Telling Secrets in Memoir

by Kerry Cohen

In one of my favorite memoirs, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, Sue William Silverman reveals the long-buried family secret that she was sexually molested by her father from age five to eighteen. Although she started writing the memoir two weeks after both her parents had died, within a few years of each other, she is aware that she exposes her father, who was a high-ranking government official and banker. Why would Williams have risked his reputation? Some might think she was after revenge. If she smeared his name, she’d finally show people who he really was. But when you read the poetic sentences, when you follow the emotional finesse of her experiences, you know that isn’t the case. Rather, Williams wants to be freed from the constraints of her secret. She writes:
It’s a relief to no longer hide behind a veil of secrets. Growing up, I lived a double life. On the face of it, we seemed like a normal, happy family. My father had an important career, first in government, then in banking. Nice houses. Pretty clothes. But all this seeming perfection was a veneer, a facade, for the other life. It masked the reality that my father sexually molested me, a reality never spoken aloud either in private in our house or in public.
When you expose family secrets, it’s easy to feel like a tattle-teller. It would be easier, it seems sometimes, to stay silent, to allow the lies to continue. Sometimes telling secrets can feel like it will kill you, or it will explode your family to bits, because the secrets and lies formed the structure and foundation on which your life—on which all their lives—were built.
If you are a woman, this pressure might be even stronger. It was Tillie Olson in Silences who noted that “women are traditionally trained to place others’ needs first, to feel these needs as their own.” Indeed, when one approaches life this way, she lives with the illusion that others’ needs are her own needs, and so to write about secrets is to betray not only the family, but your entire sense of self. Heavy stuff, right?
Yet, if you don’t share your secrets in writing, it is almost impossible to have true intimacy with the reader. Think of it in relation to an affair. It was the family therapist Frank Pittman in Private Lies who wrote that in an affair the issue is less with the person with whom one lies and more about whom one lies to. He notes that the person with whom you have secrets is the one with whom you’ll feel more connected, more intimate. And you will feel uncomfortable with the one from whom you’re keeping truths. If we apply this to memoir, your reader will not feel close to you if you hide behind a veil, and as I emphasize again and again in this book, it is the readers’ relationship with your story that matters most.
Frederick Beuchner says in Telling Secrets:
[Secrets] are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition—that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.
If indeed we read memoir to see ourselves more clearly, if we write memoir in order to know ourselves, then secret-telling is an essential part of memoir. It always will be. I would argue that you cannot write a memoir without divulging secrets. Patricia Hampl calls memoir writing “a hunger for the world.” That is exactly what it feels like, doesn’t it? A voracious desire for more connection, more you, more me, more truth.
Sue Williams Silverman helps us again:
I teach creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and sometimes I’ll have a student who feels paralyzed about writing family secrets. So I remind my students that they’ve already lived through the dark, scary time. That’s in the past. Now, it’s a matter of putting it down on paper, and now they have a support system to help them if they get scared: They have their fellow writers, their faculty mentors, friends, and so on. In short, they are not alone. So I tell them just to focus on one word at a time … then one sentence, then a paragraph, then a page … and soon they’ll have a complete manuscript. But basically, in this moment, all you need to do is write one word.
All you need to do is write one word. All you have to do is write the next word, and then the next. Initially, that really is all you have to do. The anxiety you might have about divulging secrets is irrelevant if you don’t ever write the book or the essay. So, write it. Write it anyway. The writing itself is a kind of courageousness that lifts you from the ways in which those secrets controlled you. The page is safe. The people who give you feedback—mentors, peers, and friends—are safe. No one here will shame you. No one will tell you to not tell the truth. Just get the words down, each one a footstep across the vast desert of the secrets that try to keep you from writing them.
So how do you write about your secrets? You just do it. You write. Because if you don’t, you may always wish you had. Victoria Loustalot wrote about how her father kept his homosexuality a secret for years, and her grandparents were upset that she included the secret in her book.
I wrote the book I needed to write. I knew there was a chance they wouldn't understand, and they don’t. I don't think they ever will, frankly. I want to live an open and honest life. A life in which love and acceptance are the foundation for all of my relationships. And that’s what this book is. That’s what it’s about: honesty and acceptance. I feel awful that I hurt my grandparents, but I was tired of the secrets. The secrets stop with my dad’s generation. I just won’t do it.
Secrets often have this flavor. They often lead to the memoir you need to write. Consider The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison or House Rules by Rachel Sontag, both books about the secret worlds that existed behind the closed doors of childhood and young adulthood. Had they not written their secrets, a different truth might have ruled their lives, one that wasn’t true for them and was therefore harmful to their psyches.
Jillian Lauren says:
It’s a cliché, but my experience was that the truth did indeed set me free. It set me free to be myself and not run from my past. In fact, it was such a great experience that now I’m hooked on writing from my life. The experience of creating narrative out of the events of my life has been tremendously rewarding and liberating for me, even on a small scale.
When you write about the confusion that ensues from secrets, you make something amorphous and terrifying into something understandable. Keeping silent about secrets doesn’t make them go away. Instead, they grow monstrous, less understandable, and even more frightening.
Consider, too, that telling your secrets may save someone else from harm. Gigi Little said that she does obsess over the possibility of hurting someone when she writes memoir.
However, then that essay on my computer screen turns into an essay in a book or a journal, and my neuroses let go. I see it in print, and the story becomes less about what I’m saying about my life and the people in it and more about what the reader finds in it about hers.
Memoir is bound more to the reader than the writer. It’s the reader who must see herself in your words, who must have a relationship with your story that will transform her in some way. Releasing your secret will surely release someone else’s. It may give your readers the courage to face their own painful truths, to speak out, and to change their own narratives. Sue William Silverman had this experience.
What means the most to me are the e-mails I receive from hundreds of people who thank me for, in effect, writing their story, too. Many people thank me for my books, telling me that, because of them, they don’t feel as alone. They now know they are not the only ones struggling to recover from incest or sexual addiction. Always, this will be more important to me than possibly upsetting family or friends. I’m willing to risk the loss of friendship, risk relationships with family members … risk anything in order to be able to write my narratives. I am a writer. Nothing can change this.
Kim Barnes found that revealing family secrets freed her father as well. Before writing Into the Wilderness, her father had shunned her. While she wrote, however, they began to discuss the details of the books. She said that by allowing herself to be flawed and vulnerable and compassionate, her father felt the desire to be as well. He told her he didn’t want her to publish those secrets, but he believed she should anyway. It was a great gift for Barnes. She says, “It changed my life for the better. We cannot underestimate the love and permission that our families will give us if we believe in what we’re doing for the right reasons.”
This is an excerpt from Kerry Cohen’s book The Truth of Memoir: How to Write about Yourself and Others with Honesty, Emotion, and Integrity.