Keeping Family Secrets: Shame and Silence in Memoirs from the 1950s By Margaret K. Nelson

Keeping Family Secrets: Shame and Silence in Memoirs from the 1950s
By Margaret K. Nelson

I was very excited to read this book by sociologist, Margaret Nelson. As a historian of mid-twentieth century culture and politics, the title alone was titillating enough. Keeping Family Secrets did not disappoint.

The book is divided into sections, each one addressing a particularly scandalous (for the time) family secret: homosexuality among boys (in particular), having a “red”, Communist-leaning parent (or one accused of being a “Commie”), the institutionalization of a sibling or a child, having Jewish ancestry, and others. To our contemporary minds, such facts of life are hardly worth mentioning in some communities; no one would bat an eye at a child of unwed parentage, for example, in most communities today. But that is where Nelson’s historical scholarship shines. Keeping Family Secrets transports the reader to an era in which such things did matter and mattered a lot. The book focuses not only on the scandal itself, but more so on the consequences of those scandals on the other family members and the long-term trauma and emotional damage they experience long after society has moved on from the shock of such events. The bulk of Nelson’s sources were published memoirs of siblings, survivors, and family members. Indeed, there are fantastic references for further reader for readers interested in specific histories and stories.

Embedded in the historical and archival analysis are the voices of the family members who suffered innocently, either as children or as siblings, as a result of their families’ secrets. What Nelson reveals is the collective, societal, and intergenerational trauma that forced conformity and cultural norms can inflict across decades.

Keeping Family Secrets is highly accessible, not only in terms of content, but in its prose and language. It delivers a very readable piece of non-fiction. I hesitate to suggest it would be good for an undergraduate college audience, but parts of it would be enjoyable and easily accessible for use in the classroom or in a course in general.

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