Behind the smiles of those in the quintessential family photograph may be more than the momentary happiness they seem to suggest. The camera is very accurate in recording what it sees, but deceitful in what it does not. Like the camera itself, however, those who look from the outside in may also be unable to see beyond the image projected without. What may exist within are the secrets that ensure no others discern the truth behind the people who hide them, including, ironically, those who play a part in concealing them.
The secrets themselves can be numerous and all-encompassing, from alcoholism, incest, and betrayal, to child abuse, and those who need to hide them take Shakespeare’s postulate that “all the world’s a stage, and all men and women merely players” to levels even he never foresaw, since their almost scripted acts in the home only ensure the perpetuation of their deceit, leaving friends, colleagues, and relatives unsuspecting of their existence. But how?
Take abuse. In the case of children, they have no choice but to place total trust in the parents who inflict it upon them, reasoning, paradoxically, that any detriment to which they are subjected is deserved because of their own intrinsic flaws and unlovability. A protecting, nurturing father and mother, they reason, would never deliberately harm them, unless, of course, it was justified, and they certainly have no other frame of reference with which to compare them at a very young age.
Aside from these dynamics, they are equally unable to identify their abuse, since it quickly becomes habitual, periodic, and routine. Indeed, their homes may be more equitable to minefields than houses, as evidenced by their years of painful experience in them, leaving them only to wonder when, not if, the next explosion will occur. Dissociated and seeking the emotional means to minimize them, they actually view these infractions as “normal.” The first blow hurts. All subsequent ones do not, because by this time they are numb to them.
Parents, on the other hand, offend as a result of having been subjected to the same “normal” treatment themselves and this, resultantly, is what they internalized. It is, to a degree, all they know. Living under a dome of denial, they seek to walk in the shoes of their own overwhelming parents and consequently fail to gain empathy or feeling for the harm they inflict, often to the point of being disconnected from their own consciences.
They negotiate the world with a hole in their souls and are usually hungry to fill it, by repeating the same infractions done to them.
What ironically may seem to be elements that would otherwise tare such families apart-including habitual, sometimes cyclic abuse, chaotic “normalcy,” absorption and suppression of detrimental actions, silence concerning their consequences to others, same-family member’s progressive spiritual and emotional incapacitation, and, finally, the collective denial that anything amiss even occurs–are the very ones that hold it together under these circumstances.
Even those who, later in life, may be able to recall some of the traumatic, predatory parental incidents they were subjected to, they may equally be unable to connect with any feelings associated with them, since they were most likely so volatile and life-threatening, that their only means of enduring them was to dissociate to the point of numbed detachment, as if they occurred to someone else.
Three simple, but potentially toxic, rules ensure that a family’s secrets remain hidden: Don’t talk. Don’t trust. And don’t feel. To such a family, they are virtually commandments never to be broken.
Often reduced to the less-than-valuable people their parents once believed themselves to be as a result of their own dysfunctional, alcoholic, or abusive upbringings, their children, in the first instance, are expected “to be seen and not heard.” Perceived as still-immature people devoid of sufficient knowledge to accurately interpret their observations, they are treated as if anything they say is subjected to their own inaccuracies and lack of understanding as children.
Subconsciously, of course, their parents may fear their own exposure, since nothing is a greater enemy to denial than unbridled truth uttered by youth.
Breeding and reinforcing the second rule, the “don’t trust” directive subtly teaches children that what they observe is neither valid nor reliable, leading to distorted reality. As a result, they learn not to trust their own perceptions, which invariably lead, according to their “older and wiser” adult parents, to inaccurate conclusions. “No, you didn’t see daddy rage at mommy like a madman. We were just having a little discussion. You must be watching too many cartoons.”
Finally, the “don’t feel” rule, grounded in their parents’ own childhood experiences, indicates that children’s feelings are unimportant and of very limited use or worth. Sometimes they are simply too frightening for their inadequately equipped parents to deal with, prompting their children, after repeated attempts, to disconnect from them, since they are usually met with shame and hence serve no purpose.
Because they are very real and would ordinarily aid their development, they are stuffed, shelved, or swallowed at the time of generation, seeking an outlet for accepted or welcomed expression. Like water in a damned river, however, they wait-and, in the case of negative ones, like ticking time bombs-for a relief valve.
These simple, but toxic rules are just as effective at covering up the multitude of other family secrets.
Whatever is modeled in children’s homes-of-origin becomes representative of the world at large they will eventually enter.
Pitted, as helpless children, against protective parents who sometimes metamorphose themselves into betraying predators, and hopelessly sinking into the family quicksand of denied dysfunction, children rigidly uphold these unspoken rules because they ensure their own survival-and, ironically, that of their family’s secrets.
What others on the outside looking in see is usually what the family itself wishes them to–a smiling snapshot that can take many esteemed and respected forms, from a meticulously kept garden, hard-working people, and highly educated offspring to dedicated involvement in a local community preservation society. But, in the end, behind every family secret is shame and in front of it is the family system’s denial that keeps it hidden.