ScrapMoir How-To #30: Revealing Secrets in Your Scrapbook Stories and Memoir

by Bettyann Schmidt on May 4, 2011

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #89 – Women’s Memoir Writing, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

by Bettyann Schmidt

Telling Family Secrets in Memoir

A family theme may or may not include a family secret, but a family secret is always a family theme, even if nobody talks openly about it. Children may not know the secret, but they learn what’s okay, or not okay to bring up. They unwittingly collude with parental norms set to keep and perpetuate the secret. Often the secret continues because parents feel a sense of shame, the need to protect children and force compliance to a standard set by a previous generation.~ Ruth Zaryski Jackson, from “Memoir Writing: The Power of a Family Secret.”

I was about fourteen when I discovered a family secret. When my younger sister and I found an old photo of a baby we didn’t recognize and presented it to our mother, we knew immediately by Mom’s demeanor that this was a subject not open for discussion.

I’ve lived my life wondering about that secret baby and recently uncovered the truth. But then I wasn’t sure what to do with it.

Does it belong in my family memoir, the book I’m currently working on? If so, what purpose does it serve? This is the big question I’ve tried to answer over the last several weeks.

For Memoir: The Real Purpose of a Revealed Family Secret

When you write your family history, be a recording angel and record everything your descendants might want to know.~William Zinsser, “How to Write a Memoir,” The American

Finding out about that baby no one wanted to talk about in my family became very important to me, both as a child and as an adult. The mere fact it was not discussed told me there was a story there that was part of my larger family story. Might this information add to one of my family members’ character or personality? If so, our descendants would find the information interesting and perhaps helpful.

A more important fact was that the story would not demean one of my family members. In fact, what I finally found added to understanding my mother and knowing her more intimately. I wished she’d been able to talk to me about her story. I could have helped her feel better about herself and let her know what she went through was shared by many other women in the world; she was not alone.

This brings me to another question that memoir writers often ask: What about the privacy of the people I write about? Should I leave out things that might offend or hurt my relatives…Don’t worry about that problem in advance. Your first job is to get your story down as you remember it—now. Don’t look over your shoulder to see what relatives are perched there. Say what you want to say, freely and honestly, and finish the job. Then take up the privacy issue—you may want to show your relatives the pages in which they are mentioned. That’s a basic courtesy…Finally, it’s your story. You’re the one who has done all the work…I believe that at some level most families want to have a record left of their effort to be a family, however flawed that effort was, and they will give you their blessing and will thank you for taking on the job—if you do it honestly and not for the wrong reasons.~William Zinsser, “How to Write a Memoir,”

I did in fact contact my cousins on my mother’s side and revealed the uncovered story, and they agreed it was not something that would negatively affect anyone still alive and received the news of my book with excitement. In addition, I’m gathering more unheard stories now from them.

I think William Zinsser is right about families wanting a record created of their lives and the lives of their ancestors.

My Memoir: The Secret Baby Story

Secret Baby

This layout for my family history memoir describes how my sister and I found the baby’s photo when we were kids and how I finally found the records of my mother’s first marriage as well as records of the baby’s birth and death, all of which took place in one year, 1939.

The story also includes the deductions I made because of who my mother married when she was six months pregnant, namely her sister-in-law’s brother. My story also includes what my paternal grandmother told me when I asked about the baby.

All of the facts together lead to the probable truth that my mother became pregnant at age eighteen by an unnamed man. Her older brother and only sibling, my Uncle Buford, had married and one of his wife’s brothers married my mother to save her and the child, as well as the entire family, the disgrace of an illegitimate birth, which in 1939 would have been grave.

With my Grandma’s information that my father “buried” the baby though he was not the father, further deductions can be made that the marriage was both arranged and of convenience, and my parents met shortly after. Though I’ve been unable as yet to find a marriage record for my parents, they told the story of going across the Kentucky state line to a “justice of the peace.” Research reveals that some justices of the peace in those times were not always accountable for their records. Nevertheless, I was born in 1942, and my father is listed on my birth certificate as well as those of all of my siblings.

A writer should have this little voice inside of you saying, Tell the truth. Reveal a few secrets here.~Quentin Taratino

In Memoir, We Ask How The Truth Affects Us

I ask myself, “How does this story affect me?” I wanted to know about it almost my entire life, and now I know. Does it change me? Yes, a little, but only in a good way. I never gave up looking, and I succeeded in finding what I sought. I think my mother would be glad I found the truth and maybe even wanted me to after she was gone. Definitely not when she or the others involved were still alive.

Does this change how I feel about my mother? Definitely. Most young girls grow up never seeing their mothers as like themselves, making misakes, ever having gone through certainly anything the least bit tainted.  We see our mothers as saints, most of us.  I grieve for my mother more now, for the hard life she lived, for having to keep secrets, for losing a child she loved.  I grieve for not having been more insightful, for not having been able to help her feel better about herself and her life. 

I’ve learned from one of my cousins that my Uncle Buford and his brother-in-law were close friends, about the same age. My uncle was one of the best men I’ve ever known, and he was noticeably protective of Mom, and now I think I understand why. I’m so grateful to him and so happy that I know his children, my cousins, and we can share the stories, good and bad, now at this point in our lives.

I consider this blessing of family history huge.

If You Are Writing Memoir, Here’s a Closing Question

Do you have any secret stories in your family? If you haven’t searched for the truth, is it because you’re afraid? Why not do a little research and see what you find. Even if family members your research could affect are still alive, remember you get to decide if your information is worth sharing, worth writing about. Maybe writing for your private journal if nothing else.

Ask yourself the question: What purpose would the truth serve? You might just find a real story when you do this that opens up the door to further writing.

Please leave comments below because I treasure these. And be sure, if you haven’t yet, to download a free copy of my e-book here on Women’s Memoirs: ScrapMoir: 7 Steps to Combining Your Photos, Your Memories, Your Stories.

Bettyann Schmidt
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You may also be interested in Bettyann Schmidt’s article on Creating Timelines for Scrapbooking and Memoir Writing

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