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Copyright © 2000 Trish Williams

Family Secrets

 


The Secret of Suicide - Charles Williams

 

One example is the realization that my father never talked about his own father (my grandfather Charles Williams) who committed suicide in 1943 when my father was almost 13. Although it is not uncommon for death by suicide to not be openly discussed and for shame and guilt to often surround suicide, it remains unhealthy. I never thought about my grandfather as either a presence or absence. Because he was so effectively erased from the family history, he did not exist for me. While making my film I realized the importance of this issue and how the repression of this in my father’s life was numbed by his use of alcohol. I found myself very angry at my father and his mother for this unhealthy family amnesia. I searched to fill this void and find some answers. This family secret directly related to to my father becoming alcoholic, my family’s collective memory of forgetting or denial, and was experienced by me as a memory crisis. This led to my re-examination of this part of the family and my attempt to re-align the family memory.

Apparently my father’s family armor allowed him to deeply submerge this painful incident in the Williams family history. I did discover photographs of my grandfather (Charles Williams) that my father had kept hidden. When my father spoke of grandpa, I never realized that this was his grandfather, not my grandfather. It really was never even an issue for me until my father went into alcohol rehabilitation centers and he had to write a family history. It became a fleeting issue for a short while during this time, which turned into a burning issue many years later as I produced my film. I also discovered from my cousins that their mother (my father’s sister) had also not discussed this family secret, and similarly they had no image of Charles Williams.

Bradshaw in his book Family Secrets touches on secrecy issues relating to my film including suicide, shame, alcoholism. “The ability to keep things secret is an essential human power that all human beings possess in order to protect themselves.” (Bradshaw 5) He then refers to constructive secrets, and destructive secrets, with alcoholism and suicide being the latter. Bradshaw states that the secrecy, shame and mystery of suicide, if not discussed by the mother, lead the children to continue the secret. This was clearly the case in my father’s family. Traumatic events are denied and made into dark secrets. Silence prevents the healing experience of the grieving process. Behind the secret of the suicide was the family’s shame. Survivors of suicide feel anger, guilt, shame, depression, isolation, denial, complicating the grieving process. Families with secrets are among the high risk types of people for becoming co-dependents.

My Mother’s Family Secrets

From looking at my family background I noticed that how we chose to represent ourselves to others, was based on things that we thought were important to maintaining the family appearance. I found a very interesting example of this on my mother’s side of the family. In 1995 my mother’s aunt and uncle put together a genealogy book of her side of the family. We all were asked to submit an autobiography. My mother was also asked to write about my father and her mother (now deceased). Upon later reading these two biographies in particular, I realized the significance of what was said versus what was not said, which is very important in how we remember family members. I realized how my father’s biography had no mention of illness or struggle with alcoholism. In my mother’s view, this does not belong in a biography. I began to think how illnesses such as alcoholism and cancer are important to future family members and I feel it should be mentioned. These are illnesses that can have genetic factors, that you can see passed down through the generations. Why not print this information in a book? It seems all right to mention her father's death from cancer in his biography.

My mother seldom spoke of her mother’s (Louise Tudor) struggle with alcoholism and substance abuse that she struggled with throughout her life, ultimately until her death (a fate parallel to my father’s). Although she rarely spoke of this side of her life, she did speak of the better qualities of her mother and of the pleasant times she had with her. What she neglected was the embarrassment and reality of her mother’s alcohol problems that were part of her experience that were not so wonderful. The family genealogy book did touch on Louise’s family background, the tragedy Louise experienced losing both parents at an early age, being put in an orphanage and being teased about being adopted. Later when Louise’s adopted parents both died, she pleaded with an Uncle to adopt her, which he did.

My mother did write of her biological parent’s brief marriage in the family genealogy book. Because Louise Tudor chose not to discuss her first husband (my mother’s biological father) there is no biographical information about him. Both of my parents had a history of a parent that was not spoken of.

This same grandmother (Louise Tudor) also became pregnant with my mother, married briefly and then divorced. This birth secret was another event that was never spoken of. When I asked my mother a few years ago, she told me that her mother actually lied to her, as well as her own parents, about my mothers true birth date until my mother was about 16 years old. Because she had become pregnant with my mother before she actually married, this was something which was considered a public disgrace in 1931. My mother has told me that her mother always said to her it is not appropriate to discuss one’s personal family business with others. Clearly this was part of the learned family attitude — the family armor.

Connected with this birth secret that her mother Louise maintained, was my mother’s unspoken biological father. My mother loved her father (non biological, yet her true father), and we all loved him as a grandfather. I did not know that my grandfather, was not my mother’s biological father until I was 18. From my mother’s perspective, this was the only father she knew, so it was not an issue for her. But I feel the silence regarding her biological father was deceptive as well as secretive. When I did finally discover this information I found it extremely startling that I had no awareness of this fact, but it seemed to be common knowledge in parts of the family. I think that because this fact was never mentioned to me, when I did become aware, it made me wonder why I was never told. This only made it more of an issue. The fact itself has little importance, yet the underlying issue is of importance.

It is easy to inherit and maintain family secrets such as the alcoholism and suicide that were in my family. In explaining group dynamics within a family which foster the family secret, Bradshaw states

“The secret-keeping parent or parents guide their children’s perceptions. In short, children learn what the parents want them to see and what they do not want them to see. Consciously or unconsciously, the secret-keeper selects a “safe” focus of attention as a way to divert attention from the “dangerous” secret. We know well what subjects are permissible and what are not. ” (Bradshaw 76)

A Marriage of Secrets

I see a similar pattern when I look at my mothers' and my father’s sides of the family. So similar in fact, that it makes perfect sense why my parents were attracted to each other. With this similar denial or family silence about flaws in the family history, it made them able to have a relationship where neither one had to discuss these issues, and the family pattern of silence and denial could be continued and passed down to the next generation. In the film my mother spoke of the time she felt she had to tell my father about her mother’s alcoholism prior to their marriage, which she stated was her secret. It was such an embarrassment, that she felt she had to throw it out to allow the possibility of his rejecting her prior to marriage. My mother seemed surprised that my father accepted this part of her family background. She did not yet realize my father’s own family secrets, which he was unable to reveal to her, they were so great. So my father accepted the shame of the alcoholism within my mother’s family since it fit in with his own family model, as well as the fact that he himself indulged in alcohol.

Sue’s Secrets

My sister feels the effects of our dysfunctional family —my father’s absence has negatively impacted her life. His emotional distance and absence did greatly effected her. She ended up in a dysfunctional, physically abusive relationship with a boyfriend for several years. This became her own secret, that she tried to hide from the rest of the family. In the past she felt anger toward the negativity of my father’s actions within her life. We both grew up in the same family and she was only one year younger than me. Yet her memories are more negative than mine. Also, since the original film interview in 1997, as well as with Dad’s death in 1999, Sue’s perspective has changed and she has broken out of her former state. Like myself, she is willing to openly discuss and confront these issues, trying to breaking the dysfunction and family secrets.

Charlotte’s Secrets

Another important issue is the absence of my oldest sister from the film. You might have noticed three children present in some of the family photos, but only two of us spoke in the film. Why did she move to another state to go to college and never return home? Why does she choose not to tell her perspective in the film? Is she perpetuating the mode of family silence? Has she avoided her own struggle with these issues or dealt with them in her own way?

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