Keeping it in the family

Keeping it in the family

When a couple called the Litchfields wrote to a Croydon mother-and-baby home in 1919, they knew exactly what they wanted. Married ten years, they had been unable to have children of their own. They wanted, therefore, a real daughter; a member of the family who would be their heir. No matter that the girl’s parents “were not what they should be” – they believed that an “illegitimate child would do”.

At a time when illegitimacy was widely construed as evidence of “bad blood” and a symbol of degeneracy, tens of thousands of British families such the Litchfields privately adopted. They did it on the faith that the illegitimacy would remain a family secret. They told lies and misled their neighbours; they forged birth certificates and deceived their adopted children. Rejecting age-old stigmas and the rising tide of eugenics, adoptive parents believed that illegitimacy didn’t matter so long as no one knew about it.

That families repress their members – and that secrets damage people’s lives – is by now a commonplace belief. A slew of memoirs, such as John Lanchester’s Family Romance and Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father?, have anatomised the destructive consequences of supposedly shameful facts fruitlessly hidden away. The website tempts prospective subscribers with the lure of secrets to be ferreted out: ‘Who will you discover?’ is the bait. To restore to the family tree the suicide or the homosexual pruned out by a judgmental ancestor is to know oneself better.

And yet, for all of the attention that has been devoted to unmasking the family secrets of the past, we understand very little about the functions they once served. Family secrets were a strategy of defence and protection, a means of guarding a black sheep as well as the family’s reputation. When the various sorts of shame that could be visited upon families – an illegitimate birth, a son with a propensity for “unnatural acts”, adultery, bankruptcy, a mentally disabled child – were considered catastrophic, subject both to legal disability and to social scorn if they were known, secrets were the only means families had of creating privacy.

In the stories we tell ourselves about the liberalisation of social norms – be it the softening of the stigma of illegitimacy or the advance in gay rights – families are hardly granted a speaking part. The grim-faced ancestor who excised evidence of a “feeble-minded” relation is cast as personally repressive but also helpless in the face of overwhelming societal dictates. Our explanations of why mores change focus instead upon public events: the formation of pressure groups, social movements and new laws.

What we leave out, though, are the sea changes that took place behind closed doors, as families confronted dread stigmas they had never before contemplated. Family secrets could carry significant psychic costs, but they could also stretch the boundaries of acceptable conduct. So that the family could escape censure, behaviour that was condemned would be covered up.

The notion that your son’s homosexuality was nobody’s business – not the law’s nor your next-door neighbours’ – did not erase your shame about the wrongdoing. But it lent legitimacy to the effort to shield an errant relation – and the family as a whole – from nosey outsiders. In some cases, as in the history of adoption, family secrets helped to create the intellectual and social bedrock upon which new legal distinctions would be built.

As two world wars created successive waves of illegitimate children, the government joined with adoptive parents to keep their secret. Where civil servants had once insisted upon transparency in all matters relating to adoption and to illegitimacy, they now followed adoptive parents’ lead. Redesigning birth certificates and redrafting laws to accomplish what once would have been unthinkable – cutting off the rights of the birth mother – a new sphere of familial privacy was carved out of what was once the province of public shame.

When their daughter was 16, the Litchfields told her she was adopted, something they had vowed never to do. Bolstered by protective laws – and increasingly by public indifference – “telling” replaced lying as the standard approach to adoption. Privacy would eventually become the right not to hide, but to tell without cost.


Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day by Deborah Cohen is out now, published by Viking.

This feature first appeared in the spring edition of We Love This Book - which you can read for free here.