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'90s FAMILY : Sometimes, Honesty Just Isn't the Best Policy


The language of recovery sometimes describes the family secret as the "elephant in the living room," a huge problem made invisible by an unspoken "no talk rule."

According to conventional wisdom, "families are as sick as their secrets," and people who want to be healthy should confront, expose and talk about them. Honesty has become the norm; afternoon talk shows have become virtual elephant stampedes.

But is it always right to reveal those years of addiction, that abortion, that criminal conviction, that affair or sexual orientation?

In real life, telling a family secret can be a high-risk undertaking, fraught with the threat of disaster as well as the promise of peace.

Popular family writer John Bradshaw says he learned the hard way that it might be better not to drop the veils. "I've been confronted, even by members of my own family, about violating their privacy," he said.

Six years ago, Bradshaw, the author of "Family Secrets: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You" (Bantam Books, 1995), was appearing on talk shows and giving workshops declaring families were as sick as their secrets, advising people to come clean for their own emotional health. "I came out of a no talk, no feel family, and the initial thing when you start talking and feeling is you do list to the other extreme," he says. "It's a learning process."

Encouraged by his own therapist several years ago, he says he revealed an adult problem to his son, who was too young at the time to comprehend it and had problems of his own as a result.

Now, he takes a more common-sense approach. "You have to look at who's involved, who will be affected and who needs to know about the secret," he says. One guideline he uses in deciding whether or not to tell is, "Could someone be hurt more by exposing than keeping the secret?"

In his opinion, addictions still need to be confronted and children have a right to know some secrets, such as if they have siblings. On the other hand, he says he has been surprised by marriages that were saved because a secret affair "took the heat off" disputes long enough for the couple to resolve issues.

The outcome of revealing a secret may be determined in some cases by the reason for telling. The summer issue of Dialogue, a newsletter by mental health professionals for creative writers, observes that family secrets are too often told to punish, shame or manipulate others in the family.

But family secrets can also be told out of a sense of responsibility, or to reclaim personal integrity. Many people experience tremendous personal growth by opting for personal integrity over family loyalty if the secret reinforced unhealthy dependencies or squelched one's authentic self.

When the problem is the attitude of society outside the family, it is crucial for people to talk openly about formerly taboo topics, says Robert Bernstein, author of "Straight Parents/Gay Children" (Thunder's Mouth Press, 1995). Even though the climate has become much friendlier now for gays who want to come out, their relatives are reluctant to talk about it.

"I hope the many millions of parents who say they accept their children but are uncomfortable talking about it, even with relatives, would realize the way they are harming their children," he says. "The only way being gay wrecks your life is a society that drowns you in shame."

In some groups of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, members practice telling a new family member about their gay child or grandchild.

Despite talk show mania for disclosure, the road to understanding may not be quick or easy for family members. While some taboos have fallen, others remain firmly entrenched.

Says Bradshaw: "My own guideline is, the more deeply something has been considered shameful, the slower you have to go."

His book quotes Emily Dickinson: "The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind."

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