only means families had of creating privacy. In the stories we tell ourselves
about the liberalisation of social norms – be it the soſtening of the stigma of illegitimacy or the advance in gay rights – families are hardly granted a speaking part. Te grim- faced ancestor who excised evidence of a “feeble-minded” relation is cast as personally repressive but also helpless in the face of overwhelming societal dictates. Our explanations of why mores change focus instead upon public events: the formation of pressure groups, social movements and new laws. What we leave out,
though, are the sea changes that took place behind closed doors, as families confronted dread stigmas they had never before contemplated. Family secrets could carry significant psychic costs, but they could also stretch the boundaries of acceptable conduct. So that the family could escape censure, behaviour that was condemned would be covered up. The notion that your son’s
family secrets helped to create the intellectual and social bedrock upon which new legal distinctions would be built. As two world wars created
secrets were a strategy of defence and protection, a means of guarding a black sheep as well as the family’s reputation”
homosexuality was nobody’s business – not the law’s nor your next-door neighbours’ – did not erase your shame about the wrongdoing. But it lent legitimacy to the effort to shield an errant relation – and the family as a whole – from nosey outsiders. In some cases, as in the history of adoption,
successive waves of illegitimate children, the government joined with adoptive parents to keep their secret. Where civil servants had once insisted upon transparency in all matters relating to adoption and to illegitimacy, they now followed adoptive parents’ lead. Redesigning birth certificates and redraſting laws to accomplish what once would have been unthinkable – cutting off the rights of the birth mother – a new sphere of familial privacy was carved out of what was once the province of public shame. When their
daughter was 16, the Litchfields told her she was adopted, something they had vowed never to do.
Bolstered by protective laws – and increasingly by public indifference – “telling” replaced lying as the standard approach to adoption. Privacy would eventually become the right not to hide, but to tell without cost.
Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day by Deborah Cohen HB Viking Out now