Family Secrets

KNOWLEDGE IS power in Washington, and none are more powerful than those who traffic in the secrets of state. For 25 years Madeleine Albright has lived in this milieu, moving confidently from the casual confidences of the legislative lobby to the pinnacle of diplomatic posts, where she is fed a daily diet of eyes-only, top-secret papers. But as the world now knows, even in a job that starts each day with spy-master reports and top-secret briefings, there can be another kind of powerful secret all too familiar to Albright's countrymen: secrets of the soul.

Thanks to the disclosures of the last fortnight, she is no longer--publicly or privately--merely the stunningly successful daughter of brave Czech immigrants. Now she is also the child who was kept in the dark of secrecy--never told that her grandparents were Jews who perished in the smoke of Auschwitz and Terezin; raised falsely on a glorious but invented history of Prague Easters and peaceful Catholic deaths. But for her position as secretary of state, Albright would be allowed to come to terms quietly with her new history. She is, after all, too accomplished, too mature, too busy, to have her identity reshaped at this late date. But public figures, in this age of full disclosure, don't have the luxury of private space and time. ""I've seen the questions from people wondering why I didn't put it together,'' she said last week in an exclusive interview with NEWSWEEK. ""I regret that deeply. This is not a good analogy, but let me say if it never occurred to you that you were adopted, why would you think that you're adopted? It was not a question.''

Few revelations can be more unsettling than those that tamper with our own notions of identity. To learn--after years of carrying a sense of self as intimate as one's own skin--that you are not really the person you thought you were can be as shattering as going through an earthquake. Especially when you're young. ""It unseats your faith in the order of the universe,'' says writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who fainted when she was abruptly told that her idealized parents had both been married before, and that her older sister was, in fact, her half sister. When she revived, she found her parents kneeling beside her, apologizing for not having told her earlier. She was 12 at the time. At 57, Pogrebin retains an unassuageable skepticism about surface appearances. ""You can't take anything for granted,'' she says. Lesli LaRocco, who first learned at 27 that she was adopted, says the knowledge has shifted her whole perspective. ""People will tell you it doesn't matter . . . but in fact it does change everything,'' she says.

Secrets, personal and otherwise, have become common currency in an era that holds the sex life of presidents no more private than the mating habits of elephants. Like it or not, we now know the commander in chief's choice in underwear and that he may have a half sibling, left behind by his traveling-salesman father. Once scandalous matters like divorce, infidelity and illegitimacy have been devalued, their power to shame defanged. People now advertise their intimate problems on TV talk shows, or even on the Internet. Click on the ""alt.support.step-parents'' newsgroup and behold this posting, from Sandi: ""I am a single parent of a two year old boy. His father left me a week after I told him I was pregnant . . . My son is in daycare and he sees the other kids with Moms and Dads . . . What do I tell him?''

As a society, we are neither as open-minded nor as shockproof as we affect to be. There is still a list of secrets families keep, but it has been abbreviated to such issues as criminal records, mental illness and homosexuality--which remains tightly closeted in many parts of the country. AIDS is often covered up. Suicide can still prompt families to close ranks against the curious.

For the wounded and perplexed, there is comfort in knowing they are not alone. They can seek therapy, serious and pop. John Bradshaw, the self-help guru, captivated a PBS audience with his ""Family Secrets'' series and turned his companion text into a best seller. There are examples to be taken from the arts. From the tragedies of Sophocles to the comedies of Shakespeare, this has been the stuff of theater; the Oscar nominations last week featured ""Secrets & Lies,'' a brilliant British film about the reconciliation of a white mother with her long-lost and never-discussed black daughter. Or the wounded or merely curious can seek relief in records. By some accounts, tracing family histories is second only to gardening as a recreational activity for Americans. PBS is now running a new 10-part series on family-history research called ""Ancestors.'' From African-Americans searching the manifests of slave ships to the descendants of the first families of Vladivostok plying the Internet, Americans seem determined to pull on their roots (page 32).

Some secrets are pernicious, and the most damaging operate within the family itself. They create peculiar gaps in communication, a ""zone of silence'' in which certain matters cannot be discussed. Sometimes everyone knows the secret, says family therapist Evan Imber-Black, director of family and group studies at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. ""But the unspoken rule is, we're not allowed to know we know. So relationships get shot through with silences, sudden changes of subject. When there's a central secret, people start talking in funny ways, almost in code.'' They form alliances, dyads and triads, in which some are ""in'' on a secret and some are not. ""More and more topics go off-limits,'' she says.

Secrets beget secrets; lies beget other lies to sustain them. Covering up for a drunken parent may plunge the family into a whole pattern of concealment. ""You see it in families where there's substance abuse,'' says Imber-Black. ""Where the rule against noticing things becomes the overarching way the family does business, that's going to play out around other things as well.'' Children have great radar for these blank, forbidden areas, and they can be especially vulnerable to the fallout. Often parents will come into therapy with the complaint that a child is lying. ""Time after time,'' says Imber-Black, ""we find lying is in the family; it's not something the child has invented . . . When they are being tricked in some way, they will act out the same behavior, metaphorically.''

Lies are thus transmitted across generations. In one typical case, for which Imber-Black functioned as a consultant to family therapist Peggy Papp, a mother brought in her 15-year-old son Kevin, who had been failing at school and stealing money from his parents. ""The boy is lying,'' Imber-Black remarked to Papp after one therapy session. ""Where is the lie in the system?'' The ""system'' was eventually traced to Kevin's great-grandmother, whose penchant for lying and petty theft was never discussed in the family. Also, Kevin's mother herself had been perpetuating the cycle by hiding the truth about his father, an alcoholic and a drug dealer, because she was terrified the boy might follow in his footsteps. Papp first debunked the mother's notion that lying and stealing are genetic. Then she suggested to the mother that ""Kevin was being loyal to the tradition of secrecy in the family by being secretive,'' and that the best treatment was the truth.

Papp's and Imber-Black's insights helped Kevin's mother break the tension between herself and her son by talking candidly about the father who had abandoned the family when Kevin was an infant. A year later the boy's misbehavior had all but ceased, and he was doing much better in school. ""An adolescent's lying and stealing, or a young woman's bulimia, may be ways to comment metaphorically on the unmentionable,'' says Imber-Black. ""A symptom may be a symbolic expression of powerful emotions connected to the secret.''

Most families have secrets, and surprisingly, adoption continues to be one of the most common. Under enlightened practices, children are told about adoption more readily than in the past. But in the interest of protecting them, many parents keep adoptees in the dark, setting them up for possible future shock. When they eventually find out, there is, among the rush of sensations, a crushing sense of betrayal-- of being the victim of a kind of elaborate hoax. Lesli LaRocco can laugh now when she recalls some of the ludicrous deceptions that were used to conceal her adoption. She doesn't know how she missed the clues--all the subjects never discussed, the questions not answered, from innocent ones like ""Mommy, did I come from your tummy?'' to more troubling ones like ""Why am I so tall when everyone else is so short?'' Her grandmother once offered a reason: ""I have some very tall cousins.'' LaRocco, in fact, was a wispy blonde in a family of stocky, dark-complexioned Sicilians, but she never questioned the anomaly. ""Children get signals from their parents about what's off-limits,'' she says.

LaRocco's parents were separated, and she didn't learn she was adopted until a few months after her mother died, when the man she had known as her father for the 27 years of her life told her. For a time, she couldn't trust anything. It wasn't only the one big lie she had been told, but ""the 1,000 lies that supported it,'' she wrote in an adoption Web site. She began reading everything she could find about the subject and diverted her growing rage into anger at the adoption system itself. ""It was easier to be angry at the system . . . than it was to be angry at my dead mother,'' she says.

LaRocco remains indignant at the system that perpetuates the still undisclosed secret in her life: the identity of her birthparents. ""The state participates in the lie,'' she says. She has joined an adoptee activist group called Bastard Nation, which distributed leaflets at screenings of ""Secrets & Lies'' pointing out that, unlike Britain, 47 U.S. states still deny adoptees access to birth records. Most such domestic secrets are even crueler, because they are unnecessary, LaRocco believes. ""In the end,'' she says, secrets ""are always destructive, because they are based on shame.''

It's the secrets born of shame, embarrassment or desperation that are most likely to surface sooner or later. ""Most people can't keep that kind of secret,'' says Dr. Carol Nadelson, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. ""You're always in this danger zone. You can't have anybody know. You build one lie on another lie. You can't be free of it.''

Some people nevertheless bring it off--while the secret is in their control. Madeleine Albright's father, Joseph Korbel, apparently never wavered in his assumed guise. Colleagues at the University of Denver, where he taught from 1949 until his death in 1977, were astonished to learn that he was Jewish. John Silber's story closely parallels Madeleine Albright's. Silber, a chancellor and former president of Boston University, was baptized in the Presbyterian church. He learned catechism, went to Sunday school, took his first communion and sang in the choir there. In the church also was a stained-glass window that his father had donated in honor of Silber's grandmother Elizabeth Silber. Then, at 33, while in Germany on a Fulbright scholarship, Silber met a cousin who expressed some surprise that he didn't consider himself Jewish, like some other members of the family.

Silber was stunned. His father's relatives, like his father, had never struck him as anything but observant Christians. But he later learned that one of his father's sisters had died in Auschwitz, and that his great-grandfather had been a renowned Jewish scholar and artist in Berlin. Silber's own father had come to the United States as a sculptor on the German pavilion at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. He had never alluded to his Jewish background--not even to Silber's mother, who was equally shocked at the news. Silber himself has adjusted to the idea. ""I am who I am, and that is not altered by this,'' he says. He believes his father freely chose to convert to Christianity and freely chose not to discuss his decision. ""He slammed the door shut on that part of his background, and he kept the door shut,'' Silber says. Still, even at the age of 70 Silber feels a gnawing doubt. What troubles him is that while he had considered himself ""a very close friend'' of his father's, the disclosure seemed to call their whole relationship into question. ""I realized I did not know my father as well as I thought I did,'' he says.

The stress of bottling up secrets takes a psychological toll. Deborah Blanchard has direct evidence of physical effects. In the late 1940s Blanchard, who is white, entered the New England Conservatory and fell in love with a black man. Both families objected, but the couple moved to a black neighborhood in Boston and had a son. By the time Blanchard was pregnant with their second child, the marriage was dissolving. She divorced her husband and moved back to her parents' home in Lowell, Mass. Her sons were not accepted in the white community there, and when the oldest reached school age, she decided the children would be better off living with a black family. She put them up for adoption, then tried to resume her life. But she was tormented by the decision and, oddly, she lost her trained lyric-soprano voice. ""I was never able to sing after that,'' she says.

But that wasn't the end of the story. In 1963 Blanchard got married again, to a white man. She mentioned the earlier marriage only vaguely and said that because of a childhood accident she couldn't have children. In truth, she'd had her tubes tied. More than 10 years passed before she confessed her past. ""His eyes filled up,'' she recalls. ""What he was disturbed about was the fact that I had carried the burden by myself.''

The marriage survived, and Blanchard went on to search for her sons, finally finding them in 1979. In the happy epilogue, the family was reunited, the secrets were told and, almost miraculously, her singing voice came back.

A single, toxic secret may skip one generation, then pop up to plague the next. Home in Georgia during a Christmas break from college in 1991, John Brown (not his real name) got an unusual Christmas card from his grandmother Elsie (not her real name), whose lunch invitation he had passed up the last time he was home. On the blank side of the card Elsie had written a note confessing that she had had ""a relation'' with a man named ""Mike McMurphy.'' She had married another man, ""George Brown,'' at a time when she thought she might still pass the child off as his. That child was John's father, still living, and without a clue as to who his own real father had been. ""Needless to say, this was a shock,'' John says.

Over lunch, Elsie told John she felt she had been forgiven long before for what she did. ""I'm, like, "Well, if you feel forgiven, why do you need to tell it again?' '' Elsie explained that if John had children, she didn't want him to worry about one of them turning out like his schizophrenic aunt--one of two children she had with the man she married--who was in and out of hospitals and often violent. ""She said, "I'm telling you for your sake, not your father's'.''

Revealing the truth brought Elsie and John closer. Two years later she asked him if he had told his father yet. He replied: ""What's the point?'' By then, both George Brown and the man Elsie had the affair with had been dead for years. Not that his father couldn't handle secrets. John has told him, for instance, that he is bisexual, maybe even gay. His father ""reacted oddly'' at first, later confessing he'd been attracted to men a few times himself.

There was a time when people were ostracized for such breaches of orthodoxy. ""We've come a long way, because most people understand these problems,'' says Dr. Kate Wachs, a family therapist in Chicago. Yet she recognizes a continued penchant for hushing up about everything from the eccentric uncle to the horse-rustling great-grandparent. ""When things are hidden,'' Wachs says, ""they become so much more powerful. Each time you lie about it, you are telling yourself that it is a horrible thing. And when you look at it, usually it turns out that it is not so bad.''

Or necessary. Stan Weinberger found out at 50 that the man he and his brother knew as their stepfather was actually his father. His mother had lied about the father's true identity because she'd had an affair with him while he was married to another woman. To this day, his mother says about keeping the secret: ""We didn't do such a terrible thing.'' But it's a terrible thing to lie to your children, says her son, who remains saddened and a little bitter about not having known he had a father all these years. ""Secrets don't work,'' he says. ""Eventually the truth comes out, and all there is left is the pain.''

Family deception is a staple of family life, for ordinary fold and for the rich and famous. Some celebrated examples:

Jack Nicholson: In the 1974 film "Chinatown," Faye Dunaway's character famously tells Nicholson, "She's my sister, she's my daughter..."Just as the film was about to open, Nicholson learned that the woman he thought was his older sister, 16 years his senior, was, in fact, is mother.

Mary Gordon: The prominent Catholic novelist set out to write a biography of her idealized father, who died when she was 7. In her research she discovered that her father, a convert from Judaism, was a vicious anti-Semite who had also lied about his career.

The Fondas: Jane and Peter were raised in a confused household, with an often absent famous father, Henry, and an emotionally ill mother, Frances. When Jane was 16 and Peter was 14, Frances was sent to a private mental hospital for depression. She committed suicide there, but the children were told she had died of a heart attack. Jane learned the truth a year later from a movie magazine.

Bill Cosby: Just after his son, Ennis, was killed, Cosby faced a shake-down attempt by a woman who claimed to be his child. Cosby denied parentage but conceded that he had had an affair with the woman's mother.

Eric Clapton: Outside his family, Clapton pretended that his grandmother was his mother and his mother was his sister who had moved away from home.

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