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Behind Closed Doors

Book shows how familial dynamics of shame and guilt changed social mores and laws

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March 11, 2013 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

EVANSTON, Ill. --- On a Liverpool railway platform, a heartbroken mother hands over her 8-year-old illegitimate son for adoption. In a town in the Cotswolds, a clergyman brings to his bank vault a diary that chronicles his sexual longings for other men.

How such familial dynamics of shame and guilt changed social mores and ultimately laws is the focus of a new book by Deborah Cohen, the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Northwestern University.

In “Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day” (Oxford University Press, April 2013), Cohen takes an intimate look at how social change happens at home.  She investigates the role that family secrets, so often associated with repression, have played in the transformation of social mores from the Victorian era to the present day.

“This is a book about the kinds of secrets families kept behind closed doors,” Cohen said. “It tells a history of how society changed from the purview of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. It’s a book about how what was shameful has changed but not always in the way that we imagined.”

Cohen spent eight years in archives in the United Kingdom with extraordinary access to confidential files -- including adoption records, marriage counseling files and records of homes for unwed mothers. Published in the UK by Penguin in January, the book has received rave reviews in the British press, and was named the “Book of the Week” by both the Sunday Telegraph and Times Higher Education.

The book journeys from the frontier of empire, where British adventurers made secrets that haunted their descendants for generations, to the confessional vanguard of modern-day genealogy two centuries later.  The colorful journey challenges the imagination as it shows how family secrets stretched the boundaries of acceptable conduct and helped shape social mores.

Pressure groups and protest movements traditionally have been the focus of how social change is enacted. Complicating that history, Cohen juxtaposes scores of encounters that took place behind closed doors with the more visible turning points of protest movements and new laws.

Privacy and secrecy were interchangeable for the Victorians into the early 20th century, Cohen argues.

“What started as a means of protecting a family’s reputation would eventually help to pave the way for a much more capacious definition of privacy, defined as the right to live as you wish, at home, of course, but in public as well,” she writes. “Privacy had become intertwined with personal freedom. As privacy was written into law in Britain between the 1930s and 1990s, secrecy was ever more vilified, chiefly because it was no longer necessary.”

Illegitimacy, for example, was the most common of family secrets. For an unmarried woman during the Victorian era, pregnancy was a “life-wrecking disaster,” and for centuries many childless couples who informally adopted children kept their origins secret in order to cloak their illegitimate origins.

But when adoption was finally legalized in England and Wales in 1926, the government mandated openness as the requirement. Birth mothers had to know to whom her child was going; a child’s birth certificate was stamped “adopted” across the face of it. 

“Essentially, there was no privacy when it came to legal adoption. And so adoptive parents created it themselves by keeping secrets,” explains Cohen. “They forged birth certificates, and told lies about the child’s origins.”

The secrets adoptive families kept, Cohen argues, ultimately ushered in a new regime of privacy. After World War II, the British government undid centuries of common law precedent to create a new birth certificate to conceal the fact of illegitimacy. This new birth certificate acknowledged the rule by which adoptive parents had for decades lived: prejudice against illegitimate or adopted children could be circumvented by hiding the truth. 

“Secrets laid the cornerstone for legitimate claims to privacy,” said Cohen. “No one today wants to believe that their right to privacy depends on keeping secrets. Privacy is exalted, while secrecy is scorned. And yet, for the Victorians, secrecy and privacy were fundamentally intertwined.

“Between prying neighbors and a legal system that insisted upon transparency, privacy necessarily hinged on secret keeping. How secrets have served as the unlikely bulwark of privacy -- and how secrecy and privacy eventually came apart -- is the history that ‘Family Secrets’ recounts.” 

Topics: Research