FAMILY SECRETS AND EXCLUSION OF THE OTHER: "YOU TOLD THEM BUT NOT ME. WHY?"
As a child, Judy felt like an outsider both at school and within her own family unit. At school, she was picked on and didn’t have many close relationships. “I used to cry a lot in grade school. Bein’ teased, bein’ harassed. Bein’ bullied.” Unfortunately, school did not provide for Judy any respite from the chaos of her home environment. This absence of a social support network, her sense of perpetual exclusion, and the harassment that Judy endured at school contributed significantly to her emotional distress. Burris and Rempel (2004) state that social relationships help with identity formation and help orient individuals to the external world. In this way, relationships can either contribute to or serve as an impediment toward personal growth. Judy’s experience of being bullied would have been detrimental to her growth and also served as an external threat that jeopardized her sense of safety in the world (Eigen, 1995). In addition, the damaging effects of bullying can have long-term consequences. According to Charles (2013), “Research shows the importance of such social bonds and also affirms the strong link between bullying and social exclusion in childhood and severe psychological distress later in life” (p. 209).
At home, the situation was no better, for Judy often felt neglected and left out. “I was the middle child. I have an older sister, she was doin’ things with my mom. A younger brother, he was always doin’ things with my father. Where does that leave me?” To complicate the matter further, when major, often tragic, events occurred within her family, they were concealed from Judy but disclosed to her brother and sister. This left Judy feeling singled out for exclusion and created an atmosphere of ominous secrecy throughout her childhood.
There was a lot of family secrets, on both sides of the family. There was . . . my aunt’s murder on my father’s side, which which really outraged me uhm. . . . We got a phone call saying that we gotta go back home and that the adults . . . have to go down to (town) because my aunt died. Now . . . at that time, my brother and my sister was told the truth I was not. . . . And it was years later after high school . . . .I found out what really happened to my aunt.
Judy later discovered that her aunt had been killed under traumatic circumstances. This event was explained to both of Judy’s siblings but was intentionally kept from her. She could not understand why she was specifically excluded from the family narrative. Reflecting on that time, she said,
Now . . . the only reason why my brother got told, my younger brother, he was playin’ with (violent games). My parents wanted to discourage my brother from playing with (those games). My sister was told because she was able to understand. Why I wasn’t told. . . . I was uh- I was h- I was completely like “you told them but not me why?”
This feeling of being othered by her family was a common theme for Judy, and it often manifested itself in the form of information that was withheld from her. Another family secret that haunted Judy was the untold story surrounding her grandmother’s psychiatric hospitalization. Judy’s grandmother had been hospitalized locally for a period of time and then transferred to a hospital farther away. This reportedly caused Judy’s mother a lot of guilt, and she eventually was able to get her mother discharged from the hospital. Even though her grandmother died before Judy and her siblings were born, the limited facts that Judy knew about her grandmother’s life had a lasting effect.
My family grew up in ------- but about a block and a half away . . . through
the trees and through the hills, you can see-------- State Psych Hospital. And
I always had a fear that I was going to grow up and end up like that. Uhm. . . .
I probably got that fear because of my mom’s mother. And I don’t know all of the story because she ended up in (Psychiatric Hospital). And I hear- and I don’t know the whole story but when my parents went to see h- see her . . . they, they said that she was seeing bugs uhm bugs and spiders crawling up the wall and stuff.
Untold traumatic stories can have lasting intergenerational effects (Abraham & Torok, 1994; Auerhahn & Prelinger, 1983; Cyrulnik, 2005; Garon, 2004; Kaplan, 1995; Laub, 1992; O’Loughlin, 2007). Often what remains unspoken involves extreme loss or otherwise excruciatingly painful circumstances. The risk then becomes that this loss will be repeated or enacted by family members who are far removed from the original events. The omission of a trauma’s symbolic representation through the generations has the capacity to create a sort of present absence through which unconscious knowledge of the original trauma can be transmitted. Since it is not spoken, it must be communicated through other means. However, ghosts will not remain silent and often cannot be put to rest until they find symbolic representation.
Judy seemed somehow acutely aware of the possibility that this untold aspect of her family history might find ways to make itself known through the narrative of her own life. Judy’s statement that “I always had a fear that I was going to grow up and end up like that” articulates a sense of being haunted by the intergenerational transmission of painful memories. The specific details of the bugs and spiders crawling on the wall were likely disturbing to Judy as a young child, as they were not contextualized in any way for her. This was just one instance of many in which details that might be frightening or traumatizing to a young child were disclosed to Judy without adequate explanation or emotional support from either of her parents. In this way, she was often left to her own devices to decipher and cope with circumstances that were beyond her developmental and emotional grasp. She did not have help in regulating her own emotions, nor was she given any assistance in metabolizing these painful experiences. Death in particular was handled harshly and abruptly in Judy’s family, without any space created for grieving in response to loss:
There are . . . there are plenty of . . . of things uhm, when my dad’s mom had her second heart attack and I was mad at my mom for years and years. She brought my brother and me into the back bedroom in my grandmother’s apartment. And the only thing that we were told to do . . . not tol- be told the whole story but my sister was told. The whole story. My mom told my brother and I is, is that . . . “Pray to God to take grandma home. Or otherwise she will have to spend the rest of her life in a nursing home. And she hates nursing homes.” And I got very very angry at my mo- uhm at my mom for that.
This was how Judy was informed of her grandmother’s impending death. The news must have felt like an assault, delivered without any preparation or compassion for the significance of this loss. The process of mourning was thus foreclosed. Furthermore, the mandate that she and her brother pray to God for their grandmother’s death placed a level of responsibility and possibly guilt on Judy that further complicated the already difficult task of bereavement for a teenage girl.
I was only 13 at the time. And I was outraged at that. It was only years and years and years later when my uncle . . . was going through the same predicament and we were up there for the funeral, uhm, my aunt ha- . . . uhm decide to take away life support so that he can pass away peacefully and when we were up there for the funeral, the story of my dad’s mom finally came out. My father had to make the same decision to take my grandmother off life support. My sister knew what was goin’ on. Why it couldn’t be explained to my brother and I that way. . . .
No emotional support was provided to help Judy process this loss. No conversations were held about the broader context of what was happening or its significance. And Judy did not have any opportunity to say goodbye to her grandmother. Such significant events occurred without containment or acknowledgment.