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Stories To Tell Books BLOG

Family History Books: Finding Family Secrets

Biff Barnes

What are the secrets in your family’s history?

Courtesy of Mike Licht under Creative Commons

We may be bombarded by news about the disappearance of privacy in our society, but as Bruce Feiler observed in a recent story in the N.Y. Times, “Secrets endure. Especially in families.”

It is often left to the family historian to discover them.

The road to these discoveries frequently departs from the conventional path of scouring vital records, interviewing family members, reviewing letters, diaries, or journals and searching newspaper records. Finding the secret truths frequently begins with a surprising trigger that might easily be overlooked.

Feiler described four such triggers and the revelations they produced.

For Itzhak Goldberg, a New York radiation oncology professor, it began when he was given his father’s gold Patek Phillippe watch following his death. Inside the guarantee booklet was “…a tiny, yellowing photograph of two beautiful young women he didn’t recognize.”

GQ Magazine deputy editor Michael Hainey whose mother told him that his father, who died when he was six, had suffered a heart attack in the parking lot of the Chicago Sun Times where he worked. Hainey said, ““I was aware from an early age that something was not right and was consumed with knowing the truth.” In his mid-thirties Hainey studied his father’s obituaries and the phrase Robert Hainey died “while visiting friends” struck him. Who were the unknown friends?

Emma Brockes, a reporter with The Guardian, recalled that her mother used to tell her violent tales about growing up in South Africa. She often added, “I have this gun. I’m going to leave it to you.” When her mother died, Brockes set out to learn the story behind the gun.

N.Y. Times and Sports Illustrated reporter Selena Roberts’ parents divorced after her older brother died when she was five. “I really wasn’t present in her life,” said Roberts of her mother who was a school teacher. “… She lived a very austere, minimalist life.

Ultimately, each of the four pursued the truth about his or her respective parent.

When Goldberg uncovered the secret of the photo, he found that his father, a holocaust survivor, had lost his wife and two daughters to the Nazis, before moving to Israel where he met his second wife, Goldberg’s mother.

Hainey discovered that “while visiting friends” had been a euphemism for “another woman” in whose bed his father had died.

Brockes found that her mother had needed the gun to protect herself from her grandfather, a murderer and child molester who she had gotten arrested, but who was not convicted. Her mother had fled South Africa for London to escape.

Roberts learned her “minimalist” mother had been investing in the stock market throughout her life and had amassed a portfolio worth over a million dollars. Roberts also found that, “She kept careful records in a spiral notebook, in which she also wrote that she had been sexually assaulted in a parking lot of a church when she was 7.”

Each of the four felt the need to know the truth. As Goldberg explained, “I knew my father wanted me to find that photograph. He was saying, ‘This is a part of my life, and I want you to know about it after I pass away.’ ”

”This seems to be a common provenance of family legacies,” said Feiler. “Some things are too painful to discuss while people are living but too important to be left unsaid after they die.”

Are there such secret legacies in your ancestors’ histories waiting to be found? If you look carefully you may discover a clue which will help you pull back the curtain.

Have you ever discovered a family secret? Leave a comment.