Family secrets are imprisoned stories. The silences, the unnamed people or events that threaten the family’s sense of itself or bring stigma are erased by silence. Such is the power of language—cease speaking of it, naming it (or the person), and it ceases to exist. But someone knows or they’d never get passed on, and they do get passed on, somehow, for the secrets reveal the inner life of a family—the depth, the mystery, the unanswered questions. And so they are grit for novelists.
In the novel I’ve been working on recently, the protagonist is the son of a murderer. It is not a secret—the whole town knows about it—and treats the family warily or worse. At no small cost. In HOME FIRES, Myra has no sense of what her husband’s family conceals, but those within the family do and the way they deal with it defines their characters. It eats away at some, others deny—refuse its existence. And therein lies the story. In my own family, my husband’s mother refused evermore to speak her husband’s name, or allow it spoken, after his suicide—with huge consequences for my husband and his brothers.
Naming them makes them real; we must be dealt with them. In recent years, we’ve seen the lock of silence broken on suicide, addiction, and homosexuality. Mental illness is now breaking its chains, link by link, but has a long way to go. Such tragedies, secret or not, are not easy to deal with; they test our character. In my novel draft, the protagonist is haunted by his father’s character, and it distorts his life and threatens the lives of his family. He conceals it from his child and faces the consequences of that act. Silence trebles the fear.