Every family has one. A secret that pervades the air at family gatherings like the smell of moth balls. A death, a betrayal, an imprisonment. A relative that falls from the family tree and vanishes without a trace. Secrets roll through the dust of generations like fragile tumble weeds. Sometimes they are collected and fashioned into tales that are embellished with bright beads of drama, or muted strands of omission. Sometimes they are made more colourful, more heroic, to lighten the terrifying darkness, conceal the senseless waste.
Film, literature and poetry depict the flawed hero, the Black Sheep, the Sacrificial One who becomes the Redeemer. We vicariously watch the Rebel, the circuit breaker deliver the seismic shock that topples atrophy in the family system. We rejoice in the regeneration, the potency of new growth. The BBC’s adaptation of Irish writer John Banville’s novels portrays the pervasive power of family secrets and our complex relationship with what can be told and that which must be unspoken. Gabriel Byrne in the title role of Quirke, (like Morse, we never find out his Christian name ) enters the portal of his past and attempts to untangle the dark knots of his family complexes: Affairs, addictions, misuse of power, and the redemption of Love. Sarah Polley, in her documentary Stories We Tell explores the twisted thread of secrets in her own family. She discovers that her mother and Montreal producer Harry Gulkin sequestered their love. That she was born of their hidden passion.
In Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, author Margaret Heffernan explores the subtle and pervasive ways we choose, sometimes consciously but mostly not, to remain unseeing in situations where “we could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know.”
And yet, we do know. Many of us spend much of our lives moving forwards, never daring to look back. At first we may run like the Gingerbread Man, as fast as we can, to escape the dark shadows of our inheritance. Or like Bluebeard, we keep the gruesome corpses of our memories locked away with the key that bleeds. Perhaps we stuff the dark terror of our past into a glass bottle where it floats across the sea but eventually washes up on the shores of future generations. Family secrets are intuited even by young children, unpicked, uncovered, with the best intentions by loving parents who wish to protect them from what they perceive as a dangerous truth.
Author of Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel, examines the western belief that there should be total transparency.“ In America, lying can never be an act of caring. We find it hard to accept that lying would be protective, this is an unexamined idea. In some countries, not telling, or a certain opaqueness, is an act of respect. Also, maybe the opposite of transparency isn’t intimacy, it’s aggression. People sometimes tell for their own good, as an act of aggression.”
Nations have secrets too. We turn a blind eye. Stay under the radar, in fear of reprisal, in terror of putting our lives or those of our families at risk. Like the frog in the beaker of slowly boiling water, we remain in physically or spiritually destructive environments as the temperature increases insidiously, lethal degree by degree. Often we must confront our past, choose differently, knowing that nothing will ever be the same again.
So often it is in our families we inherit secrets and lies and encounter conflicts and complexes that have ossified over many generations. Sometimes it is helpful to revisit the past. Sometimes it is not.
Joseph Marshall Lakota teacher, writer and story teller tells how he would go out walking with his grandfather, sometimes for miles. “He had this curious little habit of stopping and then he would turn me around, grab me by my shoulders and he would say, Grandson, look back at the way we came. So I would. I finally asked him, Grandpa, why are you making me look back? He said, Because, Grandson, one of these times I’m going to send you down this trail by yourself and if you don’t remember the way you came, you will be lost. To me, that is the greatest lesson I ever learned about history and about the past. Our past makes us who we are, makes us what we are.”
Like racehorses, some of us are destined to be weighted more heavily from the start. Perhaps in looking back, we learn how to walk bravely in the dark. We may glimpse in the stories, the artifacts, the letters and perhaps the old photographs, the strength, the creativity, the courage of those who have walked before us. In their pain we discover the portal to our fragility. In the opaqueness of their secrets, the bright spark of Divinity is concealed in the soft folds of their humanity.
Sting and Paul Simon, Fragile