How Do You Handle Huge Family Secrets?

We all wonder why things happened in the past – what made people, especially OUR people the way they are. We seldom find out because the secrets die with them. If we do uncover them, or someone shares them, it can pack a big emotional punch. That’s how I responded to Doug Jacquier’s Story Chat this month. “Brooching the Subject.”

“Brooching the Subject” by Doug Jacquier

This short story is about a HUGE secret, a burden that a mother shared with her daughter near the end of her life. It was taboo, criminal even. Yet she told her daughter the hard truth.

Has that ever happened to you?

I shared my true story on the same page as Doug’s story, and I should not have done that. Like the protagonist, our family had at least one secret. Bad things happen in the past. They affect us. Our lives would be vastly different if the past had taken another course. We can’t go back and alter them. They are concrete no matter how we judge them in the future and wish things might have been different.

I should have shared this story in another post and let Doug’s story stand on its own. However, because of my social studies background, I felt like I had to protect it from judgment. Your judgments. But instead, I colored it with my judgment. That was wrong of me. You will judge the story. It’s part of being human. It’s what makes good fiction great.

In my opinion, Doug has an amazing work of fiction that can hit you right in the belly.

We don’t know how the daughter reacted to the story. We fill it in with our own reactions, and this was mine.

True Story from My Ancestry

When I was an older adult, my mother told me that my great-grandfather had been sterilized by the state of Indiana in the early 1900s (after my grandma was born, fortunately for me.) It shocked me, even more, when she said, “I don’t think your grandmother (her mother) ever knew about it.”

Governor Hanly approved the first eugenics law on March 9, 1907, which made sterilization mandatory for criminals, idiots, rapists, and imbeciles in state custody.

Laws of Indiana, 1907, pp. 377-78 (B050823)

My great-grandfather was a bootlegger, a common criminal, and a total embarrassment to my grandmother. She went to live with her best friend to finish high school in the small town of Crawfordsville where she grew up when her mother moved to Indianapolis to be closer to Great -Grandpa while he was in prison.

My great-grandfather died when I was nine, and great-grandma lived to be a month from 90 until I was 26. I knew them well – except for this major secret. Why my grandmother was an only child.

left to right Maternal Great-grandpa, Maternal Grandpa, Dad and me, Paternal Grandpa

American eugenics refers inter alia to compulsory sterilization laws adopted by over 30 states that led to more than 60,000 sterilizations of disabled individuals. Many of these individuals were sterilized because of a disability: they were mentally disabled or ill, or belonged to socially disadvantaged groups living on the margins of society. American eugenic laws and practices implemented in the first decades of the twentieth century influenced the much larger National Socialist compulsory sterilization program, which between 1934 and 1945 led to approximately 350,000 compulsory sterilizations and was a stepping stone to the Holocaust.

Indiana did not completely repeal this law until 1974. That’s just a brief background of the mindset of the leaders in my home state from just after my grandmother was born until after I was an adult and had moved away from Indiana.

Now it’s your turn

I invite you to read or reread Doug’s story and think about how you might tell your children YOUR secrets. Or will you think twice about telling them now?

To read more of Doug’s stories visit his website.

12 responses to “How Do You Handle Huge Family Secrets?”

  1. Cathy Cade Avatar

    Feelings have changed over the centuries and I don’t believe our forerunners can be judged by present standards, but legistlation is such a blunt instrument to apply to irreversible procedures. I’m thinking of the death penalty, sterilisation, gender change, euthanasia… every situation is different and there is no “one size fits all”. Because “the law” gives consent for something doesn’t meant that it can ever be applied willy-nilly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marsha Avatar

      I agree 100%, Cathy. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. willowdot21 Avatar

    I believe you have told us this before. What a revelation does it worry you. I would say it simply reflects badly on the state . Thank God they didn’t kill the misfits off!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Marsha Avatar

      I did tell it in Doug’s post then thought better of it so I erased it from there and gave it its own post. It does reflect badly on the state from our perspective today, but at the time, the hope was that they would stop crime, which they felt the characteristics of criminals were passed on genetically. Granted, my great-grandfather was not a good man but my great-grandmother was amazing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. willowdot21 Avatar

        Yes indeed , it’s a strange world isn’t it. I just worry and I do know in those times it happened all over the world. You only have to look to dictatorships to see how it goes wrong. It’s sad but yes your great grandmother was an amazing woman 💜

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Marsha Avatar

          She was to me and she was a wonderful mom to my grandmother and grandma to my mom. She worked hard to make ends meet and had migraine headaches until the day he died. Like I said, he wasn’t a good guy, but sterilizing him was not the answer. Several months later at age 72, married a second cousin and traveled the United States and had a glorious retirement. A little TMI, but hers might have made an interesting memoir to write.


  3. Monica Pizura Avatar
    Monica Pizura

    I’m confused. Was your great, great grandfather a bootlegger and therefore sterilized? Or was it Doug’s? So glad CA didn’t have those laws (I think.) My grandfather (father’s side) did some time in prison in the early/mid forties for bookmaking.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Marsha Avatar

      No, just great-grandpa. He’s on the left. As time went on, they concentrated more on the mentally ill, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Doug Jacquier Avatar

        No need to apologise for trying to protect your writers, Marsha. 🙂
        Re forced sterilisation, this has occurred in Australia as well, mainly to young women with intellectual disabilities, although I have been unable to find numbers. I note that it has also become an issue at the UN. As a former social worker, including working with people with disabilities and their familied, for me this has never been a straightforward issue.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Marsha Avatar

          It is a very tough issue. We had a friend when I was in my early twenties. Their daughter, who was fairly large and very disabled was in her teens and starting to develop sexual feelings. She could barely dress herself. The parents were scared to death that someone might take advantage of her because she tended to drape herself on people. I don’t remember what they did, but they were considering sterilization – a complete hysterectomy because of her female issues as well.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Doug Jacquier Avatar

            And that is exactly why we should not rush to judgement of people who take daily care of their offspring and don’t place them in institutions (not that that’s a bad thing either).

            Liked by 2 people

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