CW: Sexual Assault

The day after our president died was the day that several festering realisations bubbled to the surface. It was a disorienting morning. I remember waking up early on the 18th of March, and before reading the news, I sensed that something would be off. Having disappeared for weeks before, I checked my phone to find that the former president Magufuli’s death was the top story on national and international news outlets. Later that morning, my younger sister and I were on a call with our older sister, who lives abroad. The news shocked us. More than anything, we were fearful of what would follow with the coronavirus situation in Tanzania. By March, we had arrived at a terrifying place with cases rising rapidly and covid-deniers maintaining the status quo. 

The true extent of coronavirus in Tanzania had become a national secret. But it wasn’t the only one that we discussed that morning. Prompted by the topic of secrets, my older sister shared one that had been dormant for the past 20 years. On the 18th of March, my younger sister and I learned about our other siblings for the first time, and life hasn’t felt the same since. 

The fabric of our family remained unchanged. But this new understanding that my family was bigger than I thought sparked my fascination with family secrets and their effects. It reminded me of Tennessee Williams’s play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which I read in 12th-grade English class. In Williams’s play, dishonesty and lies in the family are represented by cancer that threatens to disrupt an established order and cause immense damage to the patriarchal body that symbolises the characters’ family unit. 

My fascination was probably a way to cope with my new reality. I’ve spent the past few months reading a lot about the nature of family secrets and having conversations with my sisters about the effects that they’ve had on us. For how common they are, I wished someone told me that the source of my internalised shame wasn’t the secret; it was the idea that some of the realities in my family had to be kept a secret in the first place. What fueled my negative emotions was the sense of betrayal and how I experienced this betrayal against a false narrative that said functioning families were supposed to be free of marred communication that created these secrets. I believed that the existence of family secrets made my family defective.

Family secrets are more common than we think:

Over the past few months, I’ve learned that family secrets are more common than they seem. In her article ‘Families, Secrets and Memories’, Carol Smart states that while it’s difficult to record how widespread family secrets are, their anecdotal prevalence reveals that ‘there is a cultural tolerance for secrets’ (539). She further explains how family secrets often have a purpose, often in ‘sustaining kinship relationships’ (540). I found Smart’s article the most exciting literature I’ve read on the topic because of its focus on the significance of secrets as a sociological phenomenon. 

The article introduces a theory that explains how secrets in a family are the bridge between our ‘idealised version of loving families’ dictated by cultural norms and the actual families that we live with. Secrets ‘allow us to create a family story’ that mimics an ‘ideal or mythical family’ (541). Beyond saving face from the real and imagined consequences of these secrets being revealed, secrets in a family can help them maintain control over a shared memory that family members create and pass along through their lineage. Smart reasons that the reveal of a family secret finds its danger in its ability to rewrite a family’s story and its identity as hypocritical.

Smart also discusses the complex morality that forms the basis of family secrets. While secrecy is interpreted as ‘bad’, privacy is seen as ‘good’, which often drives families to keep secrets from one another and outsiders. Secrets can then morph into things like inside jokes and exist just below the surface when they are not recognised to be what they truly are. The ways that these secrets are covertly or overtly concealed becomes a ‘reflection on how families imagine they should conduct themselves’ (549).

The corrosive effects of family secrets:

I also learned that family secrets could be as benign and temporary as parents hiding birthday presents from their kids to large and traumatic ones that threaten to destabilise the family structure and relationships. These ‘larger’ secrets range from an undisclosed sexual assault experienced within or outside the family to addiction and extreme debt. 

Secrets are also a lot more complex than just one family member withholding information from others. They can involve two people keeping secrets from others (for example, a father and mother keeping an impending divorce from their children), which creates harmful ‘sub-groupings’ within a family. They can also involve an entire family keeping secrets from outsiders (like a history of mental illness or true biological relationships within the family). Sarah Epstein explains how shared secrets across an entire family may intend to protect ‘the family from judgment’ but can end up alienating members of the family from the world, causing them to invest more energy in maintaining their secret at the cost of outside relationships.

While significant family secrets can enhance the bonds between family members, they can often isolate the members who aren’t involved and create tension that builds up until the moment that a secret is revealed. As Smart explains, family secrets like mine that have to do with genealogy and undisclosed siblings can have the ‘power to be disruptive’ if they aren’t disclosed until much later because they can alter or damage how family members relate to one another. 

At a subconscious level, even before a secret is revealed, it can damage ‘an entire family’s mental health’. The idea that ‘something is off’ can lead to feelings of shame in those who don’t know the secret, which can turn into full-blown depression and anxiety after some time. For family members who are keeping the secrets, the possibility of being found out can create an air of stress and a ‘breakdown in communications’. At a transgenerational scale, secrets can pass the threshold of one generation and be carried over to the next. Keeping secrets can become synonymous with keeping a family happy.

Healing from the damage:

When I first learned about our secret, I confronted other family members about it. I was motivated by the need to hear the whole story before I could begin reconciliation and acceptance. For more complicated and far-reaching secrets, this may not be safe or feasible. Before all of this, it is vital to recognise and honour how deeply learning a family secret has affected you. It’s necessary to process an extensive range of emotions, even if learning a family secret doesn’t (initially) feel like a big deal. Grief, disgust, and apathy are all normal things to experience, and it’s a part of the process of acknowledging the shock or trauma that the secret may have caused you.

I found that processing my emotions looked like checking in with myself every couple of weeks in my journal about how I feel and accepting any changes I have throughout the healing process. Ignoring or suppressing how a secret has affected you can delay your healing. Lastly, deciding how to move forward with this new knowledge and its consequences can include:

  • Asking for more time to process the secret.
  • Renegotiating boundaries with your family.
  • Seeking counselling or talking to someone trusted outside of your family.

This is especially helpful for working through complex feelings like grief or betrayal.

What helped me the most was recognising the motivations behind family secrets. Reading about the pervasive effects of shame around topics like mental illness, divorce, rape, criminal behaviour, and relationship issues and functionality and how they influence a family or certain members within a family to keep huge secrets meant that I could understand how family secrets are encouraged to operate within cultures and communities. I realised that family secrets exist as long as society reprimands anything other than ‘the perfect family’. 

Artwork by Alessia Daniel

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