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Secrets in the Family

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Does your family have a dark secret? I assume that most families do, to one degree or another. It may be a significant one, like one of the children is not the father's biological child, a bigamous family, or a suicide. Or it may be a smaller one, such as Aunt Annie's brief affair with the milkman. (With hardly any milk deliveries now, I wonder who the modern-day 'milkman' is? Perhaps the Argos delivery man? Husbands beware!)

We all have a natural instinct to cover up the truth in areas such as love, sex and death. Daft really, as it usually comes out in the end. But a lie slips so easily off the tongue when confronted by another person's distress or judgement. Of course we'll 'fess up one day, honest we will...

There was a secret in my family. It was a justifiable one, perpetrated by the adults, supposedly to protect the children. It didn't work, and it had a very detrimental effect on me, one of the children.

My brother was dying of cancer, aged 15. "No, no," they all said emphatically, when I, three years older than him, asked if he might die. "He's got a benign tumour," they said. Not true. And any idiot could see it wasn't true. He was wasting away in horrible pain before my very eyes. Even he, at his young age, knew he hadn't long to live.

And anyway, if he was going to be okay, why was everyone so miserable? Why did a faith healer drop by? I knew, I just knew. But I also tried to convince myself that the adults wouldn't lie to me. So it would be fine. He would live.

At nearly 18, I wasn't a child. I should have been given the chance to deal with the unpleasant truth, which I had to in the end, anyway. Not only did their secret, however understandable, make it hard for me to cope with his death when it came, robbing me of any preparation, any support. But also I was angry and upset that they had shut me out of the secret.

Because in most cases it's the keeping of the secret, rather than the secret itself, that causes much of the grief, the disbelief, the indignation, when the truth is finally revealed.

My novel, Tangled Lives, comes out this week. Based on a true story, it's about just this. A family is suddenly confronted by a man who turns up as the long-lost son whom the mother gave up for adoption back in the Sixties. She didn't tell the children because she was ashamed, she thought it was something that would shock them, so she put it off and put it off.

The years went on. What is the right time to tell your children they have an unknown half-brother out there? Five years old? Ten? Fifteen? Perhaps there would never be a need. And, of course, when it was revealed, it was the secret that upset them, not the fact itself, and made it harder for them all to deal with.

I, like most other people, am as honest as I can be. I don't always tell a friend who arrives at a party and asks if I like her dress that I loathe it - I might if I'd been in the shop with her when she was buying it, of course. I sometimes say I'm busy when I'm not, to get out of a social engagement. And as for the bigger secrets in my life... well, I hope no one ever finds them out!

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