The Family History Writing Studio

When to Write about a Family Secret

We all have them – secrets. Every family history has their share of secrets and as family historians, we generally will stumble across a few in our research. Uncovering a family secret certainly isn’t unusual. The arduous task can be in deciding whether to write about that secret.

Let’s first consider why people keep secrets.

  1. Fear of Consequences

Generally,  our ancestors kept secrets because of the fear of the consequences of family and non-family members finding out. Would your ancestor be kicked out of the house, would a spouse leave, lose a job. Secrets are often kept to protect a loved one or a relationship from such consequences.


  1. Judgement

Our family members were afraid of being judged. They chose the discomfort of hiding the secret over the possible pain of judgement. Fear of humiliation and judgement is one of the greatest fears we have as humans, and it drives many of us to keep secrets. Right and wrong is a man-made invention. Our beliefs, sense of right and wrong come from adults and authority figures in our life. To please everyone, we keep secrets about the rules we break, so that people don’t judge us.


  1. Shame

There is shame attached to the secret.  Societal norms dictated whether what our ancestor did was wrong. The shame of not meeting with those societal norms was enough to encourage our ancestor to engage in a secret.


  1. Poor choice

Our ancestor made a poor choice that couldn’t be corrected.  Our ancestor  then turned to hiding that poor choice.


Your ancestor may have engaged in a secret because of anyone of these reasons or a combination.


How do you decide whether to reveal a secret?

When it comes to writing about the family secrets we need to aware of the above reasons.  If these reasons still exist for your family involved, then you most likely are not going to get them to be open to you writing about the secret. If it will hurt someone and produce no benefit, then it shouldn’t be told.

However, you must also examine your motivations for wanting to know the secret. Is it selfish? Is it merely to fill in a blank on the family history chart or is it to write a juicy story?  Is it to get it off your chest, or do you feel a moral obligation to tell? Unfortunately, these are not good enough reasons to reveal a secret. If it is not your secret to tell, you must have the permission of those who were involved in the secret.  Then you must also consider their motivation in telling the secret.  Are they seeking revenge or is it time to let the secret go?

 If the ancestor has passed

If the ancestor has passed, and those that are involved in the secret do not have to worry about being judged or feel shame, then I think as writers we are free to write about the secret. However, I still believe it is paramount to come at the secret with sensitivity and to put the secret into the context of the time and place. We have to be open to using the secret in our writing as a teaching moment. A time to learn about the tough choices our ancestor faced. Writing from a place of judgement or revenge will not win you any points with your readers even if your ancestor has passed.


 If the person is still alive

I’ve always said if the individual or individuals who are at the centre of the secret are still alive and still fear a sense of shame or fear of being judged then it’s not our place to write about the secret.  If it hurts someone who is still living and produces no benefit to the family, then it shouldn’t be told. Unless, of course, they are willing to open up to you and you can infer in them, a sense of trust.

Sometimes secrets in our ancestor’s days wouldn’t be considered a secret today. Some secrets don’t carry with them the level of shame or judgement that they did in days past. However, if that ancestor is still alive, you can’t deny their feelings even if the rest of the world has changed.


Their Secret Went to the Grave

Often, ancestors take their secrets to their graves. There is just no way for us to know what happened. It is in times like these that we need to let it go and accept the fact that the secret will never be known and perhaps that is for the best.

It’s not enough to wrap ourselves in the cloak that family secrets are a part of the family history and a fact and we have to write about it. We instead need to consider family secrets as an opportunity to heal the family, to use family history secrets to a teach a lesson if not for this generation but the next.







August 12, 2016
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