Secret Keeping

I blogged the other day about how the shame my birth mother carries is sticky and how her request for me to keep her secret (by not contacting her children, and by extension, my birth family on her side) is becoming more and more difficult for me.

First, let me say thank you to the scores of people who commented on the blog post, or on Facebook, or in private messages or texts. This is a good journey to be on, but it is not an easy one. And I’m so grateful I’m not doing it alone. Your words of support mean more to me than I can express. (Check out this blogpost from a woman I’ve not met who blogged about the post.)

Second, I noticed that post struck a chord with people in a way I was not expecting. I heard so many stories of people whose families also have secrets, shame, and silence. I heard many stories of pain and healing when those stories came to light. I recognized that while nobody else is experiencing exactly the same birth family reunion/rejection that I am facing, we all know of secrets, shame, and silence in our families, our churches, our lives.

And too often we do not provide space for those stories to come to light in ways that are life-giving and restorative. In systems of shame and silence, the truth still wants to come out, but it often has to come out sideways–in the middle of a fight at the Thanksgiving dinner table, for example, or at funerals.  Or a version of the story comes out too many years down the road, once the actors are no longer around to corroborate, or to apologize, or to tell their side of the story.

No matter what ends up happening with my birth mother, I’m realizing this week that we need to give people more space to talk about their woundedness, their shame, the secrets they no longer want to carry around. (Just spend a few minutes at Post Secret to see what people want to share with the world.)


image from Post Secret


For those of us in organized religion, it is incumbent on us to give people space, ritual space, to claim their stories and to connect their stories with the divine story, which is also full of secrets, shame, and silence.

How can we help each other let go of our shame and secrets in safe and redemptive ways?

When I talk of “secret keeping” that is harmful, I’m distinguishing it from appropriate withholding of information and discretion. It would not be appropriate to disclose all  details of our lives to strangers on a bus or co-workers at the water cooler. But when secret keeping prohibits people from accessing crucial segments of their own story,  it becomes harmful and impedes a person’s ability to know and tell their own story.

In their book Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals, Herbert Anderson and Edward Foley speak to this:

“The danger of secret keeping is highlighted when one reckons with the communal nature of human narration. Defining ourselves through story is both a personal and a communal act and thus a matter of psychological and social responsibility. In storytelling, our personal autonomy is confronted by our social context, our primary authorship is challenged by a sea of coauthors. We are communal creatures; thus storytelling and story making are always psychosocial activities. They contribute mightily to the creation and maintenance of human communities.”

This is at the heart of my birth family story right now–secret keeping is keeping me from accessing my own story. 

I received plenty of advice and opinions after my last post, which revealed that there are as many different opinions about what I should do next as there are people to share opinions. Some of the advice tried to shame me into silence, even, which was interesting in a post about shame and silence. The many different viewpoints gave me clarity, of a sort, by reminding me there is not one right or simple solution waiting for me.

I appreciate your good thoughts, and the advice and support you’ve offered this week, as I head into this weekend and get to meet some new cousins. I’ll be re-reading Anderson and Foley’s book too, and continuing to ponder how we can create safe spaces for people to claim their whole, conflicted, beautiful, messy, and wonderful stories.

How do you tell the story of your life?

once upon a time

6 thoughts on “Secret Keeping

  1. Hi, Marci,

    I was in your Story workshop at the Presbyterian Women’s retreat in Hunt, Texas. Yours was my favorite workshop and I still think about it.

    Your term “sticky guilt” certainly resonated with me. That’s a wonderful description — it clings and is hard to see and therefore to wash off. And I think it’s more common than I ever realized. We were discussing this in a book group I’m in, and someone mentioned Pia Mellody, who speaks (and writes??) about “carried shame”. You might enjoy some of that, if you don’t already know of her.

    Anyway, blessings of peace, trust and insight as you journey forward.




  2. In response to a mysterious hand-written entry on a 1940 census card (four years before I was born, the first in our family) and with the encouragement of my younger brother who had DNA tested, I followed him and got ancestryDNA (autosomal) and later Family Tree DNA – upgraded my Genographic 2.0 (National Geographic) to Y-111 (markers) plus Family Finder (which took months for results to process). This journey has been about a year long so far but less than two months this Family Finder. I was not aware of how many submit DNA because they do NOT know parentage (being adopted). People are searching. I knew English background (U.K.) both sides paternal and maternal but am being surprised there may be some Norway behind all that. Fascinating phone conversations far and wide on these – thought of writing “stories from my DNA.” When I mentioned to senior pastor, he replied “I live every day with my DNA.” I know the stories you mean are not limited, certainly, to genetics.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Marci, thank you for this follow-up post. I can’t imagine the frustration and hurt of being denied contact by your birth mother.
    I do understand her shame. I’m part of the generation that grew up with secret-keeping and shame. Woe be unto anyone who causes shame to be visited upon the family, tarnishing the family name. Shame is so darn powerful, it’s hard to let it go and live in the freedom of truth.
    I understand your birth mother’s secret shame…..but I also understand your desire and need to know and be known by your siblings and extended family. A conundrum so deep I couldn’t even comment the other day.
    I have no advice. My only wish is for you to go in peace and joy to meet your cousins. My family discovered a “new” cousin about 10 years ago and we welcomed her with joy and many hugs.
    I hope for an “unplanned” way to meet the aunt with the geneology so you can learn the history of your birth family. Peace and Joy to you and yours.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So many familiar (& unfamiliar) Bible stories are actually shame stories. The wedding at Cana is one of my favorite examples.

    ***Mary know what is was like to be ashamed at your own wedding.***

    Thanks for this post.


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