Memoir Writing: The Power of a Family Secret

by Ruth Zaryski Jackson, Guest Blogger

In my family, no one ever talked about my maternal grandfather. I always thought he’d died before I was born. I learned not to ask questions, until one day when I was about fifteen my mother received a call and I overheard her end of the conversation. When I asked about it, she said her father had just died in a mental hospital in Brandon, Manitoba. I probed further and the truth about his mental illness came out.

Family themes. Family legacies. Family legends, stories and secrets. All are compelling topics for a writer to explore. I’ve been thinking about this since reading an article called “A Family Theme, a Family Secret” by K.L.Cook that appeared in Glimmer Train in 2008.

A family theme may or may not include a family secret, but a family secret is always a family theme, even if nobody talks openly about it. Children may not know the secret, but they learn what’s okay, or not okay to bring up. They unwittingly collude with parental norms set to keep and perpetuate the secret. Often the secret continues because parents feel a sense of shame, the need to protect children and force compliance to a standard set by a previous generation.

If your grandfather was a horse thief and went to jail, your parents likely knew about it, yet may never have spoken of it to you and your siblings. When you ask questions like “What was Grandpa doing in 1930?” you get a vague response such as, “Oh, I guess he was farming.”

If you are curious—as writers are—something nags at you. You reach the age of wanting to know about your roots. You want the details of your family history. Something doesn’t make sense. You begin a quest to find the answers. You delve into genealogy. You interview old-timers in the family. You talk to older cousins. Some stonewall you while others are willing to talk. In some branches of the family this story may not have been a secret. You push on. You discover the records. There it is in black and white.

Perhaps you go to your parents if they are still around and ask about it. “Why did you never tell us?” Suddenly they’re talking freely: “You never asked.” “We were trying to protect you.” “We wanted you not to carry this stain.” “We wanted the best for you.”

As a writer you’re then faced with a dilemma. Do you tell the truth, and perhaps alienate family? Fictionalize and still alienate some? Omit the secret, even though it’s the driving force in your family dynamics? Or, write about it in a sensitive way, taking into account all points of view and the mores of the times?

The answer is not always clear. In her novel Under this Unbroken Sky, Shandi Mitchell fictionalizes the heartbreaking story of her grandfather’s life but, using multiple points of view, tells the truth of what happened to him.

What is kept secret can vary by family, by culture, by ethnicity and by time. Epilepsy, mental retardation, schizophrenia, manic-depression (now called bipolar disorder) or dementia were not widely understood or accepted in the 19th and early 20th century. Having a sick family member was something to be ashamed of.

Accidents could be kept secret, as could the death of a child if the circumstances were dodgy and someone felt guilty or responsible. Until recently, suicides were never mentioned. Stories of family addictions, violence, abandonment, sexual abuse or incest were seldom passed down or, if they were, they were told in a way that diluted, denied or shifted any wrongdoing.  The truth about illegitimate children or those raised by someone other than their parents was often hidden. Sexual philandering and divorce weren’t discussed. Sexual orientation outside the norm was often denied.

Family proclivities for thievery or other illegal activities could become a family secret. Jail records or time unaccounted for would be glossed over in telling the family story. A successful family might, for example, deny the origins of their financial gains during prohibition.

I heard about another kind of family secret when someone I knew was trying to figure out connections to a grandfather who left behind in Europe a wife (who didn’t want to emigrate) and children. They discovered that he had “married” a second woman and raised another family—theirs—in Canada.

In  some families hardships, such as immigration and poverty, were considered noble and the result of overcoming humble beginnings; in others, immigrants denied their roots and ethnicities, changing or Anglicizing their names when they moved to cities or needed a job. A tangled web for descendants to unravel.

In writing memoir or life-based fiction we need to consider if there is a theme running through the story of our family. Some may develop over several generations, and even evolve into a legend and serve to unify reflection on one’s family. For example, “We come from a long line of sea-faring men who daily risked their lives for their families.” What if you, or your story’s character, didn’t want to go to sea or the fishing had dried up? Or, “Our family have always been wealthy and prominent citizens who cared about social issues.”  How would this message have affected you, or the character in your story?

Family themes are handed down through stories and values from our grandparents and parents; but sometimes we get different messages from each side of the family. My mother’s values came to us over the years more by example than language.

  • Work hard.
  • Take care of the men and children.
  • Go to school and enjoy learning.
  • Look on the bright side.
  • Always offer visitors a cup of tea.
  • Listen to people and try to understand them.
  • Act like a lady.
  • Set a good example (for younger siblings, friends’ children, cousins).
  • Save your money in secure term investments.

These values were at the heart of her own family. As in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average,” in my mother’s family, the women were strong and the men were good–looking but often “dreamers.” Women were the glue that held the family together. Men tried, some harder than others, but often stumbled. Women carried on, supported each other, their children and their husbands; some, only until they no longer could, others for the duration.

“We were poor, but smart and good-looking” was another repeated theme, taken to mean that we could make something of our lives in spite of our humble roots. No excuses were permitted. The riches of Canada could be ours if we worked hard. After all, wasn’t that why our ancestors had left their homeland?

My father’s parents remained in his village in Western Ukraine after he immigrated to Canada at the age of sixteen. He remembered his mother as “perfect” and his father as an “autocrat” he hardly knew and didn’t get along with. So he married a strong woman and sometimes had difficulties in his role as a father. His advice to us revealed his values:

  • Go to school and get an education.
  • Work hard.
  • Be loyal and take care of your family (including neighbours and people from your village).
  • Tell the truth, even if it hurts.
  • You’ll have to live with the choices you make.
  • Pick your friends carefully.
  • Help your mother.
  • Exercise your freedom and vote (or “wote,” as he would say with his accent).
  • Drink in moderation.
  • Shovel the walk.
  • Plant a garden and fruit trees.
  • Look after your roses.
  • Don’t skimp on quality in shoes, clothes or furniture.

These were the underpinnings of our lives when we were growing up and they contributed to our own values, emotional lives, anxieties and dreams. The story of his venturing to Canada alone at the age of sixteen with no skills and no English is on its way to becoming a family legend.

Family secrets can be the juice of your story whether you are a writer of memoir or fiction. Family secrets can mould character, develop plot, or create a crisis. The power of trying to suppress the secret can create the kind of tension and conflict among characters that every writer longs for. If you’ve structured your book as a search or a mystery, discovery of the secret can form the climax.

In real life, the power of a secret is in its repression. What can result is chronic anxiety, family conflict, personality problems or a need to reinvent the self. For the writer, revealing the truth through writing can be a freeing journey. Once you commit the details to paper, the emotional charge is lifted.

I still haven’t decided exactly how to tell my story. Whatever form I choose, memoir or fiction, I know I need to be sensitive to others’ feelings and keep the details of family secrets where they belong, in the background. I will focus on myself and my own story.

RUTH ZARYSKI JACKSON has been writing memoir and poetry for several years. In 2008, her story “Room in My Heart” was published in the anthology The Wisdom of Old Souls and in 2010 two poems, “Knowing You” and “Wash Day” were published in the anthology Grandmothers’ Necklace. Visit her blog: Memoir Writer’s World.


  1. Linda Dawn Pettigrew says:

    Wonderful essay on an interesting topic! Thank you Ruth. Insighful and helpful….more?

  2. Greg says:

    Hi Ruth, Great insights into a “problem” or “opportunity” I come across quite frequently. I know of a couple in my own family and in particular when a maiden Great Aunt of mine burned a whole trunk full of family history just to make sure the story never got out. little did she know that my 82 year old mother had been in the trunk when she was 12 and could tell me quite a bit about what was lost. But oh as an historian I ache when I think of what went up in smoke.

    Culture, ingrained training from parents and absorbed standards from the life and times our story tellers lived in have a huge bearing on what and how they are willing to share. Respect is the guiding light in my research and as you suggest perhaps dancing around the edges and asking “respectfully” others who may be able to bring information to you before working towards a more careful conversation with the key story keeper.

  3. Thanks Linda Dawn for your comments. Glad you found it helpful.

    Greg, Thank you for your comments and interesting reflections on the topic. Funny how some family members want to learn everything about their ancestors, good or bad, and others want to present a more sanitized history to future generations. I’m glad your mother was one of the curious ones!

  4. Thanks Ruth. I am having the same problem of how to chronicle the story – an amazing story of an English woman who goes out to Africa in a ‘marriage of convenience’ in 1930, becomes a highly successful tobacco farmer – and my life interacts with hers – in Africa. Everyone says it must be the story of the two women but I find that difficult (trained journalist) to put myself into it as my story may be as interesting as hers, perhaps moreso. I’ve bumped against a wall, many times on this. Any ideas where I might go to scrape myself off the wall? I am back in Toronto after 40 odd years, mainly in Africa………… Thanx, Peggy J

  5. Hi Peggy,
    Just spent a workshop weekend with my writing group and Allyson Latta (check out her courses) dealing with this very topic of structure and theme. You have to decide what story it is you want to tell and find the best way to tell it. Is it your memoir? or fiction based on your experiences? or is it two stories? Start by writing your personal stories/memories and see where it leads. The structure can come later.
    Thanks for reading my essay.

  6. Peggy,
    Your link is not working.

  7. Hi Ruth

    I just came across your essay and it is a gem!Thank you for your detailed and practical insights into writing lifestory. I especially like your ideas about identifying themes and family rules,You’ve done a great job with this essay! Nice to see your lovely picture as well.It’s been a little over a year since we met in Cincy and I feel like that conference was my jumping off point for getting serious about writing my memoir.

    Write On!


  8. Always good to hear from you Kathy.Thanks for your positive comments and encouragement.
    all the best,

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