family secretsBy Sarah Igo
Associate Professor of History, Vanderbilt University

“Secrecy tends to run in circles rather than straight lines,” writes Deborah Cohen in her absorbing new book. Her history of what British families have chosen to hide, from the Victorian era to the present, follows the winding, unpredictable pathways of shame to arrive at a penetrating analysis of changing sensibilities. As stealthily as a private eye — or perhaps the Queen’s Proctor — Cohen burrows into the lives of her subjects, rattling the skeletons in their closets (even, it should be noted, as she promises them anonymity). Infidelity, illegitimacy, mental disability, and same-sex attraction become materials for excavating the purposes of secrecy and the evolution of privacy. The fact that such matters ultimately moved out into the open, she suggests, signals the declining importance of the family as the arbiter of secrets and individual identity alike.

Cohen is at her best in prizing apart the intimately entangled concepts of secrecy and privacy. To do so, she keeps one eye on “private” family life — which always entailed the external management of reputation — and the other on ever-shifting public standards of morality. Her most provocative claim is that the efforts of Victorian and Edwardian families to shield the indiscretions of their members from outsiders laid the groundwork for privacy rights of the later twentieth century: “the right to tell without cost” (p. 268). “Sea-changes that took place behind closed doors” (p.5) widened the bounds of “normal” behavior, in turn transforming public mores, and presumably the law, in realms ranging from divorce to homosexuality to adoption.

If it is difficult to prove that such intimate negotiations were themselves the engine of liberalization (rather than, say, the exigencies of war, the habits of the new tabloid press, or the declining currency of eugenic thought), Cohen reveals in compelling detail the ways families wrestled with, contained, and sometimes nurtured ‘deviant’ members and behaviors, often in ways that contravene our expectations. Victorians could be more forgiving of transgressors than were moderns. The white men who returned from India accompanied by “dusky” children, for instance, were sheltered by an almost situational morality, at least within the family circle. Likewise, moderns could be highly secretive and consumed by shame. In the most poignant section of the book, Cohen shows that “feeble-minded” children were hidden from public view, indeed, purged from their families, much more assiduously in the 1950s than the 1880s.

Cohen is as skilled a wordsmith as she is a scholar, and her story about the changing contours of secrecy is told through eloquent detail: the gradual falling-off in fine clothing, visits, and treats for institutionalized children at the turn of the twentieth century; the emergence at maternity homes of emotional intermediaries, like “Miss Hart,” who tended adoptive parents’ confidences as one of her daily tasks; the elaborate strategies of petitioners entering the chambers of the Divorce Court. Along the way we discover the uneven, surprising course of stigma. Hereditarian explanations that led families to banish defective children for fear of what those offspring might reveal about themselves, for example, did not prevent others from adopting orphans of unknown parentage or acknowledging flamboyant “bachelor uncles.” Cohen’s accounting for the divergence in these cases is too glancing to be satisfying. But in recognizing family relations as a crucible for meditations on human difference, she — along with scholars like Heather Murray, who has examined gay men and women’s kinship ties in the postwar U.S. — sets a new agenda for historians exploring the nexus of private and public life.

Cohen is interested not just in the boundaries that families erected between their private doings and the public world, but also in the gradual erosion of that divide. Lurking here is a story of privacy’s individualization. It was always true that secrets could partition families as well as bind them, something Cohen under-emphasizes in her tendency to treat the family as a collective unit. But it was secrecy’s damage to particular family members that came to the fore in both the psychology and the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Something once assumed to be the prerogative of parents, husbands, or extended clans became the individual’s right to her own secrets, including the privilege of disclosing them without shame. But this meant that their psychic power, if anything, was magnified: secrets could define a person’s innermost self, not simply mar her reputation. This is why no matter how “open” or “confessional” public culture has become, we remain anchored by our secrets. It is also behind our persistent desire to peer into the private lives of others. Cohen’s compulsively readable book is excellent on that score too.

Other contributions to this roundtable are from Matt Houlbrook, Claire Langhamer, and David Vincent.

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