Family Secrets Show the Way
It seems many, if not all families have at least one secret. Usually this secret concerns a perceived scandal—an illegitimate child, a deserted spouse, a stolen inheritance, a crime committed but not reported, or a mentally ill family member who is banished from sight. A family secret is not necessarily something that is never spoken about. It can also be an alternate explanation for an event that is accepted as fact when most, if not all, concerned know it not to be true. In order to write a memoir that recovers a piece of the past—yours or another family member’s—you will need to tap the tools of genealogy.
I first learned the ropes of genealogy in the course of researching the lives of my Irish grandmother Ellen and Grandfather Michael Costello. Although I’d never met either, they were central to the story I was writing in which I investigated three generations of my family around the theme of mental illness. When I set out, I knew that my father had become an orphan by his late childhood. I also knew there was some suspicion around Grandfather Michael’s death. My mother had once told me the story of his having died “accidentally” on a New York City railroad track. This was said in a rushed, strained conversation with the unspoken inference left that his death had not really been an accident. But then it was never spoken about again. Twenty years later, when my teenage son started developing symptoms of a serious mental illness, it suddenly became important to know my family’s mental health history. That’s when I decided I had to track down as much as I could about my grandfather’s life and death.
If the likely truth about my grandfather’s death ever entered my conscious awareness before I decided to get to the bottom of it, I chased the impulse away like so many dark things in the night. It was part of an unspoken family decree: the importance of getting on with things at all costs. Since then, I’ve learned why this course is neither wise nor possible; it seems there’s another rule with more sway over the human heart—and, if I can extend the metaphor, over the neuroscience of mental illness. It says whoever is denied his rightful place in a family will possess the hearts and minds of those left behind, unless and until he is acknowledged. For memoir writers, a family secret is like a lighthouse guiding a ship into a foggy port. This is where the gold nuggets lie for the finding.
Of course, unlike CSI, you might not complete your research process with all the facts tidily in place. You can still make a story from your journey of discovery. You can also use your intuition to come up with your best guess of what occurred, taking care to separate facts from hunches in what you write. That way, you allow your readers to join you in wondering about the parts that will remain unknowable. Everyone loves a mystery.
But the real reward in making such a search and telling your story is internal. It’s the healing that comes from restoring a member of one’s family to his or her rightful place in the family tree. The positive repercussions extend beyond the present and into future generations.
For more memoir writing resources
Victoria’s article about how your choice of a memoir plot reflects and influences healing: “The Implications of Plot Lines in Illness and Memoir,” read it on Neiman Storyboard.
Victoria’s new how-to book for memoir writers: