews
A therapist's attempt to put the brakes on sharing intimate secrets with just anyone, including those millions who gape at afternoon talk shows. Imber-Black (Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Ackerman Institute for the Family) is a specialist in family therapy who sees both value and danger in keeping secrets but feels that our current reluctance to hide any skeletons at all in the closet ignores "the complicated consequences to our relationships" of letting "it all hang out." She begins by defining various kinds of secrets, including "sweet secrets" (e.g., birthday surprises); "essential secrets" (intimacies between wife and husband that healthily define self and relationships); "toxic secrets" (family suicides, abortions); and "dangerous secrets" (sexual abuse, drug abuse). She also carefully defines the distinction separating secrecy from privacy, one that is both "critical and slippery." The taboos that seem to demand secrecy are changing, she alleges, with divorce, adoption, and mental illness no longer considered shameful, while homosexuality, AIDS, and domestic violence are still under cover. Perhaps most alarming, though, is the author's discussion of "institutional secrets," ranging from medical experiments such as the Tuskegee syphilis project to the increasing intrusion of managed-care administrators into the doctor-patient relationship. Unveiling secrets should take place as a well-guarded and thought-out process, says Imber-Black. For sometimes randomly spewing out secrets, as on talk shows, results in long-term pain, unprotected by a therapist or other caring person. Moreover, someone who has no secrets risks obliterating "any sense of individuality." The author urgescaution before releasing a secret to the marketplace: Whom will it benefit? Does everyone really have to know all about it? The point: No single criterion exists for deciding to share or not to share, but when shame or fear throw up barriers to essential personal development, that's the right time to show and tell.

From the Publisher
"A must-read book—daring, compassionate, timely, and eminently useful."
—Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., author of The Dance of Anger and The Dance of Deception

"What a pleasure!...Wise and discerning."
—Donald A. Bloch, M.D., Past President, American Family Therapy Academy

"[A] powerful, groundbreaking book...Brave, compelling, and important."
—Terrence Real, author of I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

In early 1997 a secret broke open on the American national scene--our new secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, discovered that she was born to Jewish parents who converted to Catholicism during World War II. Her Czechoslovakian Jewish grandparents died in concentration camps during the Holocaust. And Albright herself was raised with no knowledge of her Jewish legacy. Interest in Madeleine Albright's story was intense. For a few weeks my telephone rang almost daily with reporters wanting to know my views on her secret. "How could this be?" they asked me. "How could she not have known?" "Why wasn't she curious about her own grandparents?" "She's a historian of Central Europe--surely she knew and just kept it hidden." Harsh and critical judgments abounded, but my own thoughts were quite different. It made perfect sense to me that Madeline Albright not only did not know as a child that her parents were Jewish but also showed no interest in her grandparents' personal history and chose to become a historian of that very part of the world that held her family's secret. I started to imagine her family. Her parents must have created a seamless story, complete with reminiscences of childhood Christmas celebrations. The only mention of her grandparents was that they died during the war. Like so many children I've worked with in family therapy, Madeleine Albright lived with a powerful paradox, absorbing the family "rule" not to ask, to live in the present, and to believe her loving parents, while at the same time feeling a compelling pull toward the past, toward history, toward Central Europe. The exquisite combination of her family injunctions and her career choice would make her ahistorian with personal blinders. And because she chose a public life, when her family's secret finally opened, it was quickly claimed by a nation hungry for other people's secrets.

I've been a family therapist for twenty-five years. From the beginning, I've been privileged to guide, to walk alongside, to intervene, and to serve as a witness for people struggling with secrets. As a young therapist, I sought direction from leaders in my field: Should I help families open secrets? Were there some secrets that should never open? What if I met with an individual who told me a secret and then insisted that I hold the secret from his family? I found surprisingly few answers. The professional literature was sparse where secrets were concerned, prompting me to think that secrets were a secret in the family therapy field. The literature that existed was polarized and absolute: "never open secrets" or "always open secrets." I was told by my mentors never to keep a secret with one member of a family, and never to let family members call me individually between sessions, because someone might tell me a secret. While one supervisor told me always to be direct about secrets, another told me always to be indirect about secrets. I was taught to make little speeches at the start of any new therapy: "Please don't tell me any secrets, because if you do, I'll have to insist that these be shared with the whole family." It didn't take me long to realize that this rap prompted people to hide important issues in therapy, the very place where silenced voices should be heard. I began to think that secrets, which generated so much heat but very little light in my profession, deserved my very careful attention. And so began my two-decade-long search to enable thoughtful and effective responses to the relationship kaleidoscope spun by secrets.

I quickly became dissatisfied with family therapy models that taught me simply to focus on what went on inside a family, as if families did not exist in complex ecologies that impact their daily lives. The families I knew who were coping with secrets brought with them rich and often painful histories from their own families of origin; stories of migration, war, sexism, and racism; tangled webs of relationships with institutions--work, schools, hospitals, churches, and synagogues; and an embeddedness in a wider culture that shaped their beliefs about secrecy and openness.

During my own search to discover ways to work well with the incredible range of secrets that took up temporary residence in my consulting room, I watched as the meaning of secrets changed in our society. Secrets have existed throughout time, but today's families face special dilemmas about secrecy, privacy, silence, and openness. We live in a culture whose messages about secrecy are confounding. We're told the stigma attached to alcoholism, drug addiction, adoption, mental illness, cancer, or divorce is gone. But is it? The families I see still struggle with decisions of how and when to tell children that their mother has a drinking problem, that their father's been downsized, that a brother has manic-depressive illness. And while the heavy social disgrace previously driving certain secrets, such as divorce, may have melted away, new secrets have taken their place. I meet now with individuals, couples, and families in turmoil about whether to tell a grandmother that her grandson has AIDS or when to tell a child that her biological father was a sperm donor.

We're told in a daily diet of talk shows to "let it all hang out," only to discover that mimicking what we see on Sally, Geraldo, or Montel can get us into serious trouble in our own intimate relationships. Prescriptive self-help literature and a proliferation of twelve-step programs remind us that "we're only as sick as our secrets," promoting total openness while ignoring the complicated consequences to our relationships when we follow such advice. In the spring of 1997 a new cable television venture, the Recovery Network, began to broadcast twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a week secret-telling by "addicts" of every imaginable stripe, adding to an already overloaded context of voyeurism and pseudo-openness.

As the cultural trend toward one-size-fits-all rules where secrets are concerned has grown louder and more pervasive, my own experience with families has moved me increasingly toward a position I call "it all depends." In a quarter of a century, I have never met two families whose experiences with secrets are exactly alike. I've grown to respect and even welcome the messy complexity adhering to every secret.

* * *

Questions that my clients and I have struggled with frame this book: "When do I have the right to keep a secret? Who has a responsibility to open a secret? How do I know the time is right to maintain a secret or open it? How do I make it safe for myself and others? What are my obligations to the people I love where secrets are concerned?" In my work, I've found no pat answers to these questions. In the past quarter century, sometimes with doubt and sometimes with humility, I've learned from people who decide that it is not the time to open a painful secret, that to do so would risk more than might be gained. I've witnessed--sometimes with terror and more often with joy, and always with deep respect--families making the courageous journey from secrecy to openness. Their stories are the life force of this book. I offer this book with my hope that it will enable readers to embrace the complexities of secrets, and in so doing bring forth their own informed judgments, ethical positions, and imagined futures as they meet the secrets in their own lives.

Meet the Author

Evan Imber-Black, Ph.D., is Director of Program Development at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City and Professor of Psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.  She is also immediate past-president of the American Family Therapy Academy.  Her previous books include Rituals for Our Times (with Janine Roberts, Ed.D.) and the professional book Secrets in Families and Family Therapy, which she edited.  The mother of two grown children, she lives with her husband in Westchester, where she practices family therapy.

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