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Breaking the Cycle of Secrets and Standing in Truth

by Laura on March 15th, 2013

Every family has secrets, right?

Let’s “keep it in the family” … behind closed doors. Or, as my dearly departed Nana often admonished, “Shut those kitchen curtains, we don’t want the neighbors spying on us during dinner.”

[Nana also enjoyed sitting in her favorite plastic folding chair on the driveway to keep tabs on the neighbors to enjoy the sunshine.]

Wednesday’s post, Coming Out of the Adoptee Closet and Secondary Rejection touched a cord with adoptees itching to contact family member, as well as non-adoptees who have for one reason or another disconnected with loved ones. It inspired people to begin to develop relationships they’ve wanted for a long time … sometimes decades, even!

I’m on a roll now, so I thought I’d ask: How do we break the generational cycle of secrets and lies?

Last week, I interviewed Betsy Graziani Fasbinder  in Catholic Shame, Secrets and Lies. In Betsy’s debut novel, Fire & Water, we meet heroine Kate Murphy, who must come to terms with hidden truths, learning just how destructive her own secret-keeping is.

I have a problem similar to Kate.

I was raised to keep family problems private. Therapy is only for crazy people! My default comfort zone, therefore, was to deal with things myself, avoiding opening up at all costs.

This is Part 2 of my converstation with Betsy:

Standing in Truth

Laura– How we can stop the cycle of generational secrets and lies?

Betsy– It does seem that secret-keeping can be a generational cycle. True in my family. Also true for many families of my friends as well as my clinical clients. Secrets, it seems almost always come from fear (whether real or imagined) or the oppression of expression (whether it’s cultural or just familial).

Sometimes breaking the cycle is simply about someone being brave and telling the truth. But this doesn’t mean that the truth-teller will necessarily be a hero. Consequences can exist for the truth-teller.

That’s why I became a therapist and now work with people writing memoirs. Often starting to tell the truth is easier with a professional or a group of supportive non-family members. A family that has for generations kept secrets is not often so thrilled to have their stories told.

Laura – I agree. This idea of keeping secrets out of fear–it’s so true for me. I have always wanted to be seen as having me shit together, it can be hard for me to admit my faults.

Standing in one’s truth, is scary and yet freeing. But going with my gut, standing up for myself–it’s a good way to live. No regrets.

Truth-telling and Family Relationships

Betsy – In my own family with my husband and sons, I have a pretty extreme standard for truth-telling. (My sons would tell you that they would always get in more severe trouble with me for deceit than for whatever the original misbehavior or mishap might have been.) This comes from the fact that my family of origin was swimming in secrets that were pretty destructive.

Kate, as the main character in Fire & Water changes her whole relationship with secrecy. That’s her story.

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Betsy Graziani Fasbinder’s novel, Fire & Water is available on Amazon. She is writing a book now (a collection of essays) called Filling Her Shoes: My Love Story of My Inherited Family.

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day … check out my guest post: What do Lucky Adoptees and Irish Luck have in Common?

Images from

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Thanks, so much, Betsy!

If you feel so moved, I’d love to hear your comments below … How does your family’s approach to truth-telling differ from your own world view? How have you broken the cycle of secrets, or stood in your own truth?

  1. Good subject and sounds like a good read.

    • Laura permalink

      Thanks, Jason — Yes, Fire & Water is an amazing book, I highly recommend it!

  2. These last couple of posts of yours have really made me think about the root of the issues in our own adoption story. My husbands mother is an adoptee. I never thought it had much to do with what has happened, but obviously I've been mistaken. There have been secrets and, I believe, lies that have been told in his family for a long time. I know that, but I didn't realize how much it has influenced his and his families behavior.

    He has stood up and put his foot down, so to speak, with our granddaughter having secrets or lies told to her about who she is and where she comes from. He refuses to continue a relationship with his family until we can have an open and honest relationship with her. I hope with this stand we are able to break their "cycle of secrets".

    • Laura permalink

      Knowing what I do about your adoption situation, this additional information makes SO much sense. I do think that a history of unresolved post-adoption issues (Like, "I turned out okay, I loved adoption, why shouldn't it be a good option for an unwanted pregnancy?"). I'm glad that you and your husband are attempting to break the cycle of secrets, although I do also hope that you get to see her even more :)

  3. Here is what I did: I escaped in a different country and I haven't looked back ever since…

    • Laura permalink

      I agree … there is something freeing about writing these posts from "far away Siberia," oh wait, I mean Serbia :)

  4. Thanks for sharing this Laura. It's a topic that can open a whole can of worms. I find it's very culturally relative too. For example, here in Greece where I live at the moment, people really do 'keep things in the family' – I've heard stories of child abuse and suddenly, 'Uncle Johnny' will mysteriously go missing, never to be seen again.

    It's interesting how much culture plays a role. How do you find it in Serbia?

    • Laura permalink

      Oh, the secrets definitely exist here in Serbia … When people ask about the topics covered in my memoir, and I say, bipolar, mental illness, delusion, adoption, among other things … the response? Umm, maybe you don't really want to talk about that with people here.

      Uncle Johnny goes missing. Sometimes I feel these straightforward, old-school responses to child abuse keep the kid safer :)

  5. Great post. Congrats on your book, Betsy. I love the cover.

    I was the same way with my kids when they were young. Having them be honest with me was SO important. And the flip side of that is that I made sure I was being fair so they felt comfortable telling me the truth.

    I think secret-keeping starts young. When kids tell their parents the truth only to be ridiculed, shamed and punished, they quickly realize it's better to keep quiet. And when there is abuse, it opens up that whole psychological pathology of threats over telling. Sick, sick!

    I think the best way to break the cycle of secrecy is to speak out but also to consciously raise the next generation differently. If they're loved, nurtured and respected for their own truth, the cycle will be broken.

    I know. Easier said than done but what can I say, I'm an idealist. :)

    • Laura permalink

      "I think the best way to break the cycle of secrecy is to speak out but also to consciously raise the next generation differently. If they’re loved, nurtured and respected for their own truth, the cycle will be broken."

      I agree! It's something I have to be sure to try to implement with my own children.

  6. I'm so glad I'm in this generation and not the previous. The secrets and lies just drive me crazy. So glad I have you to stand alongside me and hold my hand in cyber space while I come out of the closet and share my truth.


    • Laura permalink

      Deanna — Yes! I'm here in cyberspace, in such a real, empathetic way, it's not even funny!

  7. I know Betsy and have appreciated her honesty for many years. In my own family my mother and grandmother used to speak in 'pig-latin' so no one could understand what they were saying. There were a fair amount of secrets that I gained access to when I became an adult. Funny how parents and grandparents can't believe a child can face a truth. With my own children I expected and demanded a high level of truth, as Betsy did with her sons. When my son realized he was gay he was able to comfortably tell me his feelings and inclinations. I think truth trumps lies every time.

    • Laura permalink

      Thanks so much for commenting here! It's great to "meet" a friend of Betsy, and you're totally right–as if children can't face the truth. If presented to them in a calm, open way, children can handle, process and accept even difficult truths.

      Just fyi — Betsy will be back again on Friday, March 29, talking about bipolar disorder.


  8. Great post. I am a birthmom involved in an open adoption for 25 years. Now in my early 40s, I am married and am raising our two beautiful daughters. I, too, lived with the whole secret-keeping thing for far too long. I became pregnant at 17 and was sent across the country to live with extended family until I gave birth. I've lived with a lot of guilt, shame, hurt and secrets. In fact, it wasn't until my daughter was born 9 nine years ago that anyone outside of my immediate family knew of the son I placed for adoption in 1988. At that time I realized it was my story to tell -not my parent's secret to keep. It was freeing to tell extended family and other friends but I berated myself for not being courageous enough to have done so earlier in my life.

    Secrets are damaging. At the risk of sounding cliche, the truth has set me free. I'm still working through emotions, but I'm in such a better place.

    Thanks for your words – and I agree – truth definitely trumps lies every time.



    • Laura permalink

      Thanks so much for commenting. It's a cliche — "the truth has set me free," and yet so many people resist it. I'm so glad to hear that you're processing and healing. I hate, hate, hate what these adoption secrets did to moms, adoptees and others who were supposed to be "in the closet" and grateful.

  9. I too was adopted. Sorry this is the first time "meeting" either of you, so I do not know your stories other than what I read above. I was told very young that I was adopted, and my mother told me I said in response to her describing how another woman gave birth to me, Mommy I wish I grew under your heart!! How sweet was I?? I am not sure how much it affects me today, I have spent a great deal of time online searching for my birth mom wondering how she felt…did she think of me…did she hold me, stuff like that. My efforts came up empty but I found the agency used in my adoption and got all the info they had, without any names etc. And upon finding that my birth mom named me Angela, I fell to pieces. I always thought that she just didn't care. I appreciate the fact that she had me, it was 1964 when I was born and she was sent to a home for unwed mothers, I know it can't have been easy for her, she was 18 and pregnant by a married man. So, there were no secrets where that was involved. I'm not sure when my Bi Polar kicked in, but I was a demon as a teenager!! Quit school, substance abuse, running away…the list goes on. However, when I was 10-11 my parents got a divorce, and it was not pretty to put it mildly. And a year or two before that my brother 18 at the time was killed in a car crash. I recently remembered my brother fondling me when I was in kindergarten. He didn't rape me, just teenage curiosity, as he asked me if he could see. I began masturbating furiously, constantly, just couldn't stop. To the point that I got a lump on my wrist from sitting on my hand in school!!!! Catholic!! My mom took me to a doctor thinking she could shame me into stopping, but to no avail. Then I began wetting the bed, almost nightly, in retrospect I think Gosh how could she not realize my behavior and sexual interests were too bizarre for a child my age and look into it. The doctor should have seen a red flag as well. But they didn't and I can't change what's happened. I bear no ill will against my brother as I just see it as curiosity, he didn't hurt me, physically or force me to do anything….that I can remember anyways. So, along with Bi Polar, ADD severe anxiety and substance abuse (recovering) I guess I dealt with a lot at a very vulnerable age. And with my Dad leaving, I rarely saw him, so I had that abandonment thing going on also. I also as someone mentioned feel the need to appear normal at all times. When I went to my 1st therapy session, she asked me, "So, what are you here for?" I'm sure I looked at her like she had two heads, as I was so disconnected with my emotions, I couldn't recognize let alone verbalize why I was there. I expected her to ask about my childhood, relationship to parents…that sort of thing. Nope, and when I would mention something I did or how I behaved, she always found a way to "let me off the hook" for lack of a better way to describe it. Always encouraging me and telling me the good things about myself!! I was appalled! She was supposed to tell me how horrible I was and fix me…didn't happen. But I am 48 now, and still hanging in there. I've thought a lot lately about writing my memoirs but have no writing skills. I've lead quite the crazy life and lucky to be alive, great full as well. Thanks for reading this, if you were able to take time away from your life, that is. God Bless, Diane :)

    • Laura permalink


      Wow, just wow. What an amazing and devastating story. I am so sorry all of this happened to you. There is nothing "wrong" with you–post-adoption issues run bone deep. Unaddressed post-adoption issues can lead to immense stress, which does not help things in the case of an onset of bipolar disorder. So, I'm sorry for that, and I'm sorry that your therapist didn't have the verbal skills to explain to you that you didn't/don't need fixing.

      Have you tried any therapy recently to help you process this grief from adoption, divorce, abuse, bipolar, anxiety, substance abuse???? Where are you with this today?


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