Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Book Review: Family Secrets

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Family Secrets

Author: John Bradshaw

Author's web site:

Publisher: Bantam

ISBN: 0553095919

Length: 297 pages

Quote: “I call this journey into the family's secret world soul-searching. Soul-searching attempts to go deeper into our family's reality than we have ever gone before.”

Family Secrets  is a workbook for people who want to consider their family history as a saga of interconnected, interrelated stories.

People who discuss their family history with a psychotherapist are usually looking for the emotional roots of their emotional problems. That's why the process has slipped out of fashion. By now the consensus of opinion among baby-boomers is that anyone who still has emotional problems has to have a mood disorder—although the younger generation aren't getting anywhere near the opportunities we had to work through their emotional problems without having misleading mood-disorder labels slapped on them.

People can, however, discuss their family history with their mates, parents, children, and grandchildren. Bradshaw encourages this approach. Not every behavior learned in a family is dysfunctional. Not every secret is necessarily unhealthy; Bradshaw discusses the benefits of preserving “healthy secrets” by respecting people's privacy about prayers, birth and death, pain, body functions, self-image, success or failure, possessions, intimacies, and suchlike. The ultimate goal is for families to connect or reconnect, but without necessarily blabbing everything everybody knows.

Unhealthy secrets are of course the ones that protect things other than people's healthy sense of privacy. Telling others which neighbor needed an emergency loan, and why, might be sharing prejudicial information that would make it harder for the neighbor to get another job. Telling others that you were the one who dipped into the petty cash drawer, even though you let the temp be blamed and punished for it, is the first step toward making amends.

The family secrets of interest to Bradshaw tend, however, to be the unhealthy ones that poisoned family life by causing bizarre adult behavior that was never adequately explained to the children. The freaky cousin (who said something unforgettably cruel to one child, and exposed herself to the other) didn't just have an unexplained heart attack at twenty-nine; she overdosed on illegal drugs. Bradshaw does not intend to cast the family as the root of all evil, but if you grew up around prog-trogs who did, it was easy to overlook Bradshaw's affirmation of family values in his discussions of bad's instructive that his list of good kinds of secrets takes up most of one page, while his list of bad kinds takes up four full pages.

In practice, however, if you want to work through this kind of thing during the annual family gathering, you may find that any sick secrets in your family past have healed themselves. Without psychological help. Some counsellors used to try to scare patients by saying things like, “I've never known of anyone who got over THIS all by himself/herself.” I'm probably related to someone who did. We're a whole family of genetic alcoholics who recognize the symptoms and just don't drink alcohol.

You might have a great-aunt who was once advised to keep it a big secret, but is now completely comfortable telling even the children, “The year I went to Berkeley...I did stay with friends in the city of Berkeley before your Cousin Joe was born...his father was a fruit picker who didn't speak English.”

When it's possible to explore family legends that reach far back into the past (Bradshaw encourages this), it's almost always fun. Making it a rule to challenge stories that cast ancestors in a good light will sometimes reward us with the delicious discovery that an ancestor was actually more heroic than we'd expected. Often little is known about an ancestor, but connecting with distant cousins to find out what can be found may yield fascinating results.

Should you share your own secrets with younger family members? Bradshaw discusses some of the pros and cons of telling secrets toward the end of the book.

There's also an appendix with a discussion of repressed memories and pseudomemories. I'd be happier with Family Secrets if Bradshaw had simply said, “If you've used any drug that's classified as a 'selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor,' don't trust anything that may pop into your mind as a new memory. Treat it as a pseudomemory unless someone else remembers the same event.” He doesn't, and so in my opinion he dances around the issue without getting to the main point.

Anyone interested in this kind of thing should read Family Secrets. There is, however, one potential reader I'd warn off this book. That's the person who's had a lot of interpersonal problems that have convinced the person that s/he has some sort of emotional problem, yet when the person has read books or talked to therapists, none of the standard “early childhood trauma” scenarios seems to fit. In desperation, some therapists and some insight-seekers have tried working with the assumption that this person must have repressed all memory of some truly terrible early childhood trauma. Bradshaw was a smarter therapist; in Homecominghe discussed the profile of a person dealing with a later childhood trauma—or with simple miseducation—that didn't leave the person feeling like an abandoned infant, but did leave the person lacking in communication skills, understanding, and so on. Often these people can skip the emotional drama and focus directly on learning what they weren't appropriately taught in elementary school. (Worked for me.) For this person, Family Secrets is the right author's wrong book; it'll be one more self-help book that ought to help but doesn't. Read Homecoming instead, and then come back, later, with the relatives you have now absolved from blame for the emotional issues and/or communication problems you acquired at school, and thenexplore your Family Secrets.

John Bradshaw is still alive, so any of his older books qualify as Fair Trade Books: $5 per book + $5 per copy to the address at the bottom left-hand corner of the screen, Bradshaw or a charity of his choice gets $1. If you buy, say, Homecoming and Family Secrets together, send us a total of $15 and Bradshaw or his charity will receive $2.