A couple years ago I read an essay in The New York Times in which the writer described the psychological legacy of staying married to a gay husband for the sake of her children. That writer, Jane Isay, has just released Secrets and Lies, a book exploring the impact of family secrets on adult children, who often grow up doubting their perceptions, and manifesting various inauthentic scenarios in their own marriages.
I don’t usually review books, but I seized the opportunity when I was asked to review this one. I remembered how much The New York Times essay had resonated with me: now ten years out of a miserable marriage, I still wonder, from time to time, if I should have stayed for the sake of the kids, considering the crap they’ve had to endure post-divorce.
Although Isay doesn’t offer a definitive answer to the should-we-stay-together-for-the-children question, she makes a strong case for ending a low-conflict marriage that can be sustained only by lies:
“While it may seem best for the children…the side effects include the decline of intimacy, the attenuation of trust, and the dimunition of the self. This change in the relationship may be obvious in the home or it may be hidden behind the bedroom door. Either way, it alters the atmosphere in which the children grow up.”
Using her own marriage as a jumping-off point, Isay interviewed adults who learned that some central aspect of their life narrative was a lie told to them, either directly or indirectly by their parents, and often, extended family: secret adoptions; closeted mental illness; a love child; an affair; a dead parent who turns out to be alive.
Through deconstructing the stories of her interview subjects, Isay distills two crucial observations.
One, if their childhoods were good enough, and/or the caretakers who lied to them made sincere restitution, people were able to reassemble a meaningful life narrative and go on to live authentic lives. Minus these elements, however, people ended up so crippled by deceit that it impacted their ability to trust and to love. They never recovered from being raised in the context of a lie.
Two, when children grow up in a “secret-keeping family,” they learn to be inauthentic. They doubt their own perceptions, look to others to tell them how they should feel, and often, enter marriages in which they unwittingly collude with another secret-keeper, thereby perpetuating the cycle for their own children.
Secrets don’t have to black-and-white (an affair, or one parent in the closet) to be destructive. Growing up with two miserably-married parents who insist that they’re happy can also make kids doubt their reality — especially when there is no one around to corroborate their suspicions.
One of the “secrets” in my family of origin — more of a myth than a secret, really — was that we were a cohesive family. My sister and I used to argue about this for years. Ten years older than I, she left the house when my parents were still happily married. As their marriage quietly eroded, I was the only one left at home, and I got triangulated into their relationship. It was easier for them to focus on what was wrong with me — and I did struggle with issues they didn’t know how to address — than the fact that they had grown so distant they were more like roommates than spouses.
The other myth was that my adoption into the family was as normal as if I had been born into the family. It was anything but. I didn’t look like anyone, I didn’t act like anyone, and I was confused and alienated without having the language to talk about how I felt.
Even if I had had the language, my family wouldn’t have been able to hear it, because they had a lot invested in the narrative of a cohesive family. It was what they wanted, and more important, what they came to believe. It was what I wanted, but what I didn’t believe.
And this is where things got really murky. To fit in, didn’t I need to believe it? Or if I acted like I believed it, would I grow to believe it? Conversely, if I spoke my truth, would I let everyone down? And was my truth even true if people told me it wasn’t?
Given the complete muddle of my perceptions, it’s no surprise that I grew up learning to be inauthentic. I gave my power away constantly. I let other people tell me what to think and what to feel. I learned how to become who other people wanted me to be. So it made sense that I married into a family that prized image and conformity — and inflicted emotional and financial abuse on those who chose to be authentic. Namely me.
But also, by extension, to my children, who are growing up in a petri dish of divided loyalty and financial inequity and passive-aggressive warfare. Luca is now openly angry about some of the things that have gone on, while Franny tends to act like everything’s fine in order not to upset people. It is much easier for me to address Luca’s anger — because it’s out in the open — than it is to mine Franny’s tightly-sealed feelings. After years of wringing my hands over Luca, I am now wringing my hands over my daughter. I can only hope that if I let her know that I’m here to listen when she feels like talking, and I will validate her truth even if it upsets me, that she will grow up feeling entitled to be herself.
All I can do for my children now is show up, be open, listen, accept, and love. I have no clue what our family narrative will look like in twenty years, but I take some solace in Isay’s conclusion:
“No more putting on a false front to the rest of the world. No more building little fences around yourself…And the people who count in our lives, the ones from whom we keep our secrets and to whom we reveal them, also have a choice. They may be dumbfounded at the truth and hurt by the loss of trust…Some revelations stop relationships in their tracks. But others reveal the true person in our midst, the imperfect, limping, and often loving soul we cared about so much. And so we continue to care, and together we can rebuild, this time slowly, on a foundation of truth. We can build a house together…that is nourished by acceptance.”