Family Secrets

Public Shame and Healing American Politics

Recent events have me thinking about family secrets – tapes of Donald Trump’s sister, Maryanne Barry, calling her brother an unprincipled liar who is unfit for office; Melania Trump extolling her “supportive” husband during the same week a court ordered him to pay legal fees to a porn actress with whom he had a liaison; and allegations that Jerry Falwell and his wife Becki had a long-term sexual affair with a Miami pool boy. 

Things hidden spilled into view, and the guilty parties were exposed to public shaming on Twitter, the social media platform that functions like a medieval pillory. And we, the bystanders, looked on with mirth, smugness, or, just maybe, a little fear at the hypocrites, the deluded, and the fallen. 

Fear? Yes, fear. Who among us would want our family secrets thus revealed? No one wants to be that person – the humiliated in the Twitter stocks. Perhaps loquacious older sisters, disclosive porn stars, and kinky evangelicals make us grateful to have private lives, for we are more able to keep closet doors shut on our skeletons.

Every family, however, has secrets – our own missteps and misdeeds, the embarrassing relatives, even abusers or criminals – all the events and people we’d erase from history if we could.  

My ancestors were good at erasing things that shamed them. I grew up in a family largely cut off from its past. About a decade ago I went searching for my roots. I learned that my first American ancestor, Andrew Orem, arrived in Maryland around 1670. He was a Quaker, part of an energetic new spiritual movement that emphasized God’s love and believed in the complete equality of all people. Few things could have made me happier than discovering this “spiritual DNA” in my family tree, a heritage of simplicity, activism, and justice.

As I looked more deeply, however, I found something else. By 1698, Andrew was in trouble with the local Quaker meeting. He was disciplined and shunned. The record as to why is sketchy. Andrew’s will offered a disturbing clue - his “goods and chattel” included three “servants” worth eighteen pounds to be passed on to his heirs.

Some early Quakers owned slaves. Around 1700, however, at the time of Andrew’s death, the practice had become controversial. Quakers couldn’t reconcile slaveholding with their theology. When I read the list of Andrew’s property, I was pretty certain what had happened – the Quakers disciplined him for owning human beings – and Andrew admitted, as the records say, “that shame had kept him from meetings.” The shame of owning people fully equal in God? I think so. He promised to “avoid such gross evils,” but he died a year later having chosen to retain his human property.  

My family’s oldest secret: the originating secret of what would become a cascade of secrets through centuries, shame to be avoided no matter the cost.

The oddest thing about it all? I felt ashamed. I actually experienced trauma over his having enslaved human beings, and that he inflicted the trauma of slavery on others. It was sickening, confusing, disorienting. 

Family secrets beget shame; and shame begets more family secrets, creating multi-generational trauma. Families get stuck in patterns of anxiety, passing on feelings of humiliation and fear of being found out, even after the secret is long forgotten. It is a psychological dilemma – and it is also a spiritual one. The truth of the matter is that the secrets have to surface in order to heal. 

Donald Trump and Jerry Falwell weren’t the only ones shamed this week. Like it or not, we all were publicly shamed on Twitter this week. What revealed our family secret? Jacob Blake. A man shot seven times in front of his three small children, paralyzed in the hospital, and now the streets of his city are on fire. Jacob Blake. Another name in a long sad history, a way marked by shame.

I’m not sure how often we consider white supremacy and racism in terms of family secrets and shame. But I’m not the only white American bearing the guilt of a family having owned slaves, a choice made by my kin who knew they were doing wrong. And black Americans carry a trauma inflicted upon them by having been enslaved, purposefully robbed of dignity and freedom, forced to act against their own senses of right and wrong, rendered helpless in a violent system.

When faced with the shame of secrets revealed, human beings will do almost anything to cover it up. We live an ancient story: Adam and Eve violated God’s command and their own consciences, and fearing discovery, they covered themselves and hid. We create all sorts of, what Thomas Merton once called, “fictions and delusions” that we wear as fig leaves, obscuring what shames us and hoping to avoid the punishment we fear we deserve. Like the sons of Adam and Eve, we even resort to violence to cover the shame, thinking that murder will keep our secrets forever. But it doesn’t. Brother kills brother. All that is left is blood on the ground, a soil in which nothing can grow.

Shame results from secrets we want to keep hidden – whether we fear them being revealed, or if they have been revealed. Brené Brown insists that shame causes a range of mental health issues including depression, addiction, eating disorders, bullying, suicide, family violence, and sexual assault. We deflect, deny, and demonize others to maintain our delusions - to push away the secrets we dread coming to light. Shame isn’t only endemic to racism, but it is the source of so much sickness in our politics. 

Facing secrets is painful. Discovering my ancestor’s human inventory was awful – and yet it was one of the clearest pains I have known. The list made me understand what my family had buried. After the initial sense of shame, I mostly felt sad. I wanted to do something about it, to help make whole what was wounded and broken. I know that it is a secret I refuse to keep. Maybe telling secrets is the only way forward.

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I not only have my secrets. I am my secrets. And you are your secrets .... Our trusting each other enough to share them with each other has much to do with the secret of what it is to be human.

- Frederick Buechner

You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.

- Jesus, John 8:32

History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.  

- James Baldwin


The Cottage publishes on Monday and Thursday, with occasional weekend specials. It alternates between thoughtful commentary on issues in American religion and culture, and offering fresh perspectives to inspire deeper spiritual practices for a more meaningful life. The perspective is generously Christian, with a keen appreciation of the wisdom of other traditions. You are welcome here.

For a bio, a list of my books, and information on having me speak to your group (including virtual events), please click here.