How long do I keep this secret a secret?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY, MAY 8, 2011

My father is not my “bio-dad.” My mother’s lifelong lover is. Whom do I tell, and when?


Dear Cary,

I’m 44 years old and facing a dilemma concerning my father’s mortality. OK, it’s more complicated than that:

My parents divorced when I was 2 (I’m the third child, born six years after my next sibling, after my mother went through chemotherapy and had been told she’d never have more children). When I was in college, I learned that the friend of the family who had always just “been around” in my childhood was actually my mother’s lover — and my biological father.

I had always known that my mother’s marriage had been mostly an obligation: She was a “good Greek girl,” which meant that, despite being valedictorian in high school, she did not get to go to college, and she was expected to settle down with a nice boy from church. Now I understood that she had had an intense love affair with this married man (also Greek, from the same church) over the course of many years, that the affair became known to his wife and to my mother’s husband, my father. They ended the affair … except they really didn’t and a year or so later my mother got pregnant with me and concealed the truth for years … until my then-girlfriend-now-wife started asking questions about the man who was in so many “family” photos. My mother never found another love in her life, partly because she was dedicated to her kids and was exhausted raising us as a single mom with no child support, but partly because she and my bio-dad were an on-again-off-again thing for decades; he never left his wife and children, he has admitted that he’s been kind of a crappy father to his own kids, I’ve heard that he may have had other affairs and even fathered other children (though that seems unlikely and more like small-town spite) and he didn’t always treat my mother well (once he apparently called her and said he’d leave his wife for her … but only if she’d leave us kids; she wouldn’t speak to him for quite a while after that). At the same time, he was the closest thing she had to a true love, and I felt for her, for her loss, for the fact that one of the best things in her life had to happen in the shadows.

I tell you all of this as if it was passed along as a single story, but in reality I had to glean the details both before and after my mother’s death from cancer five years after I learned about my bio-dad. In the moment, my bio-dad was told that I knew; shortly after all of this was acknowledged, I brought them together for dinner in a nearby (and more anonymous) city and, when she was dying a few years later, I brought them together so that they could say goodbye. All of this was like espionage — no one could know because both spouses are still alive and the community would be scandalized. Even my (half) siblings didn’t find out about the affair and my parentage until after my mother’s death, which led to some hard feelings from them — not directed toward me, but unavoidably complicated our relationship as a family, which was already reeling after my mother’s death removed the center from our immediate-family lives. (My “father” is a nice guy but has been plagued with his own troubles over the years and is not interested in being the center of anyone’s life, though his relationship with me and my family is quietly kind and loving from both a geographic and emotional distance.) The fact of all of this deception has weighed on me.

My bio-dad and I have remained in contact even after my mother passed away 17 years ago. He’s now in his early 80s and his health is failing. Because of adult-onset diabetes, he’s gone blind and now is unable to do much of anything on his own, which means he’s homebound and I can’t reach him, because he fears his wife finding out — I have to wait until he finds time to sneak a short call to me. And even then, our conversations are surface-level: catching up, casual thoughts about the future, etc. Someday soon I’ll get a call telling me that he’s passed away and I’ll have to face the first of two decisions: Do I travel back to my hometown to attend the funeral? I ask myself what I hope to get out of the funeral, and while I don’t want anything out of it, I can’t wrap my head around ignoring the funeral of the man who is my biological father. I’ve lost my mother and my extended family has drifted apart, so I’m sensitive to the number of people I have in my life that connect me to my past. Will I regret not going? Will going be a whole lot of effort for a relationship that was never that deep or meaningful? Since I’ve been told that I look a whole lot like him at my age, will I be flaunting something potentially painful to his family?

The second question is more complex. Since I first found this out, I’ve been sure that I don’t want to participate in the lies, and everything that I’ve learned about my mother’s life and everything that’s happened in my family since I’ve found out about this has only reinforced my sense that these lies have consequences that echo down through generations. I’m not willing to bear that burden any longer than I have to and I certainly don’t want to pass it on to my children. I’m not interested in hurting anyone — especially the spouses who were deceived for years about this affair and my parentage; there’s some question about whether either spouse knows about me being the result of this affair, but I think if either does, s/he has repressed that knowledge. In time, however, I need to be able to be truthful with my own children about their family history. Both in the name of factual truth (god forbid there’s some need to ask a genetic relative for a donation) and in the name of not being visited by the sins of the father, I feel this is the right thing to do. Back before my bio-dad was ill, I talked it over with him, suggesting that he either talk with his kids or leave some sort of letter in the event of his death. He was wary but said he’d think seriously about it … and then his health spiraled out of control and it just hasn’t felt like I could bring up the subject without sounding like the grim reaper discussing plans for the rapidly approaching end.

My thought is that I could wait until a while after his estate is settled so that any contact from me doesn’t look like a play for money and, assuming he’s left no notification, write a letter to his children basically just letting them know the history and that I desire nothing more than that each of us know the truth and be able to speak the truth — though certainly not before the spouses have passed away. In that way, I’d let them know that I exist and that I want nothing from them, but that I’m here if they are open to making contact on whatever level at some point in the future.

Am I crazy to want to do this? Is it a violation of his kids’ privacy? Of their desire, perhaps, to not know that their father betrayed their mother for most of his marriage? Do I wait to contact his other children until both betrayed spouses have passed away as well?

Genetic Truth-Seeker

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Dear Truth Seeker,

Whom you tell and when is important, but before you can make those decisions, something else comes first.

You must first make peace with the facts. That is not a simple matter. It will not be quick. It will involve looking honestly and at times painfully at all the ways this family secret has shaped your life.

You were raised in an atmosphere of secrecy and lies. That sounds harsh but it is true, and it is a gift; that is, it provides you with a fact-based framework in which you can begin to sort out who is your true, beautiful, shining self and who is the self that has been taught to hide, to keep others’ secrets, to carry the legacy of shame and darkness into yet another family generation.

You say, “The fact of all of this deception has weighed on me.” Of course it has. It is safe to say that it has weighed on you more than you know. What will bring you lasting peace is understanding how this legacy led you to make the decisions you have made, and how it continues to affect you today. Your task in life from this moment forward is to examine in honest detail the many ways it weighs on you and how it has shaped your decisions. This is no less than the task of uncovering your life’s meaning. It is the task of uncovering who you really are.

The question of your paternity is important, but it is also a metaphor. We all seek to understand where we came from, as individuals, as family members, as members of racial, religious, ethnic, political and national groups, and as a species. We all come from mystery and contradiction. But those of us whose paternity is a settled matter do not have the added burden of knowing that if we speak the truth we may incur the wrath of others.

We do not have to walk around wondering what will be the reaction of others if we tell the truth. You, on the other hand, must face the fact that telling a fundamental truth about yourself will have explosive consequences. This must be a burden indeed.

It is the burden of the truth-teller in the family. Truth-tellers are often attacked. They upset things. They draw attention to themselves, and to matters others would rather not acknowledge. In this way, a family in which a secret is being kept is similar to a family in which some other secret — of addiction, abuse or alcoholism — is being kept. It also has echoes in the national cultural debate about who we are as a people, as tempers flare when we talk about the “founding fathers” and “where we came from.” That is because questions about origin lie at the heart of questions about existence.

What kind of a person are you today? What secrets are you yourself keeping? How has the habit of keeping secrets to protect others affected your ability to love, to create, to be loved, to be a part of the world? How has it affected your sleep and your health, where you live and what you do with your time, your capacity for forming friendships, your work life, your intellectual interests, your passions? These are the things that you can examine if you have a regular course of therapy or peer counseling. What is your relationship with the church, whose power and views on sin influenced your mother to keep her behavior, and thus your origins, secret? How has this experience and this knowledge informed your notion of a “normal” life? Has it caused you to assume that everyone lives lives of deceit? Where else has secrecy and deceit crept up in your life? When you sense family secrets are being held in other families, are you drawn to them? Do you find yourself enmeshed in workplace intrigue? Do you find it easy to be honest with others about where you come from? Or are there dark areas that you have walled off?

Like an alcoholic or the child of an alcoholic, in the story of your family secret, you now have a narrative, like an origin myth. One part of the narrative is the search for your true identity. Another is your search for your real family. Another is the uncovering of clues to your own behavior: Why you made certain decisions, why you have reacted at times the way you did, why your relationships are the way they are.

Those of us who have such a central narrative often express a gratitude that strikes others as odd. But we are lucky because a fact like this can be an organizing principle. By studying the effect of this one secret, you gain the opportunity to uncover the core mysteries of your life: the particular ways this family secret has affected you. That is what you are now tasked to discover and make peace with. If we talked at length, some of those ways might emerge. But I am not a therapist. You and I won’t be meeting every week to talk about this. But I do suggest you find someone with whom you can meet every week to talk about this. It would be to your advantage if that person were skilled in family therapy and had experience with stories like yours. But it might also be someone who has simply been through what you have been through. The important thing is that you meet regularly over a period of time, at least a year. It takes time to see the truth.

I would really like to see you commit to a long-term process of uncovering the ways in which growing up in an atmosphere of secrecy and lies has shaped your choices in life and your day-to-day behavior. This kind of thing is best done by meeting regularly with a psychoanalyst, psychotherapist or psychologist — someone trained to help as individuals break through the veil so we can see reality.

Reading other people’s stories is one way of coming to grips with your own story. Telling your story to others who have similar experiences is also helpful. By apparent coincidence, today’s Family Secrets site features a story about learning who one’s father is. Various newspapers, magazines and television shows also cover such stories, and in their protagonists you can find kindred spirits. In a sense, these people are your family — your spiritual, or experiential family. They are the people likely to recognize how you feel and how you have lived your life, better than your own family.

Another interesting affinity group is the stepfamily letters project. Telling our stories is one part of the process. Another is learning about Murray Bowen and family systems theory.

You seem to be a good man. This situation is hard. I commend you on your journey to find out what this story means to you.

Your life is the story of a secret. Unearth the secrets of that secret.

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