family secretsBy Matt Houlbrook
Senior Lecturer in Modern British History, University of Birmingham

Deborah Cohen’s Family Secrets is one of those rare histories that is as moving as it is intellectually challenging. Cohen wears her theoretical sophistication and depth of scholarship lightly, but has produced a striking example of a historical practice that ranges across disciplines, spheres, and scales of analysis. This is “a history of secrets and of how they were revealed” in British families since the eighteenth century. [xi] Focusing on attitudes towards mixed-race children, disability, divorce, mental illness, adoption, and homosexuality, Cohen explores the “familial dynamics of shame and guilt” and, in so doing, provides “a history, told from within families, of how society changed.” [xvi] What was considered shameful and to be concealed was historically specific and changed over time. So was the idea of secrecy itself, particularly in its relationship to privacy. While we now understand privacy as a right and secrets as psychologically and socially damaging, their histories are “entangled.” Concealing mixed-race children secured the middle-class family’s privacy; eccentric bachelors found “tacit acceptance” within those spaces of not-quite-knowing Anna Clark has characterized as “twilight moments.” Between the 1930s and the 1990s, however, “privacy and secrecy parted ways.” [210] Psychologists linked secrecy to repression; state welfarism and adoption and homosexual law reform reflected a “new democratic language of a right to non-interference.” [183] What families had tried to keep secret, was “redefined as a legitimate area of privacy” — the “right to live as you wish.” Privacy was “written into law … [and] secrecy was ever more vilified, chiefly because it was no longer necessary.” [xvi] This is not a straightforwardly progressive story: after 1900 ideas of heredity meant ostensibly “modern” families rejected mentally ill children who previous generations would have embraced. “Modern” scientific knowledge rendered such children a source of shame, placing thousands in decaying residential institutions.

Cohen’s focus on individual lives belies her book’s intellectual ambition and reach. Family Secrets ranges across histories of society, culture, politics, and economy, and makes the family central to broad processes of historical change. Secrecy’s power is both intimate and public, materializing as tokens of affection sent to an institutionalized child and the politics of law reform. It is both local and global: the movement of white men and “dusky” children between India and Britain reminds us that understandings of what should be hidden differed across space as well as time. From the 1930s the “first modern age of confession” [183] placed new emphasis on transparency in personal life. Such imperatives abraded boundaries between state and market, and were played out in the Daily Mirror’s “I confess” competitions, the quiet rooms of the Marriage Guidance Council, and the demands of the Gay Liberation Front. Confession was entertainment and profit, rallying cry, and the key to psychological well-being. Shifting boundaries between secrecy and transparency crystallized in short form birth certificates and an adoptive child’s emotional turmoil. The power of Cohen’s analysis rests in her ability to distill historical complexity into moving individual tragedies. Confined in Normansfield Training Institution throughout her life, Elizabeth Scott-Sanderson carries the burdens of the collapse of Victorian progressivism and those later generations who saw children like her as a secret to hide away.

The intersections between state, market and family gesture towards the importance of power in shaping who could and could not conceal. Cohen shows how secrecy and privacy were bound up in the formation of class identities, but they were also underpinned by privileges of class (and gender, age, race and sexuality). Some families were better equipped to keep secrets. Consider Britain’s royal family: the forms of governance that Priya Satia has characterized as the “agnotology” of mass democracy were articulated around monarchy as much as Empire between the wars. Courtiers addressed an “insistent demand for openness” through the systematic cultivation of ignorance. Secrecy and privacy remained entangled, until the Windsors, too, were absorbed into confessional culture in the late-twentieth-century.i For all those who willingly “confessed” in this period, others found their secrets spilled by journalists — prompting a series of libel actions against popular newspapers, and intensifying debates about protecting citizens against press intrusion. The processes Cohen traces were neither inevitable nor uncontested. Even today, what an individual might understand as private behaviour, can be constructed by tabloid journalists as a guilty secret to be revealed — whether for profit or “public interest.” Contemporary debates over press regulation suggest privacy and secrecy can still be re-coupled. Power is also quotidian and intimate, manifest through conflicts within families. As parents struggle to conceal the “truth” of their adopted child’s origins from them we see the inequalities that meant secrecy and privacy were fought over between spouses, parents and children, brothers and sisters, families and servants. Think of the diary-keeping teenager or the stockbroker bringing home a rent-boy and it is clear how some individuals were better equipped to keep secrets. Hierarchies of gender and generation — and the material fabric of the household — meant families were themselves rent and riven with complex patterns of secrecy and disclosure.

There is, Cohen reminds us, an epistemological paradox to the history of secrets. Rather than being simply hidden from the public gaze, secrecy was actively constructed. That is how it has entered the historical record in the files of adoption agencies or the Marriage Guidance Council. Yet so often what we see are moments at which secrets were divulged and privacy shattered. The power of Family Secrets rests in Cohen’s ability to move “behind locked doors” [249] and evoke the social and emotional textures of family life. Still, I wonder, is not the true secret the one we never see?

(i)See Priya Satia, “Interwar Agnotology: Empire, Democracy and the Production of Ignorance,” in Laura Beers and Geraint Thomas (eds.), Brave New World: Imperial and Democratic Nation-Building in Britain Between the Wars (London, Institute of Historical Research, 2012), 182.

Other contributions to this roundtable are from Sarah Igo, Claire Langhamer, and David Vincent.

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