By the author of Walking on Eggshells, a compellingly readable journey into the realm of family secrets, offering lessons and insights for those who are hiding the truth and those who discover what has long been hidden.
Secrets, large and small, are a fact of human life. This book explores the impact of keeping secrets and the power of truth. Secrets can damage our sense of self and our relationships. Even so, Jane Isay has found, people survive learning the most disturbing facts that have been hidden from them. And secret keepers are relieved when they finally reveal themselves—even the things they are ashamed of—to the people they care about. Much depends, Isay writes, on the way of telling and the way of hearing.
Jane Isay was both a secret finder and a secret keeper. After fifteen years of marriage her husband admitted he was gay, but together they decided to keep it a secret for the sake of their two sons. Building on her personal experience, sixty intimate interviews, and extensive research into the psychology of secrets, Isay shows how the pain of secrets can be lightened by full disclosure, genuine apology, and time. Sometimes the truth sunders relationships, but often it saves them.
Powered by detailed stories and Isay's compassionate analysis, Secrets and Lies reveals how universal secrets are in families. The big ones—affairs, homosexuality, parentage, suicide, abuse, hidden siblings—can be ruinous at first, but the effects need not last forever, and Isay shows us what makes the difference. With specific guidelines for those who keep secrets and those who find them out, Isay's book reveals the art of surviving a secret.
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
JANE ISAY is the author of two previous books, Walking on Eggshells, about parents and their adult children, and Mom Still Likes You Best, about adult siblings. As an editor for more than forty years, she discovered Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia, commissioned Patricia O'Conner's bestselling Woe Is I and Rachel Simmons's Odd Girl Out, and edited such nonfiction classics as Praying for Sheetrock and Friday Night Lights. She lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
The Birth Bombshell
When a significant secret is revealed, only the whole truth will restore trust
Each one of us has our own tailor-made book of Genesis. Who am I? Where do I come from? What is my destiny? The family stories that answer these questions form the bedrock of our lives, the basis of our identity. What happens when the revelation of a long-kept secret explodes that story in our faces? It feels like London in the Blitz. The bombs are falling on our sense of self, and we have nowhere to hide. We have to begin all over again. We have to rethink everything, fitting our experiences and all the explanations for who we are into a new story. We ask ourselves: How could the people I trusted most deceive me all my life? What else are they hiding?
It is hard to regain trust in parents who never told you that you were adopted. It takes mental gymnastics to get your head straight when you learn that your mother is your aunt and your cousin is your half sister. The world spins when your mother, who told you she was a widow, informs you that your father is not as dead as she had indicated.
The people in this chapter have struggled to come to terms with a most threatening secret: the truth about their parentage. First, they experience the secret for what it is—a profound betrayal. They become suspicious of the motives of the people who lied to them all their lives. Then they harness their anger and energy into searching for the truth. Only knowing the facts will help them create a new identity. For that is another source of anger and anxiety: Their life story has evaporated.
We humans have the unique ability to narrate our experiences—to ourselves. We are constantly processing and shaping the information that comes to our brains from our bodies and our senses. We organize all that input into narratives, which form the foundation of our identity. Some of them are about the past, others are about the present, and we use that same technique to imagine the future. Making these narratives is one of the brain’s mechanisms to promote survival. In this way we can massage the chaos of our experience and transform it into our stories. This continuous conversation, much of which is unconscious, allows us to eliminate dangerous options. It helps us imagine survival strategies and even make good gambling decisions.
These narratives are not immutable—they change as our experiences change—but they are fundamental. So when you learn some fact that upsets your founding story, anger, anxiety, and pain are the common reactions. That makes sense. You have to reassemble your identity in a way that accounts for the new information.
In the following pages, you will read about three women who discovered that they weren’t who they thought they were. You will also read about their search for their origins. All three found the truth, eventually. How they succeeded or failed in creating a narrative that allowed them to live with the people who lied to them is at the heart of this chapter.
Naomi, for whom everything that could go wrong did go wrong, suffers not only from the revelation of her origins but also from her parents’ inability to respond to her pain in a way she can tolerate. It’s bad enough to discover that you have been deceived all your life, but if your questions are met with silence and you can’t fathom the reason for the deception, the secret becomes radioactive. In the absence of an explanation from her parents, Naomi created a painful and damaging narrative of her own that warped her life.
The Anonymous Letter
Naomi was writing her dissertation, deeply engaged in the subject and determined to finish it. She was twenty-eight and ready to get on with her career. One day when she came home from the library she found a letter with no return address. She opened it with curiosity. It contained a bombshell: “You don’t know me, but I think you should know, I’m a member of your birth mother’s family, and you were adopted, and you should know for health reasons.” It ended with a promise: “I won’t contact you again.”
Naomi was shocked. This made no sense. She couldn’t be adopted. Nobody had ever mentioned it, and she had two younger siblings, so her mother was not infertile. Naomi and her husband were outraged. When a bombshell such as this lands, two questions rise to the surface: How could this be true? Why did they lie to me?
Naomi needed answers to both questions, and she needed them right away. Her parents had never been communicative—they were too self-involved, she thought. She knew she needed to be clever in pinning them down. So she called her brother, a lawyer, and together they concocted the perfect question: “How come you never told me I was adopted?” No room for wiggling. Her mother was home, and her father was at the office, so they divided up the calls and each sibling phoned a parent. Both parents gave the same response: “I can’t talk now. I have to go.”
Their stonewalling was painful for Naomi. Most of us react to shocking news with panic. The adrenaline rush and the anxiety make us restless, and waiting for answers can be agonizing. Think how time slows down when you await pathology results after a biopsy. Every minute seems like a day. This was true for Naomi and her husband. They were desperate for an immediate response and became increasingly furious as the day wore on. They sat by the telephone all day, from two in the afternoon until ten that evening, waiting to hear from her parents.
Finally, when the phone rang, Naomi told her husband to pick it up. She didn’t think she could speak to either of them. Her father, a professor and the designated bringer of hard news, spoke.
“How’s our girl?”
“I have a class tomorrow, so can we talk on the weekend?”
That was not a satisfactory reply. Naomi’s parents lived only an hour’s drive away, and if they had responded earlier in the evening they could have driven right over to see Naomi and her husband. Being told to wait until the weekend felt like an insult.
“Too late,” her husband said. “You don’t have any more chances now.”
He hung up. Her parents didn’t try to reach Naomi again. They didn’t call and say how sorry they were that she was hurt and how much they wanted to explain it all. They let it go. And Naomi let them go. Her response to their delay and subsequent silence was to separate from them. If these people didn’t care enough to help her when she needed it, then she wasn’t their daughter in any way, and they weren’t her family anymore.
They didn’t speak for years. She started referring to them as “the Bernsteins.” The initial bombshell fractured Naomi’s sense of the world, but without help from the people she had known as her parents, she reassembled the pieces in a way that made her story more painful. Their lackadaisical response to the crisis confirmed everything she had long sensed about her place in the family.
“I have a class tomorrow, so can we talk on the weekend?” cast in stone the story of her life as a second-class child. The delay felt familiar. It was how her parents always treated her. Naomi felt that she never came first when she needed their affection and attention. They never had time for her, she thought, and their tepid response to her crisis was just another example of their selfishness and lack of concern. Everything that she had suffered in the family now made excruciating sense to her.
Naomi, as the oldest child with a younger brother and sister, was given heavy responsibilities for the care of her siblings and only glancing attention from her parents. She resented this, but chalked it up to birth order. Even when she went off to college, Naomi felt neglected. During her freshman year her little sister, with whom she did not get along at the time, was having an emotional crisis. Naomi’s mother called and told her not to come home for spring vacation. Her presence would irritate her sister. Naomi objected. What was she supposed to do for those ten days, and where was she supposed to go? How could her mother ask this of her? “You give the most to the child who needs it,” was her mother’s response.
On the day she received the anonymous letter, Naomi needed the “most” from her parents, and they withheld it. So the revelation that she was adopted seemed to explain everything that had ever bothered her. Her serial rejections by her parents and their lack of attention suddenly made sense. She was not their biological child, so she didn’t deserve first-class consideration.
Naomi’s new story was about the adopted child who never counted as much as the biological children. Other fragments of her life came together to create a new picture. She remembered seeing a family snapshot taken at her college graduation and thinking, “Look at our ears. They are all alike—I must be a member of this family even though it doesn’t feel like it.” So she had always felt like an outsider. Naomi decided to check her own judgment. “I had one friend left who knew me from high school who knew my family very well.” She contacted her and asked, “Did they treat me differently?”
Naomi’s revised life story was taking shape. Her parents didn’t love her as much as they loved her sister and brother. They didn’t care about her feelings. Her personality was different from the rest of the family, and she got on her siblings’ nerves. She was adopted—that’s why. Why didn’t the Bernsteins rush over to her house the day of the letter, and why did they never try to make contact? She was adopted—that’s why. This news validated her childhood experiences, but she was still in the dark about the events surrounding her adoption. So in the absence of information from her adoptive parents, she started investigating.
First she went to her university’s forensic psych lab to see what they could deduce from the anonymous letter and envelope. It was sent by a woman, probably with secretarial experience (the greeting and the way the letter was folded), who had no special ax to grind. The forensic psychologist said that she should not worry about receiving any further communications from this person, whose identity remains unknown to this day. (The motivation for writing this letter, and the identity of the writer, is still a puzzle. But it changed lives.)
Naomi then plunged into the project of finding her birth parents. Vital records were not digital when Naomi was born, so she got a copy of her birth certificate, with the name of the real parents blacked out, but a good eye and a bright flashlight solved that. Now she knew who they were. Then Naomi reached out to the networks of people who help adoptees find their birth parents and located hers, as well as the agency through which she was adopted. It was Welcome House, founded by Pearl S. Buck, the Nobel Prize–winning novelist.
Twenty-eight years after she had been taken home by her adoptive parents, Naomi returned to Welcome House with a list of questions. The adoption agency gladly opened their files. Welcome House required that parents tell their child about the adoption when the child is old enough, a progressive policy for that era. Naomi’s parents had signed a form promising to tell her she was adopted. They also promised to furnish the agency with a photograph of Naomi, to send along to her birth mother. When the snapshot didn’t arrive, Welcome House wrote a letter saying, “Remember you promised . . .” They had kept her father’s response in their files. “I’m going to be famous someday,” it said, “and we don’t want somebody coming and wanting something from us.” That letter, and the fact that they did not abide by the policies of Welcome House, confirmed Naomi’s opinion of her self-centered parents. But it did not explain the circumstances that led to her adoption.
When she met her birth mother, Naomi discovered a new set of facts. Her birth mother is Japanese, so Naomi is biracial. That explained how she landed at Welcome House, an adoption agency that specialized in mixed-race babies, who were hard to place at the time. Her birth mother had lived in the San Fernando valley when she got pregnant at the age of eighteen. The father would not support them, and nobody would marry her, so she gave her baby up for adoption.
Like many adoptees who find their birth mothers, Naomi felt drawn to this woman. She learned that her birth mother became infertile after Naomi’s birth; this kind woman had given away the only child she could ever bear. Naomi felt terrible for her. She had more empathy for the woman who had given her away than for the people who had taken her in and raised her. She reveled in the warmth of this new connection.
Her search for the backstory continued. Naomi was still close to both sets of grandparents, so she went to them to find out what had really happened. Her maternal grandmother said that she had been instrumental in helping Naomi’s mother and father find a baby to adopt. Naomi’s grandmother was her favorite person. They had always been close, and Naomi believed that her grandmother’s love sustained her throughout her childhood. But that was all the information she could wring from that side of the family. Then she went to her paternal grandparents. They were “totally destroyed by my distress.” When she called her grandfather, “he would just start weeping.” They had been torn apart by having to keep the secret. Naomi was gratified to know that they loved her and felt awful about lying to her all those years, but she still didn’t have the story that would enable her to understand her adoptive parents.
Listening to Naomi’s tale, I was reminded of the psychologist Harry Harlow and his monkeys. In the late 1950s, Dr. Harlow devised a clever experiment to explore infants’ attachment to their mothers. He was working with baby monkeys, whom he separated from their natural mothers. He then created two fake mother monkeys, one made of wire and the other covered in terrycloth. One monkey had a bottle attached to it and the other did not. The baby monkeys preferred the soft monkey, whether or not it gave milk. The baby monkeys showed Harlow and the world that the babies needed more than food to sustain them. They needed softness and cuddling. Just like Naomi. Her adoptive parents, who had raised her in a secure home, educated her, and provided her with all the opportunities they could imagine, were the wire monkeys. They didn’t nurture her. Her birth mother, the one who provided her nothing, was now the one she loved.
Naomi and her adoptive parents have stumbled through the decades since the revelation. They began to speak and spend time together again, though the Bernsteins boycotted any occasions to which Naomi’s birth mother was invited. At one point Naomi and her adoptive parents went into family therapy, but it didn’t work for Naomi. By then she was so sealed into her anger and so sure of her version of the sad story that she could not be helped. She remembers one session in which her mother asked, “What do you want?” Naomi said, “I want you to apologize for hurting me, and then stop. Just stop there.” She never got the apology she needed in order to write another version of her life. Still they tried to get together, at least on holidays.
Things almost fell apart one Thanksgiving. Naomi and her sister never got along. All during the years of hostility, she sided with the parents against Naomi. By now she thought it was time for Naomi to get over it. They were standing in the kitchen, and Naomi was repeating her litany of complaints. The sister got furious. “She said I was trash, trailer trash, and I should be grateful to my parents for adopting me.” Her father stood there, silent. Naomi expected him to take her side. She thought he should say, “Don’t talk to my daughter that way.”
Naomi and her husband gathered their things.
“That’s it,” she said. “We’re out of there.”
Naomi and her husband left before the turkey came out of the oven.
The conventional narrative of adoption—we love you and we chose you—never happened for Naomi. Her narrative is: They got me, they raised me, they never loved me as much as they love my siblings, and they don’t care to say much more. Naomi is a rejected person, a woman who never quite gets what she needs. She is dissatisfied with the Bernsteins and with herself.
Secrets like the one Naomi discovered need to be followed by the full story, one that explains the motives of the secret keepers and the circumstances surrounding the secret. Answers make all the difference. Honesty begins the cure. An understanding of the secret keepers’ motives—both for their actions and for keeping them secret—is needed. Only through understanding the story behind the secret can people find within themselves some empathy for those who misled them. With a bit of understanding—which is at the root of empathy—we may begin to weave a new narrative, one that embraces the truth and plants the seeds of forgiveness. Without the facts, none of this can happen.
Telling is not simple for Keepers who have dedicated much time and energy to the secret. It is painful and humiliating to explain feelings and motives under these circumstances. Even if they believe that they kept the secret and lied to their child for good reasons, they feel guilty. Faced with an angry relative demanding the truth, people tend to pull back. Yet an honest account of the circumstances that led to the secret is often necessary to begin the process of healing. If the Keeper cannot bear to tell the whole story and reverts to silence, the quality of the relationship is put in greater danger.
There are times, however, when the betrayed person is able to find out the whole story without the help of the Keeper. And sometimes the truth is enough.
That was Maria’s story. Her father kicked her out of the house when she was seventeen. She had just become engaged to a young man from the wrong side of the tracks, and her parents were outraged. They told her never to come home again. “My daughter is dead,” her father shouted as he slammed the front door on her. Thirty years later, she reconnected with him and got the shock of her life. She comes from a family where loyalty and secrecy are entwined. So her search for the truth took her to many new places before it brought her home again.
The Seven Sisters
Maria took her exile literally. She built a good life for herself, without her parents. She broke up with her fiancé and moved to a city far away. Maria didn’t even attend her mother’s funeral. So when her aunt phoned, imploring her to come home and visit with her eighty-one-year-old father, she was indifferent. “I was not warm and gracious at all.”
Maria said only, “Really? Any special reason?”
Still, she accepted her aunt’s invitation, and her welcome home after thirty years of estrangement was warmer than she expected. Maria and her father sat next to each other on the couch and talked. Then her father went to the cabinet and brought out the family albums. “We went through old pictures.” There’s nothing better than old snapshots to evoke loving memories. They laughed and reminisced. Maria drew close. Her father made the first move.
“I’m so sorry for all that happened.”
That surprised Maria, and so did the fact that he never received the birthday presents she sent him as a peace offering. Her mother had intercepted them. Perhaps her mother was the culprit in the breakup. It was only after her mother’s death that her father sought to reconnect. Looking at the pictures and reminiscing, “we reconciled in the small r way,” Maria says. Her father leaned back on the couch for a moment.
“I love you,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much I love you. I couldn’t have loved you any more if you were my own daughter.”
“His English is not that spectacular,” Maria thought. “Maybe he means flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood.”
“What exactly do you mean?”
“You didn’t know you were adopted?”
The next day when she brought it up he denied ever having said something so ridiculous.
By now the bloodhound in Maria was on the scent. Her three aunts lived in the house next door. Each aunt had a floor to herself, so Maria went up the stairs, seeking information. It wasn’t forthcoming on the first two floors. When she arrived at the top floor she encountered her favorite aunt, the one with a terrific sense of irony.
She said, “My father told the craziest story last night. I asked him where he got me. He said he met a social worker in Chesapeake Bay. Did they deliver babies in marinas?” Maria hoped the joke might entice her aunt into spilling the beans.
“Yeah, yeah,” her aunt said, “like Moses in the bulrushes we found you floating down the Chesapeake.”
“Well that’s cute and funny, but anybody want to tell me?”
“Your father’s a senile old man, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Maria had reached another dead end. Next she went to her favorite cousin. Her cousin shook her head and said, “I am not allowed to speak of that. My mother, on her deathbed, said I must never speak of that.”
There’s nothing like mentioning a deathbed promise to confirm that there is something to hide. Now Maria had evidence, but she was still frustrated.
“Would somebody at least tell me I am Italian because I’m so identified with being Italian.” Silence. She then got in touch with her childhood friends. One remembered that a schoolmate had lived two doors down from Maria and might know something. She was right, and she phoned Maria.
“Are you sitting down?” she said.
Then she went on.
“Sal and Celia had them two boys, all of a sudden there’s this little girl, she’s like about four years old, and everybody acted like she’d been there all the time. So we all acted like she’d been there all the time.” Maria now knew this much.
“I was dropped, deus ex machina, into the middle of Sal and Celia’s house.”
She still needed the whole story. Like Naomi, she found social workers who help adoptees locate their birth parents. One night she found a message on her answering machine. It provided the names on her birth certificate. Maria’s birth mother was not some stranger but an aunt who had left town years ago. Good. Maria knew where to find her. She was also pleased to know that her birth mother was Italian. Now she wanted to connect with that aunt, who had moved far away from the culture of her sisters.
Maria spoke to her “aunt who turned out to be my mother.” It wasn’t a pleasant exchange.
“Little girl,” she said, “I ain’t your mama, your mama lived over there in East Baltimore. Your mama died in Baltimore, and that’s the only mama you ever had. And don’t you be telling my husband nothing about you being my child, because you ain’t my child.” Maria did not argue. But her birth mother drove the point home.
“If you do, I’ve got a gun—and I ain’t afraid to use it.”
Then Maria got in touch with her half sister, formerly known as her cousin. Things fell into place for them both. Her cousin said, “Now I understand why my mom always said, ‘Oh, you should be more like your cousin. She got all A’s, she got herself a scholarship, went to college on a scholarship.’ ” She resented being compared to Maria, and now she didn’t want anything to do with her.
Maria tells me this story with a bit of irony in her voice. She understood that her birth mother needed to keep her a secret from her husband. And she saw her half sister, formerly her cousin, being a loyal daughter, which made sense. They didn’t need Maria, and Maria didn’t need them.
Then Maria went in search of her biological father. The phone message that identified her birth mother also provided a list of men who could be her father and their phone numbers. She set to work phoning them in order. On the eighth call, she spoke to a teenager who said that his father and grandfather bore this name. The age of this boy’s grandfather seemed to be right. Maria tells me that she eventually reached a lovely-sounding gentleman. She explained her quest. “Can I ask you some personal questions, like were you in the United States military?”
“Yes, I was.”
Oh my God, she thought, don’t tell me. “I asked him how old he was, and the math worked perfectly.” Then Maria asked the million-dollar question: “Were you stationed by any chance in Annapolis?”
He said, “No ma’am, I’m real sorry, I wasn’t.” Dead end.
“Thank you so much for your trouble.” Maria doesn’t know what prompted her, but she asked one more question.
“Would you mind telling me where you were stationed?”
“I was stationed in Fort Meade”—a military base near Baltimore. Then he had a question: “Was your mother nicknamed Bobbie?”
She didn’t know anybody named Bobbie.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I’m going to look in my navy trunk, and if you call me back tomorrow, I’ll give you whatever information I have.” The next day he told her that he had kept a letter from Bobbie. The return address was Maria’s family home.
“I must have cried three rivers of tears, I cried, and cried, and cried, and got on the next plane to meet him.” When she arrived, she found her father and his family warm and embracing. They lived a comfortable country life, and on the first night, they took her to a ball game. Maria’s half brother was handing out an award to his teenage son, the young man she had first spoken to. Then Maria got the second shock, one that made her think, “I can’t be in this family.”
Her half brother couldn’t read the words on the citation. He was illiterate. His wife nudged her and whispered, “See, Maria, I done told your brother he needs to learn how to read, but he don’t think it matters if you can’t read. I told him he needs to learn.”
For Maria, good grammar is like cleanliness: next to godliness. An avid reader since childhood and an educated woman, Maria recognized that her biological father had raised his family in a thoroughly alien culture. She spent the next few days with them watching exercise and bodybuilding videos and counting the hours until her plane would depart. They were welcoming to her, but as nice as they were, they were not Maria’s family. She was appreciative, but she was glad to leave. “I wasn’t looking for a new family, but I tried to be responsive to people who were responsive to me because they could have told me to get lost.” Just like her birth mother had.
Maria remembers with pride how her parents would sit her on the steps of their brownstone, waiting for the library bookmobile. She’d take a stack of whatever books they handed her, and she’d read them all. This is her family, despite the fact that they did not speak for years, and she belongs to them. So the bombshell of her adoption, which could have further sundered her already tenuous family relationship, actually brought her home.
Maria had discovered a story of the ages: An unmarried woman gets pregnant, and her sister raises the child. Sal and Celia took in their sister’s child and raised her as their own. The explanation of the secrecy is also self-evident. They were not about to parade their sister’s shame in front of the neighborhood, and they wanted Maria to be a full member of their family, despite the fact that she landed in their house at the age of four.
Her father’s apology for the rift in the family was the first step in the reconciliation. Meeting her birth parents confirmed her sense of pride in her upbringing. It helped her to remember those afternoons on the steps of their brownstone, waiting for the bookmobile. She also understood the bonds of loyalty and protectiveness that got her to Sal and Celia’s house, and that the whole story was wrapped in family—her family.
Snapshots. Family albums. Reconciliation, even with a small r. These elements helped Maria write a new story of her life. If her father had never invited her home, none of this would have taken place. The truth might have come out by mistake, but his love for her turned out to be deeper than she had dreamed.
Maria’s story shares many details with Naomi’s: secretly ad- opted into a family, raised by them with contention and conflict, discovering the truth in adulthood, and getting no help in understanding why it all happened. But look at the difference. Naomi never found a comforting narrative, and she got stuck in her pain. Her rage made it harder for her to stay connected with her adoptive family. If we remember Naomi’s early sense of being the outsider, her misery fits the pattern of her life. Her parents, by refusing to tell their story, didn’t welcome her into the intimacy of their family. Feeling like an outsider from childhood and being denied the story of her adoption, she felt that her family had slammed the door in her face. Secrecy plus silence easily engenders rage. Maria remembers a loving and happy childhood, surrounded by family on all sides. Sure, she fought with her parents as a young adult, but she knew where she came from. So she shrugged off the rejection by her biological mother and was not drawn to her biological father. She knew who she was, and her new story actually strengthened her sense of where she belonged. Same secret. Same truth. Different outcome.
But what happens when the revelation about your origins opens doors to a new reality? That’s Annie’s story.
Annie’s mother, a widow, raised Annie on her own. Her dad had died before she was born. An RAF pilot, he survived World War II, only to die of a heart attack in a Times Square movie theater. It was a tragic ending to a great romance. Annie’s mother was pregnant when her husband died, and so she raised her daughter the way so many war widows do: alone, without much help, and with devotion. Annie believed that version of her life story until one Mother’s Day when she was in her thirties.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Finders, Keepers
The pain of learning a secret and the price of keeping it 1
Part I The Book of Revelations
1 The Birth Bombshell
When a significant secret is revealed, only the whole truth will restore trust 25
2 A Stranger at the Funeral
A surprise relative appears, and the family is blown apart 52
3 Whom Can You Trust?
How we stay ignorant when a spouse is straying 71
4 We Stayed Married for the Children
When we deceive others, we diminish ourselves 94
Part II The Book of Resolutions
5 The Little Detectives
How discovering a family secret changes a child's character for life 113
6 If You See Something, Say Something
The pernicious effect of enforced silence 137
7 Getting to Know You
The marriage of honesty and intimacy 158
Epilogue: At Least I Know
Sharing sad truths makes us stronger 188
A Note on Sources 197
Reading Group Guide
The questions and information presented in this guide are intended to enhance your discussion of Jane Isay's Secrets and Lies.
1. Jane Isay begins Secrets and Lies with her own story. Do you sympathize with her and/or her husband? Do you think it was a good idea to stay married all those years? What would you have done?
2. If someone you loved revealed to you a devastating secret that would change your life, how would you respond? What would make you angrier, the secret or the lying? Do you think you could ever forgive such behavior?
3. Chapter 1 begins with the sentence, “Each of us has our own tailor-made book of Genesis.” Do you have a family story that has changed over time? What impact does it have on how you experience your life?
4. Chapter 1 contains the stories of three people who discovered that they were adopted. The first woman is sad and bitter. The next woman is relieved that her origins are revealed. The third woman’s life is enriched when the secret is unfolded. Why do you think there are such different outcomes to the same revelation?
5. In Chapter 2, Jane Isay describes two funerals at which surprise siblings turn up. The outcomes are diametrically opposed, which Isay believes has to do with the underlying explanation of why the secrets were kept and the truth hidden. What do you think?
6. Chapter 3 deals with adultery and presents stories from both sides of the marriage bed. Isay tries to give the reader a sense of what is going on in the minds and hearts of both parties. Are you convinced by her interpretations?
7. In Chapter 4 Isay uses the notion of cognitive dissonance to explain why people continue to believe what they want to believe, to see what they choose to see. Have you ever seen or experienced anything that you later found out happened differently?
8. Many readers identify with the Little Detective, the child who simply doesn’t believe the family story and goes behind the scenes to find the truth. Have you ever suspected that something was being concealed about a family story and investigated to find the truth on your own?
9. People often have a hard time discussing their personal tragedies, but Isay argues that silence in the face of tragedy is harmful to the family because it impedes closeness and intimacy. Do you have experiences that either confirm or disprove her belief?
10. Chapter 7 explores the intimacy that may occur between spouses when the truth comes out. Isay believes that the shock of revelation can sometimes be overcome, to the benefit of everyone. Do you agree, and if so, do you have stories to tell?
11. Have you ever shared a difficult truth with someone you love? What happened next?
12. As you read the book, did you find yourself agreeing with Isay’s point of view? Was she too forgiving, too harsh, or too noncommittal?