Due to system updates, our online articles may not be visible online. We appreciate your patience if you encounter this issue!

Can You Keep a Secret?

A Story of How One Therapist Changed Her Mind About Keeping Secrets

Evan Imber-Black

When I was trained as a family therapist in the early 1970s, nobody taught me much about secrets, beyond a handful of caveats. Effective inquiry into secrets requires a focus on content as well as relationship, and at that time family therapists were in a broad-brush revolt against Freud, who specialized in excavating secrets. The book-lined offices of the individual therapists who followed him were repositories of secrets, much like the religious confessionals of earlier times. We wanted no part of that old role. In our eagerness to differentiate ourselves from everything that had come before, we insisted that it was the pattern of communication, not its content, that was important. We knew very little then about the pervasiveness of such destructive family secrets as addiction and sexual abuse, and we hadn't thought much about how the power and values of the larger culture shaped what went on in the therapy office.

In those days, many of us subscribed to models of family therapy that cast us as cybernetic technicians operating coolly and confidently on a family system without, somehow, becoming part of it. With the exception of Virginia Satir, family therapy's pioneers didn't pay much attention to how emotions, particularly shame, affected the lives of clients. And except for Murray Bowen and Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, most early theorists emphasized the here-and-now of family life, not its history, even though many secrets concern past events that silently shape the present.

All of this kept many of us out of the murky terrain of secrets. We fell back on a simplistic rule: that we'd rather not hear them. In the early 1980s, I worked within the Milan model to maintain neutrality toward all parts of the family system, and I was determined not to be pulled by individual family members into taking sides. I remember giving little speeches to my clients, telling them not to tell me secrets because I would not keep them. I tried to avoid having people call me at home or hang around my office door after the session was over.

In the early 1980s, influenced by the feminist critique of family therapy, my attitude toward secrets began to change. On the streets outside our offices, social movements were proclaiming that secrets—whether about counterinsurgency or White House cover-ups, childhood poverty or spouse abuse—were a political matter—deeply entwined with power, authority and cultural definitions of the shameful. Traditional values, which had made shame-bound secrets out of breast cancer, adoption, abortion and even epilepsy, were shifting with the times. The personal was political. And silence, especially silence kept by victims out of fear of stigmatization, had often helped sustain an unjust status quo.

The silence was first broken quietly in the 1960s and 1970s in living rooms and in small consciousness-raising groups. Women, gays and lesbians, incest survivors, disabled people, the families of the mentally ill, all discovered they had been blackmailed and disempowered by silence and shame. As they spoke out more and more publicly, their secrets were drained of their stigmatizing power. Women at speak-outs told strangers about rapes and molestations; famous women disclosed their abortions in newspaper ads. In 1975, Betty Ford talked publicly of her breast cancer, and three years later broke the silence about her alcoholism as well. Gay people wore pink triangles to work and marched in gay pride parades. Revelations that would once have been called indiscreet or foolish were now perceived as brave.

And when I turned my eyes from the street to the therapy room, I saw that by avoiding secrets, family therapists had sometimes colluded with oppression by silencing the less powerful, especially women and children. In the mid-1980s, feminist family therapists began opening this secret within our field, pointing out that in the very way we thought about and structured our therapy sessions, we were keeping secrets that endangered our clients. For years, in allegiance to our theoretical models, we had ignored the damage done by wife-battering and incest. Family therapist Joan Laird observed, "Family therapists, when they wrote about wife-battering at all, continued the silence with their language of systems, form, pattern, structure and game."

These moral and political dilemmas made me doubt the simplicity of the field's stand on secrets. Then, in 1985, a family utterly destroyed my belief that focusing solely on the systemic effects of secret-keeping was sufficient. Carrie, 73, and George, 74, a tense, gray-haired couple, came into my office on a cold March day and sat down in chairs on opposite sides of the room. Carrie, who had recently been hospitalized for unre¬lenting anxiety, wore little white cotton gloves and kept her coat on. She told me she was terrified of germs and spent hours washing her hands. She would not touch anybody, play her beloved piano, visit her daughters, handle money or play cards. Her fear of germs and her hand-washing had become the only allowable topic of intimate family conversation.

George and Carrie first told me that the only conflict they had had in decades was over Carrie's hand-washing. But their daughters, Ellen and Catherine, in a session alone, said that George and Carrie each complained ferociously about the other in private and got furious with the daughters if they mentioned the complaints in front of the other spouse. Both daughters seemed mysteriously mired in guilt and spent most of their free time worrying about their parents' problems.

The daughters also told me that outsiders—professional helpers like me, and practically everybody else outside the immediate family—were handled with polite and distant diplomacy. Thus, therapy seemed doomed, even though the family kept appearing for session after session.

Then, Ellen urged me to see her parents separately to hear their secret complaints about each other. I did not want to become another triangulated daughter bound by secrets, and instead suggested that Ellen and Catherine become part of the therapy team. I asked them to act as my consultants, saying I needed their help because I was an outsider. They were to station themselves behind a one-way mirror and call me on the phone whenever they wanted to raise new topics or to alert me when their parents were being diplomatic and politely evasive with me. I asked the daughters to keep the plan a secret until the meeting, hoping to make a metaphorical comment on the process of secret-keeping.

At the meeting, the parents professed complete comfort with the arrangement, and the daughters went behind the mirror. Almost immediately, the phone began to ring as the daughters challenged the family's myths, secrets and taboos. It rang every three or four minutes all hour, and I became a conduit of information rather than an outsider from whom secrets were kept. In tiny, frightened steps, George and Carrie began to acknowledge conflicts between them for the first time. George said that he was resentful because he wanted to travel and to take Carrie places, and she refused. Carrie, on the other hand, felt George unfairly criticized her for "always getting her way." The tension, palpable in the room, grew almost unbearable and there were moments, as family rules shattered, when I felt like a villain, pushing so hard on two people old enough to be my parents. Finally, there was an argument behind the mirror: Catherine felt we were getting somewhere, while Ellen worried about her parents' health and warned me they needed to be protected. I reported this split in the daughters' "therapeutic team" to the parents and asked them to go home and consider what we should do next.

Three weeks later, Catherine came to see me alone and told me that after the session the family had had its first open and impassioned argument ever. What impressed her was not what was dis cussed, but that it was discussed at all. In the course of the argument, Ellen— the good girl of the family—gave up her privileged position as the "irreproachable daughter" and revealed she was struggling with a drinking problem. Finally, the family was talking openly together about issues more complex than Carrie's so-called phobia.

Within a month, Ellen went into treatment for her drinking, and Catherine started coming to see me individually every other week because she wanted more respect from her teenage sons and less involvement in her parents' troubles. Three months passed, and I thought I'd never hear from George and Carrie again. Then, much to my surprise, Carrie arranged an appointment out of the blue, saying only that she thought it would be a good idea.

When she and George came in, they looked lighter, happier; they were smiling and dressed more brightly. As we talked and joked together, they revealed one secret after another. Carrie told me that she had been terrified of getting pregnant again after her daughters' births. She and George, she said, had fought about sex for years and slept in separate bedrooms. They had fought much more, she said, about sex than about her hand-washing.

Slowly the room filled with the power of the unspoken, the unvoiced and the secret. Carrie, her voice shaking and near tears, told me a secret she had kept for nearly 50 years: her daughter Catherine had been born before she and George were married. While Carrie was pregnant, they had been banished by her family to another state. When George's mother accidentally found out about the birth, she had written Carrie a brutal, excoriating letter—a letter Carrie had never told George about until that day in therapy. George and Carrie had married quietly after Catherine's birth, with no sense of celebration, at a City Hall. I asked Carrie whether her daughters knew. She replied, "I know they know." For years, she said, the girls had looked at other peoples' wedding pictures and never asked to see their parents'.

The experience of having this long-held secret heard by an empathic and nonjudgmental witness helped catalyze rapid change. The rigid boundary that the secret had erected between this family and the outer world, so eloquently expressed in Carrie's fear of germs, had been breached. Carrie came to the next session without her little white germ-protection gloves. She began to play the piano again, and asked to meet with what she called a "germ expert." I arranged a meeting with a family doctor who replied honestly and respectfully to her questions—including, "How long can a germ live in a shoe?" — and her fears lessened enough so that she could go shopping.

George went on a fishing trip and Carrie spent the night at her sister's home for the first time in 40 years. I suggested we make a video of their story and show it to their daughters, but I was at least 10 steps behind them. George, the previous master of circuitous conversation, said, "No, that's too indirect—let's just bring them in and tell them."

In a family session in which I served primarily as a witness, a weeping Carrie, frightened that her daughters would think badly of her, courageously opened what had been hidden. Ellen cried and said she'd always known, but Catherine responded less tenderly. Now that the secret was out on the table, she felt less pressured to protect her parents from the secret of her own feelings. "Now there will be no more secrets in our family, and no more telling me something and then telling me not to tell my husband or my sister," she told George and Carrie vehemently. She wanted to know why her parents had treated her so badly when she, too, had become pregnant before marriage. When the stormy session was over, Carrie stood up and took my two hands in hers, touching another human being for the first time in decades.

Opening the secret was only the beginning. Months of work followed. In subsequent sessions with George and Carrie alone, we looked at how cultural values and pressures had influenced the meaning the family had given their secret. In the 1940s, an illegitimate birth was freighted with shame; premarital sex was widely condemned, and women took the brunt of the social punishment for it. Placing these beliefs in the context of the more liberal 1980s allowed George and Carrie both to challenge and forgive their own parents for their harsh response to Catherine's birth—and forgive themselves for their own harshness about Catherine's early pregnancy.

We also noticed how the painful secret had been repeated for three generations: not only Carrie, but her daughter as well, had become pregnant before marriage. Perhaps these pregnancies were symptoms of a misguided family loyalty; perhaps they were a nonverbal way of trying to open the secret; or perhaps they occurred because it is hard to learn from experiences that nobody admits have happened.

Now that the big secret was out, the daughters seemed to feel less guilty. No longer did they feel compelled to demonstrate family loyalty by keeping secrets and protecting their parents. A more complex definition of loyalty emerged, one that involved clearer boundaries and a genuine and respectful interest in their parents' lives. Over time, rituals fostered hearing across the generations. Carrie attended her granddaughter's wedding; Catherine and Ellen held a wedding anniversary celebration for their parents—the first in their lives—and the daughters openly celebrated their own birthdays as well.

In the eight years since I saw George and Carrie, I (like other family therapists) have encouraged many families to open secrets. Sometimes our role is relatively straightforward and the ethics are clear. I believe, for example, that people have an existential right to the truth about their births and deaths. I don't think people who are dying of cancer should have it kept from them—as is done regularly in other countries—and I encourage parents to tell children the truth about their parentage, after careful coaching and consideration of the effects on other members of the family system.


Evan Imber-Black, PhD, is professor and director of Family and Group Studies in the Department of Psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She's the editor of Secrets in Families and Family Therapy. Networker contributing editor Katy Butter also contributed to this article.

This blog is excerpted from "Ghosts in the Therapy Room," by Evan Imber-Black. The full version is available in the May/June 1993 issue, Cries and Whispers: The Haunting Legacy of Family Secrets.

Photo © Etraveler/Dreamstime.com 

Get the latest issue of Psychotherapy Networker

Subscribe for a full year of clinical insight and creative inspiration from the field’s innovators like Brené Brown, Bessel van der Kolk, Dan Siegel, Esther Perel, and many more. Plus, earn 2 CE hours every issue!

Topic: Cultural, Social & Racial Issues | Ethics | Families

Tags: code of ethics | Couples & Family | couples/family | ethical | ethical and legal issues | ethical boundaries | ethical issue | ethical issues | ethical therapist | Ethical violation | Ethics | Families & family life | families and family therapy | family counseling | family counselors. | family issues | secrets

Comments - (existing users please login first)
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 Comment

Saturday, August 24, 2019 5:46:40 PM | posted by Charles Norman
There are laws and codes of ethics that disagree with you. In my state, the licensing boards follow the ethical codes of all the major professional organizations.