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'90s FAMILY : Seeds of Shame and Scandal : Every family has secrets--both good and bad. And to understand your history, you have to accept both.

October 26, 1994|BARBARA BRONSON GRAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mary Ann Ruelas had a great-grandfather who was part of a group that waged a violent attack on the women and children of a group of Apaches in Tucson in 1871. The issues were complicated and the rules of the game in the Wild West were ragged at best. But Ruelas was never told about the scandal.

It was in reviewing court documents from the period that Ruelas, assistant director of programs for the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles, discovered the unmentioned truth. "It never came down in oral tradition through the family," she said.

"What's notable is that the situation must have been incredibly fascinating at the time," said Ruelas, adding that the slaughter, known as the Camp Grant Massacre to historians, almost caused President Ulysses S. Grant to declare martial law in the state. But Ruelas and her parents knew nothing of her great-grandfather's involvement.

Psychologists and historians say that many families contend with some issue that they either embellish over the years or consistently work to cover up or ignore. For some, there's a real pirate in their past; for others, it might be an adolescent pregnancy, a murder or a suicide.

The most exciting stories may elevate the scoundrel to heroic proportions generations later and be told proudly to children or new acquaintances. But the distasteful scenario that could lower the family's social standing or public image is most often kept mum, said Chaytor Mason of Pomona, a retired USC professor of psychology.

"Probably everyone would like to have a spotless family tree. So we either ignore those stories, or modify them, or glamorize them," he said.

For many families, facing their titillating past may require a level of honesty and self-esteem that can be hard to come by, said Lili Endlich, a Sherman Oaks marriage and family therapist. "People want everyone else to think they're perfect and wonderful. We compare our insecure insides to other people's competent and well-functioning outsides," she said.

It wasn't until Endlich's mother's death that she learned that her grandmother had sold cocaine in St. Petersburg, Fla., after her grandfather left to fight in World War I. "People did all kinds of things in war and desperate circumstances, but in quieter times, no one talks about it," she said.

Those at greatest risk for suffering from a family scandal are people whose sense of self is closely related to the family name or to their parents, said Barry Slone, a clinical psychologist and marriage, family and child therapist in Laguna Hills.

"Our sense of self is tied to our parents and to the family," Slone said. "We identify with the other person, they're a piece of us, and we internalize the situation. People wonder, 'If this could happen to someone this close to me, perhaps there's something wrong with me.' "

A Thousand Oaks woman who asked that her name not be used attended her birth mother's funeral not long ago and felt tangible tension among friends and relatives as they discussed the time 40 years ago when "Louise had to go away to Boston." Even such a long time later, the family referred to the then-controversial unwed pregnancy as "the situation," the woman said.

But times change, and what was a scandal at one time may be more--or evenless--understandable generations later. In Ruelas' case, people of this decade could in fact judge her great-grandfather's actions more harshly than would his 19th-Century peers, given the violence of the era.

"What's shameful in one period may be honorable in another," Mason said. "I can foresee a time when we'll be burying photos of grandpa just because he had a cigarette hanging from his mouth."

Even what you hear or remember cannot be accepted as is. Mason had a patient who believed that she had witnessed her grandmother killing someone in Glendale years ago. Mason researched the issue and eventually discovered that there was a movie out at the time with such a plot, and the female star looked a lot like the woman's grandmother.

Some people struggle with the memory of having their own personal scandals swept under the rug, forcing them to deny their pain or avoid discussing what they were facing with their family and friends. Laura, the daughter of a prominent Southern California attorney, said she attempted suicide at 12 and later became pregnant. Her parents ignored the situation, then admitted her to a psychiatric facility and continued to refuse to allow her to discuss the issues, even years later, she added.

"Their attitude changed my whole life. I sabotaged all my relationships, found it hard to make friendships, was always afraid that if I didn't act right, someone would put me back in the funny farm," Laura said.

Ignoring scandals doesn't necessarily ease the tension for most families, Slone said. Typically, it reduces communication on many levels among family members, because individuals have to avoid a host of topics to ensure they won't tread on dangerous turf.

What can be particularly tough is accidentally stumbling upon a family scandal that had long been hidden. "There's a sense of deception, of feeling left out, of not having been equipped with all the armament to face life," Mason said. And for most people, once a family scandal is discovered, they want to know more, he said.

For Ruelas, learning about family scandals is a natural way to tackle history and develop a better understanding of one's personal past. "I know some people carry a lot of guilt from the past," she said. "I think we have to put these things in perspective."

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