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By the author of Walking on Eggshells, a compellingly readable journey into the realm of family secrets, offering lessons and insights for those who are hiding the truth and those who discover what has long been hidden.
Secrets, large and small, are a fact of human life. This book explores the impact of keeping secrets and the power of truth. Secrets can damage our sense of self and our relationships. Even so, Jane Isay has found, people survive learning the most disturbing facts that have been hidden from them. And secret keepers are relieved when they finally reveal themselves—even the things they are ashamed of—to the people they care about. Much depends, Isay writes, on the way of telling and the way of hearing.
Jane Isay was both a secret finder and a secret keeper. After fifteen years of marriage her husband admitted he was gay, but together they decided to keep it a secret for the sake of their two sons. Building on her personal experience, sixty intimate interviews, and extensive research into the psychology of secrets, Isay shows how the pain of secrets can be lightened by full disclosure, genuine apology, and time. Sometimes the truth sunders relationships, but often it saves them.
Powered by detailed stories and Isay's compassionate analysis, Secrets and Lies reveals how universal secrets are in families. The big ones—affairs, homosexuality, parentage, suicide, abuse, hidden siblings—can be ruinous at first, but the effects need not last forever, and Isay shows us what makes the difference. With specific guidelines for those who keep secrets and those who find them out, Isay's book reveals the art of surviving a secret.
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JANE ISAY is the author of Walking on Eggshells, about parents and their adult children, and Mom Still Likes You Best, about adult siblings. Formerly a book editor and publisher, she lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Birth Bombshell
When a significant secret is revealed, only the whole truth will restore trust
Each one of us has our own tailor-made book of Genesis. Who am I? Where do I come from? What is my destiny? The family stories that answer these questions form the bedrock of our lives, the basis of our identity. What happens when the revelation of a long-kept secret explodes that story in our faces? It feels like London in the Blitz. The bombs are falling on our sense of self, and we have nowhere to hide. We have to begin all over again. We have to rethink everything, fitting our experiences and all the explanations for who we are into a new story. We ask ourselves: How could the people I trusted most deceive me all my life? What else are they hiding?
It is hard to regain trust in parents who never told you that you were adopted. It takes mental gymnastics to get your head straight when you learn that your mother is your aunt and your cousin is your half sister. The world spins when your mother, who told you she was a widow, informs you that your father is not as dead as she had indicated.
The people in this chapter have struggled to come to terms with a most threatening secret: the truth about their parentage. First, they experience the secret for what it is—a profound betrayal. They become suspicious of the motives of the people who lied to them all their lives. Then they harness their anger and energy into searching for the truth. Only knowing the facts will help them create a new identity. For that is another source of anger and anxiety: Their life story has evaporated.
We humans have the unique ability to narrate our experiences—to ourselves. We are constantly processing and shaping the information that comes to our brains from our bodies and our senses. We organize all that input into narratives, which form the foundation of our identity. Some of them are about the past, others are about the present, and we use that same technique to imagine the future. Making these narratives is one of the brain’s mechanisms to promote survival. In this way we can massage the chaos of our experience and transform it into our stories. This continuous conversation, much of which is unconscious, allows us to eliminate dangerous options. It helps us imagine survival strategies and even make good gambling decisions.
These narratives are not immutable—they change as our experiences change—but they are fundamental. So when you learn some fact that upsets your founding story, anger, anxiety, and pain are the common reactions. That makes sense. You have to reassemble your identity in a way that accounts for the new information.
In the following pages, you will read about three women who discovered that they weren’t who they thought they were. You will also read about their search for their origins. All three found the truth, eventually. How they succeeded or failed in creating a narrative that allowed them to live with the people who lied to them is at the heart of this chapter.
Naomi, for whom everything that could go wrong did go wrong, suffers not only from the revelation of her origins but also from her parents’ inability to respond to her pain in a way she can tolerate. It’s bad enough to discover that you have been deceived all your life, but if your questions are met with silence and you can’t fathom the reason for the deception, the secret becomes radioactive. In the absence of an explanation from her parents, Naomi created a painful and damaging narrative of her own that warped her life.
The Anonymous Letter
Naomi was writing her dissertation, deeply engaged in the subject and determined to finish it. She was twenty-eight and ready to get on with her career. One day when she came home from the library she found a letter with no return address. She opened it with curiosity. It contained a bombshell: “You don’t know me, but I think you should know, I’m a member of your birth mother’s family, and you were adopted, and you should know for health reasons.” It ended with a promise: “I won’t contact you again.”
Naomi was shocked. This made no sense. She couldn’t be adopted. Nobody had ever mentioned it, and she had two younger siblings, so her mother was not infertile. Naomi and her husband were outraged. When a bombshell such as this lands, two questions rise to the surface: How could this be true? Why did they lie to me?
Naomi needed answers to both questions, and she needed them right away. Her parents had never been communicative—they were too self-involved, she thought. She knew she needed to be clever in pinning them down. So she called her brother, a lawyer, and together they concocted the perfect question: “How come you never told me I was adopted?” No room for wiggling. Her mother was home, and her father was at the office, so they divided up the calls and each sibling phoned a parent. Both parents gave the same response: “I can’t talk now. I have to go.”
Their stonewalling was painful for Naomi. Most of us react to shocking news with panic. The adrenaline rush and the anxiety make us restless, and waiting for answers can be agonizing. Think how time slows down when you await pathology results after a biopsy. Every minute seems like a day. This was true for Naomi and her husband. They were desperate for an immediate response and became increasingly furious as the day wore on. They sat by the telephone all day, from two in the afternoon until ten that evening, waiting to hear from her parents.
Finally, when the phone rang, Naomi told her husband to pick it up. She didn’t think she could speak to either of them. Her father, a professor and the designated bringer of hard news, spoke.
“How’s our girl?”
“I have a class tomorrow, so can we talk on the weekend?”
That was not a satisfactory reply. Naomi’s parents lived only an hour’s drive away, and if they had responded earlier in the evening they could have driven right over to see Naomi and her husband. Being told to wait until the weekend felt like an insult.
“Too late,” her husband said. “You don’t have any more chances now.”
He hung up. Her parents didn’t try to reach Naomi again. They didn’t call and say how sorry they were that she was hurt and how much they wanted to explain it all. They let it go. And Naomi let them go. Her response to their delay and subsequent silence was to separate from them. If these people didn’t care enough to help her when she needed it, then she wasn’t their daughter in any way, and they weren’t her family anymore.
They didn’t speak for years. She started referring to them as “the Bernsteins.” The initial bombshell fractured Naomi’s sense of the world, but without help from the people she had known as her parents, she reassembled the pieces in a way that made her story more painful. Their lackadaisical response to the crisis confirmed everything she had long sensed about her place in the family.
“I have a class tomorrow, so can we talk on the weekend?” cast in stone the story of her life as a second-class child. The delay felt familiar. It was how her parents always treated her. Naomi felt that she never came first when she needed their affection and attention. They never had time for her, she thought, and their tepid response to her crisis was just another example of their selfishness and lack of concern. Everything that she had suffered in the family now made excruciating sense to her.
Naomi, as the oldest child with a younger brother and sister, was given heavy responsibilities for the care of her siblings and only glancing attention from her parents. She resented this, but chalked it up to birth order. Even when she went off to college, Naomi felt neglected. During her freshman year her little sister, with whom she did not get along at the time, was having an emotional crisis. Naomi’s mother called and told her not to come home for spring vacation. Her presence would irritate her sister. Naomi objected. What was she supposed to do for those ten days, and where was she supposed to go? How could her mother ask this of her? “You give the most to the child who needs it,” was her mother’s response.
On the day she received the anonymous letter, Naomi needed the “most” from her parents, and they withheld it. So the revelation that she was adopted seemed to explain everything that had ever bothered her. Her serial rejections by her parents and their lack of attention suddenly made sense. She was not their biological child, so she didn’t deserve first-class consideration.
Naomi’s new story was about the adopted child who never counted as much as the biological children. Other fragments of her life came together to create a new picture. She remembered seeing a family snapshot taken at her college graduation and thinking, “Look at our ears. They are all alike—I must be a member of this family even though it doesn’t feel like it.” So she had always felt like an outsider. Naomi decided to check her own judgment. “I had one friend left who knew me from high school who knew my family very well.” She contacted her and asked, “Did they treat me differently?”
Naomi’s revised life story was taking shape. Her parents didn’t love her as much as they loved her sister and brother. They didn’t care about her feelings. Her personality was different from the rest of the family, and she got on her siblings’ nerves. She was adopted—that’s why. Why didn’t the Bernsteins rush over to her house the day of the letter, and why did they never try to make contact? She was adopted—that’s why. This news validated her childhood experiences, but she was still in the dark about the events surrounding her adoption. So in the absence of information from her adoptive parents, she started investigating.
First she went to her university’s forensic psych lab to see what they could deduce from the anonymous letter and envelope. It was sent by a woman, probably with secretarial experience (the greeting and the way the letter was folded), who had no special ax to grind. The forensic psychologist said that she should not worry about receiving any further communications from this person, whose identity remains unknown to this day. (The motivation for writing this letter, and the identity of the writer, is still a puzzle. But it changed lives.)
Naomi then plunged into the project of finding her birth parents. Vital records were not digital when Naomi was born, so she got a copy of her birth certificate, with the name of the real parents blacked out, but a good eye and a bright flashlight solved that. Now she knew who they were. Then Naomi reached out to the networks of people who help adoptees find their birth parents and located hers, as well as the agency through which she was adopted. It was Welcome House, founded by Pearl S. Buck, the Nobel Prize–winning novelist.
Twenty-eight years after she had been taken home by her adoptive parents, Naomi returned to Welcome House with a list of questions. The adoption agency gladly opened their files. Welcome House required that parents tell their child about the adoption when the child is old enough, a progressive policy for that era. Naomi’s parents had signed a form promising to tell her she was adopted. They also promised to furnish the agency with a photograph of Naomi, to send along to her birth mother. When the snapshot didn’t arrive, Welcome House wrote a letter saying, “Remember you promised . . .” They had kept her father’s response in their files. “I’m going to be famous someday,” it said, “and we don’t want somebody coming and wanting something from us.” That letter, and the fact that they did not abide by the policies of Welcome House, confirmed Naomi’s opinion of her self-centered parents. But it did not explain the circumstances that led to her adoption.
When she met her birth mother, Naomi discovered a new set of facts. Her birth mother is Japanese, so Naomi is biracial. That explained how she landed at Welcome House, an adoption agency that specialized in mixed-race babies, who were hard to place at the time. Her birth mother had lived in the San Fernando valley when she got pregnant at the age of eighteen. The father would not support them, and nobody would marry her, so she gave her baby up for adoption.
Like many adoptees who find their birth mothers, Naomi felt drawn to this woman. She learned that her birth mother became infertile after Naomi’s birth; this kind woman had given away the only child she could ever bear. Naomi felt terrible for her. She had more empathy for the woman who had given her away than for the people who had taken her in and raised her. She reveled in the warmth of this new connection.
Her search for the backstory continued. Naomi was still close to both sets of grandparents, so she went to them to find out what had really happened. Her maternal grandmother said that she had been instrumental in helping Naomi’s mother and father find a baby to adopt. Naomi’s grandmother was her favorite person. They had always been close, and Naomi believed that her grandmother’s love sustained her throughout her childhood. But that was all the information she could wring from that side of the family. Then she went to her paternal grandparents. They were “totally destroyed by my distress.” When she called her grandfather, “he would just start weeping.” They had been torn apart by having to keep the secret. Naomi was gratified to know that they loved her and felt awful about lying to her all those years, but she still didn’t have the story that would enable her to understand her adoptive parents.
Listening to Naomi’s tale, I was reminded of the psychologist Harry Harlow and his monkeys. In the late 1950s, Dr. Harlow devised a clever experiment to explore infants’ attachment to their mothers. He was working with baby monkeys, whom he separated from their natural mothers. He then created two fake mother monkeys, one made of wire and the other covered in terrycloth. One monkey had a bottle attached to it and the other did not. The baby monkeys preferred the soft monkey, whether or not it gave milk. The baby monkeys showed Harlow and the world that the babies needed more than food to sustain them. They needed softness and cuddling. Just like Naomi. Her adoptive parents, who had raised her in a secure home, educated her, and provided her with all the opportunities they could imagine, were the wire monkeys. They didn’t nurture her. Her birth mother, the one who provided her nothing, was now the one she loved.
Naomi and her adoptive parents have stumbled through the decades since the revelation. They began to speak and spend time together again, though the Bernsteins boycotted any occasions to which Naomi’s birth mother was invited. At one point Naomi and her adoptive parents went into family therapy, but it didn’t work for Naomi. By then she was so sealed into her anger and so sure of her version of the sad story that she could not be helped. She remembers one session in which her mother asked, “What do you want?” Naomi said, “I want you to apologize for hurting me, and then stop. Just stop there.” She never got the apology she needed in order to write another version of her life. Still they tried to get together, at least on holidays.
Things almost fell apart one Thanksgiving. Naomi and her sister never got along. All during the years of hostility, she sided with the parents against Naomi. By now she thought it was time for Naomi to get over it. They were standing in the kitchen, and Naomi was repeating her litany of complaints. The sister got furious. “She said I was trash, trailer trash, and I should be grateful to my parents for adopting me.” Her father stood there, silent. Naomi expected hi...
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