The Secret Lives of Us: 5 Hidden Family Histories Revealed
Across generations, our common histories knit us together-whether we like it or not. But sometimes uncovering a family mystery can be the key to helping us heal.
What She Never Said
Burying her traumatic past allowed my mother to move forward. But did it hold the rest of us back?
Few things are more intoxicating than a family secret. The process of solving it turns us into detectives, sorting through rumours and documents. Our goal is not just discovery but self-healing. We tend to believe that secrets are harmful products of shame-and that exposure is the cure.
My own family had a deeply held secret that I spent years digging up, piecing together the details to reveal terrible truths. My mother was Hungarian, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who, after coming to Canada, tried to forget her past. She joined the United Church in Kingston, Ont., raised us as Protestants and never let on that she had lost most of her family, including her first child, in Auschwitz. Secrets don’t get much more dramatic or traumatic.
My mother died when I was in my late 20s without ever talking about her past, though she wrote about it, obliquely. As the story emerged, I was furious that she had felt it necessary to rob me of a rich heritage. But as the years have passed-I am now in my 50s-I have begun to think differently about her choice. My father, who knew her story when he married her, encouraged my mother to forget. In a veiled memoir, which she gave to me when I was just out of my teens, she wrote that he was her saviour. She wondered how he could possibly have known that her cure lay in silence, not in eternal dissection or eternal remembering.
Putting her past behind her-which is, arguably, where the past should lie-allowed my mother to start another family and live a relatively happy life. By refusing to be identified as Jewish, or a survivor, my mother also refused to see herself as a victim. For French psychoanalyst Boris Cyrulnik, himself a child survivor of the Holocaust, “resilience is about abandoning the imprint of the past.” As Cyrulnik observed, “A person should never be reduced to his or her trauma.” More than anything, my mother wanted to live her life on her own terms.
It’s a truism that survivors of terrible things-wars, accidents, abuse-either never talk about them or never stop talking about them. Both are time-worn strategies, yet the path of silence and secrecy is harder to accept as a response to trauma. We have inextricably coupled those coping mechanisms with shame. But I now wonder if we should give more thought to respecting the rights of the dead.
After spending nearly two decades uncovering every detail of my mother’s story, tracking down her old friends, repeatedly travelling to Hungary and losing myself for weeks in archives, I realized that I was part of a trend. A multi-billion-dollar industry has developed around the need for each of us to know our past. Without a thorough investigation of the family archive, we live in false consciousness, as the title of the popular genealogy documentary series Who Do You Think You Are? would have it.
Certain researchers have begun to question whether it’s good to unearth information purposefully buried. Anne-Marie Kramer, a British sociologist, caused a stir a few years ago when she argued that the heritage industry had avoided addressing the ethical and emotional dangers of revealing family secrets. Disclosing hidden information is not just about the person doing the research, but also about the people who are being researched and those closest to them. Exposing secrets can cause deep rifts. One of my brothers, for example, strongly disagreed that I should divulge our family history, believing that our mother’s clandestine behaviour was as much about our protection as it was hers.
In the end, I think it was therapeutic-and necessary-for me, and my family, to grapple with my mother’s difficult past. I was privileged to have the resources and the research skills to piece together the story, but I also became obsessed with the details. The current industry counts on this fixation and seems to care little about the individuals who use its databases. Anyone who goes down this road must be prepared for the family tensions that inevitably attend disclosure.
Most family historians love skeletons in the closet because they give us a good story to tell. A secret revealed makes us more interesting people. But as we become aware of how little control we have over the circulation of information, privacy concerns are coming to the fore. The European Union Court of Justice recently ruled that individuals can request to have Internet search-engine results disassociated from their names, also known as the “right to be forgotten.” Genealogists were alarmed: though the ruling has to do with online privacy, it might be a sign that we are trying to erase the present, leaving fewer discoveries for the future. We don’t like to think about the rights of the dead to their secrets-or to challenge the notion that we cannot know ourselves without disinterring family mysteries. Perhaps the question to ask is this: what would we want our descendants to not know about us?
Julia Creet is currently working on a documentary film on the genealogy industry called The Need to Know: Ancestry and the Business of Family.
When my mother, Jean, was about six years old, her mother, Emily, a widow, sent her to live with her deceased fath-er’s family in a different Nova Scotia town. Jean was brought up, alongside her brother, by her paternal grandparents. She never saw her mother again.
My own mother speculated but didn’t take steps to uncover where Emily might have gone. I, however, really wanted to know. Eventually, I found a marriage licence and a death certificate-she had remarried, started a second family and lived to a ripe old age in British Columbia.
I also learned she had come to Canada from Britain as a home child when she was 12 and was passed between at least three or four families. Home children were often considered free labour and could be rejected without a legit-imate reason.
When I read about the prejudice against these kids who had been orphaned, abandoned or born into poverty, it felt like a piece of the puzzle was falling into place. I can’t be certain, but Emily’s in-laws might have thought she was below them and pressured her to give up her children.
I feel proud to be related to this spunky woman who had to start over so many times but who finally went on to live a long, good life.
– As told to Samantha Rideout by Patricia Doherty, 52, Toronto
A woman’s search for her birth parent reveals unexpected roots
Like any adopted child, I grew up curious about my origins. Several years ago, following the deaths of my adoptive parents, I decided to make a formal inquiry. After a three-year wait, I received a letter from the New Brunswick government that contained the narrative of how, four decades earlier, I came to be. I was the product of a one-night stand between a 17-year-old girl and a high-school athlete. As was common custom in the 1960s, my birth mother had been sent from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick to have the child, where she was forced by her family-and, I suppose, the times-to give me up.
Armed with these few facts and the unsubstantiated reports I’d heard via a family friend that my birth parents were Scandinavian (which explained my blond hair and pale complexion), I requested contact. Four years later, so long after initiating the process that I’d all but forgotten about it, I got a call from the province announcing that my birth mother had died. I sat there, silently, with the phone pressed to my ear. How do you mourn someone you never met but with whom you share a vital connection? Apparently she’d started trying to get in touch with me at about the same time I had tried to reach her. The man on the other end of the line then announced that I had a half-brother living in Vancouver. A brother! If he and I agreed, the agency would put us in contact. I didn’t hesitate.
Ten years younger than me and raised by my birth mother, this “new” sibling had always been aware of my existence; he knew a story I was desperate to hear. What follows is a passage from one of the first emails he and I exchanged-one that, because of the time difference, I read at 2 a.m.: “From what I’ve learned over the years, the story is that sometime around 1967, our mother fell in love with a young black man in Halifax and got pregnant with you…. This didn’t go over well with her father…. Apparently he chased your biological father down the street with a shovel.” I remember waking up my husband to deliver the exciting news that he might have married a black woman. His response, before lapsing back into unconsciousness? “But you’re the whitest woman I know.”Has the discovery that I’m likely of mixed race changed my sense of identity? Apart from possibly offering the provenance of my very curly hair, the knowledge that I’m as black as I am white means no more to me than would the finding that my father was a redhead. It’s not a reality I had the opportunity to live. Whatever family secret could be said to be attached to my origins was never so much mine as it was my biological mother’s-and very much a function of the narrower times into which I was delivered. What I am is grateful-grateful for the gift of a brother, grateful that my mother, who was in no position to raise me, gave me up, and so very grateful to my adoptive parents for teaching me what it is to be cherished.
– By Judith Mackin
My father had an aunt whom we all called Auntie Meg. She worked in a grocery store in Glasgow, Scotland, and used to visit us periodically in England, where I grew up.After I retired and developed a passion for family history, I learned something new from a cousin still living in the United Kingdom. “Your father and mine both believed that Meg was, in fact, their older sister,” he wrote. “In later
life, Meg also believed this to be true.”I liked this! Dad was very fond of Meg-it was obvious there was a closeness there. My siblings and I think it’s sweet that she was possibly his secret sister. Of course, the reality wouldn’t have been as charming for my grandmother Annie, who would have been only 15 and unmarried when Meg was born in 1897. Poor Annie was probably hidden in the house until the baby was born, then her mother would’ve fooled everybody into believing it was her own child.I don’t have a copy of Auntie Meg’s birth certificate, but in her death rec-ord the mother’s surname is simply listed as “not permissible.” I feel this supports the theory. No one who is still living knows the truth for sure, but that’s part of what makes researching your genealogy so intriguing. It’s given me a deeper sense of family and place and where I belong.
– As told to Samantha Rideout by Gayda Jackson, 67, Scarborough, Ont.
The buildup to my decision to test my DNA began during high school-I had
a job pumping gas in Nipigon, Ont., and the customers would ask me if
I belonged to the local First Nations band. Years later, an optometrist told me there was something quite unusual about the shading on the back of my eyeballs. “We don’t usually see this in white people,” he said.
I have a Polish father and a Ukrainian mother, both of them first-generation immigrants. But I wasn’t really surprised when, last year, a test revealed results that leaned heavily toward Native American heritage.
My mother was about 40 when I was born and had gone through a number of stillbirths. A biological anthropologist from the University of New Brunswick helped me interpret my DNA report. By the end of our talk, the professor thought I might have been adopted. Am I still related to my cousins in Poland? I keep digging in the hopes of coming to an answer. Until then, there will be a little cloud in the corner of my consciousness.
But one thing I do know: I’ve been lucky. When I’m at our cottage near Thunder Bay, I bike to the cemetery once a week to visit my parents’ graves. On my latest trip I told them
I was thankful for the effort they put into me, whether I was their natural-born child or not.
– As told to Samantha Rideout by Joseph Broczkowski, 68, Nackawic, N.B.