Family Secrets Deborah Cohen

Viking, pp.372, £20, ISBN: 9780670917662

It is a truth universally acknowledged that secrets are toxic and break up families. Today we look back smugly on the bad old days of the stiff upper lip when skeletons were kept firmly locked in their cupboards. We think we know better. The English, once famous for their secretiveness and reserve, have become addicted to confessional culture. Celebs expose their childhood scars in misery memoirs, and transparency is hailed as the greatest good.

In this timely book, American historian Deborah Cohen challenges our complacency. The history of secrets and their relation to the family turns out to be far more complex and vastly more interesting than might be imagined. In spite of our much-vaunted openness, we hide away our mentally disabled children. Domestic violence is taboo and kept behind closed doors. Nor is secrecy always such a bad thing. As Cohen shows, our grandparents used it as a family strategy to deal with shame and misfortune; and it worked.

When East India Company servants in the late 18th century returned home with vast wealth, they sometimes brought along their illegitimate Eurasian offspring (the Indian mistresses were always left behind). Any sign of Indian blood meant social death in Georgian England, so the children had to be passed off as white. To do this, the nabob needed to make his family in Britain complicit. Parents and unmarried sisters were let into the secret. Mixed race children were anxiously scrutinised for giveaway signs such as ‘black downiness’ on a little girl’s upper lip. Sometimes this strategy was successful — Cohen gives an example of one half-Indian who ended up an heiress and happily married to an Englishman — but if the story got out, it could end in the family being ostracised.

‘Nothing changes more than the notion of what is shocking,’ wrote Elizabeth Bowen. Victorians were twitchy about race and sex, but they attached no stigma to imbecile children. Naively optimistic middle-class parents bundled off their children — many of them so-called ‘mongolians’ — to homes such as Normansfield on the outskirts of London, where the kindly John Langdon Down promised a cure. The children were nicely dressed and their parents often visited. But Langdon Down, who gave his name to Down’s Syndrome, came to realise that many imbecile children were incurable. Twentieth-century eugenicists brought the stigma of shame to mental illness, which they branded as hereditary. At Normansfield, the children became permanent residents. Their parents ceased to visit. In the 1960s a scandal of neglect and abuse was revealed, and — like many asylums — Normansfield was closed down.

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Cohen’s chapters on the early 20th century are especially enlightening. The middle-class family was more than ever a Pandora’s Box, though the secrets had changed since Victorian times. Adoption was legalised in 1926; it was shrouded in secrecy. For the adopting couple, hiding the fact that their child was adopted mattered a lot because this was an era when infertility was seen as shameful and non-normal. People went to extraordinary lengths to conceal adoption — wives checked in at nursing homes, returning home a month later bringing their new babies. Secrecy was considered to be in the best interests of the adopted child as well, protecting them from the stain of illegitimacy and the shame of working-class parents and prostitute mothers.

It was the same with bachelor uncles. Gay liberation narrative sees the family — and especially mothers who withheld affection from their sons — as oppressive. In fact, as Cohen shows, families were often supportive of queer sons and brothers. But the price of acceptance was silence — everyone knew about it, but no one mentioned it. This secret, however, was harder to keep hushed up than infertility. Unlike children, gay men could not be controlled by their families, and during the 1950s they became visible and rebellious.

The breakdown of secrecy began with the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act, which made divorce possible, but also made court proceedings public. Publicity was intended as a deterrent, but in fact it brought a monster into being, as divorcing couples washed their very dirty linen in public and the court proceedings were reported in the press. Cohen claims that this threatened middle-class privacy, but the sensational Victorian divorce cases which she relates here did not involve the middle classes. Charlotte Capel and her scandalous, twice-divorced daughter Harriet were aristocrats — in fact it was because of Charlotte’s bad behaviour that she was disinherited by her father Lord Maynard in favour of his three-year-old granddaughter, who grew up to become the equally scandalous Daisy Warwick.

Family secrets were safe as long as the middle-class family remained strong. In the 1930s people worried about a crisis of the family. They tried to fix it with a new invention: marriage guidance counselling. The solution that marriage guidance aimed to achieve was permanent monogamy and the joy of sex. This was too optimistic, and it didn’t work out as planned. Counselling released a flood of lurid confessions, but the clients usually failed to show for a second appointment. Marriage guidance acted as a confessional, but the family wasn’t getting fixed.

The real onslaught came in 1967. The anthropologist Edmund Leach announced in his Reith Lecture: ‘The family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents.’ Over at the Tavistock Clinic R.D. Laing launched an all-out attack on the family, which he savaged as repressive and controlling. Philip Larkin set this to verse: ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.’ Psychiatrists persuaded their middle-class patients, many of whom bore no grudges against their parents, that all their problems could be blamed on mum and dad. When the 1969 Divorce Act introduced no-fault divorce, hundreds of thousands jumped at the chance to escape their marriages.

But the family was not destroyed. Instead it was reinvented. Cohabitation, civil partnership, divorce, re-marriage and single parenthood have become the norm — the unanticipated result of the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. The secrets of the old nuclear family are gone. But as the boom in internet-driven genealogy and the success of programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? reveal, people today are obsessed with discovering their family and its secrets.

Historians who write about families are usually feminists who think in terms of gender relations. Cohen’s concern with secrets and shame is original and revealing. In places the argument seems a little forced — the material about the changing relationship between privacy and secrecy reads like a clever academic paper, and it doesn’t quite work. This is not an easy book, but it’s an important one. Family Secrets is thought-provoking, well-written and remorselessly intelligent.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated