Cover Image: Keeping Family Secrets

Keeping Family Secrets

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Member Reviews

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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How to really screw up your kids? Don’t talk about it
Posted on January 19, 2023 by Kel Munger
Keeping Family Secrets: Shame and Silence in Memoirs from the 1950s by Margaret K Nelson. NYU Press, $30.

“Happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” was enough to give Tolstoy a fine novel, and we are still mining that aphorism for insight more than 100 years later. Most of us come from families that fall into the latter category, and the combination of therapy and the recovery movement have given us a new language—not to mention permission—to talk about it.

But that wasn’t always the case. In this new academic study that applies sociological insights and methods to first-person memoir, Margaret K Nelson looks at family secrets and their relationship to the 1950s ideal of the nuclear family, and it’s pretty amazing to see how clearly silence, omission, and secret-keeping can screw up lives.

Nelson looks at secrets other than the usual suspects. She does not address alcoholism and addiction, incest, child abuse or domestic violence, other than in passing. Instead, she looks at memoirs, most of which have been published in the last couple of decades, written by those who were children in the 1950s and early 1960s.

The secrets she is examining? Each gets a chapter: families in which a developmentally disabled or physically disabled child was institutionalized, boys who exhibited signs of gender nonconformity and in most cases grew up to be gay, teenage girls who became pregnant in the pre-Roe years, so-called “red diaper babies,” children who were adopted in the bad old days of closed adoptions or who had what is known these days as an unexpected paternity event, and those who had the disclosure, or rather, the nondisclosure, of a Jewish or African-American parent.

These were all things that in the “happy days” were perceived as shameful or even dangerous. Nobody talked about it, not even the Fonz.

Nelson’s analysis is fascinating, and she provides a nifty list of the memoirs examined at the beginning of each chapter, which this reviewer quickly turned into a reading list. Between the memoirs themselves and the sources Nelson uses to explicate the shame-inducing drive to a perfectly perfect nuclear family, she offers up a good five years worth of such lists.

In short, her sociology is well constructed. The use of memoir is a fascinating way to approach case studies, and she notes that the authors of memoir often have a lot invested in covering up their own bad behavior. Nonetheless, the big advantage to her choice of cases is an in-depth and often poetic description of the emotional weight that secret keeping, shame, and the fear of parental rejection, has for the children in any given family.

Nelson also makes clear that the nuclear family was an artificial creation, one from which those who dared to deviate from the norm could quickly be excluded. What’s more, those who recovered some sense of self and emotional equilibrium found that building an extended and often unrelated biologically family was the healthy alternative to what they were offered.

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Thank you for this ARC. Great history about how things were back in the 1950's and very relevant to things we see today.

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I was born in the 1950s and am always curious to learn more about this era. I think that anyone of my age will be intrigued and appreciate these memoirs. It's a good tool for reflecting on where we've been, where we went, and where we are going now.

Thank you to NetGalley for an advance copy of this book. I hope readers of all age will find it intriguing.

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I have been on a nonfiction kick recently and this one stood out for many reasons. I loved the honesty and emotion. I felt like I was in the moment with the author and I felt like the articulation of the circumstances were easy to understand which I appreciated with such a complex issue.

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Keeping Family Secrets: Secrets, Shame and Silence In Memoirs from the 1950’s – Margaret K. Nelson – (2022)
All families have secrets, and this subject is thoroughly explored through the use of literary cultural studies and memoirs. In the 1950’s the life of the Standard North American Family (SNAF) centered around adherence to social and cultural norms of the post WWII era: the traditional family values linked to patriarchy, capitalism, and Christianity/belief in a Christian god.

During this time period SNAF needed to exhibit a robust physical/mental health, fertility, sexual purity for girls and sexual marital fidelity for women, heterosexuality, and socially conforming law-abiding citizenry free of deviant behavior or criminal activity. In six chapters Nelson explored families that hid their disabled children in state funded residential institutions, the challenge of boys concealing same-sex desires, unmarried teen pregnancies and forced adoptions, growing up in communist affiliated homes, learning the truth of conception, and families with Jewish heritage. Due to societal intolerance and judgments families went to great lengths to appear like everyone else and conceal and hide their truths not only among themselves but from their immediate families and surrounding communities. The fear of discovery fueled a deep level of shame, embarrassment, and fears related to public humiliation and/or arrest, loss of income, and a real possibility of danger and harm.

The popularity of television that portrayed the SNAF went from “Father Knows Best” to “Leave it to Beaver” (1950’s-60’s) to a greater societal tolerance and acceptance of the talk show presentations of Phil Donahue to Oprah Winfrey. Memoir as a genre is added and most helpful as readers gain insight in understanding the lives of themselves and others through Nelson’s well researched book. **With thanks to NYU Press via NetGalley for the DDC for the purpose of review.

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Rather than an memoir or collection of biographical descriptions of 1950s memoirs, this was more akin to a an academic literature review of published memoirs.

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The postwar USA created and advanced everywhere the image of ‘the normal American family' . What happens if this proclaimed normality is not in your family -it leads to secrets which cannot be shared and at the same necessitate keeping up appearances. How many forms and shapes these secrets take, is well described in this book. Using memoirs as a foundation the author brings out the suffering and damage these secrets cause. The topics covered are unwanted teenage pregnancy, not being able to get children, homosexuality and unwanted political affiliations
It is remarkable how the expectation of society influences what is considered normal and what is not. A must-read.

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family has secrets. Some are quite egregious and others are profound. The author discusses the impacts of six different types of secrets held by families during the 1940s-1980s.
It’s a good conversation starter, although some of the suppositions the author posits are quite subjective.

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Keeping Family Secrets is a nonfiction book that felt more like a summary of more extensive data. Nelson takes several big issues around the theme of shame and silence in the 1950s and then pulls details from a variety of memoirs to explain each issue. She addresses the institutionalization of children with disabilities, same-sex attraction among boys, unwed pregnancies, Communism, adoption, and Jewish ancestry.

This book was an interesting glimpse into the 1950s in the US. Nelson did a great job explaining why each of these issues led to shame and silence throughout the country. Americans were after the “ideal” family, and all of these issues were perceived as detracting from that goal.

Nelson looks at individual memoirs to pull stories for each chapter of her book. It is interesting to note that most of the memoirs were written by people who grew up with these secrets in their families—and decided as adults to expose the secrets.

I felt that this book gives the reader good information. But it felt very sterile and unemotional to me. Perhaps that was the author’s intent. It also felt like a fairly dry summary of other people’s work.

I suppose my impressions of this book are tainted by my expectations. I began this book looking for a deep dive into some of these issues, seeing the emotions involved, and feeling some sort of redemption for the people who lived through these things and reclaimed their power later in life by exposing these secrets. Instead, I left with more general overview of these six issues and why they were taboos in the 1950s. I was left wanting more depth.

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Anyone who's ever dug into their family history and uncovered some stories hidden out of shame will want to read this book. Keeping Family Secrets sheds light on the societal atmosphere of previous generations that led to people concealing information from their families, and from future generations, out of shame or pain. Heartbreaking and illuminating, the stories within this book help demonstrate the long-term harm caused by moral panics and social movements aimed at repression.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read this book!

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Such shocking tales that mimic more of a modern era fused into one masked to seem traditional and appealing. The author, Margaret Nelson, has the ability to captivate you with the truth by pulling the curtain aside, exposing what may be considered by some as a romantic and traditional period of values with the same issues that plague our society today: equal opportunity, teen pregnancy, freedom to love who we choose, and to live by our own beliefs. The "secrets" exposed are reminders that we are all still fighting for acceptance and these issues are far from new to us. Why read? Because you may either be the one in need of such acceptance or be taught tolerance. Though my students may be a bit too impressionable to use this with my curriculum, I will offer the title for those (with parent permission) who choose to read it for themselves. So many could benefit from history's lessons.

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A fascinating and very often sad look into the past. As someone who doesn’t read a lot of non-fiction I found this to be really well put together. I would recommend to anyone looking for insight into the expectations of families in the 1950s and the lies they felt they had to tell to keep up appearances!

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As a amateur family genealogist who is always uncovering "dark secrets" in my family, I really enjoyed this book. It actually helped me understand why certain events and actions that occurred in my own family during that same time period. This memoir was heart-wrenching at times. We'd like to think that the world is a better, more accepting place in this day and age, but some of these things (if not most/all) still occur in families today.

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Loved this book!!!! I love learning about history and how people dealt with issues in periods before my time! This book had a good flow and was well written! I will recommend this book for sure!!!!

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This was a well done memoir, it was what I was expecting from the description. It really shed some light on the time period. It was a really well written book and I was invested in what was going on from chapter to chapter. I enjoyed the ways Margaret K. Nelson writes and had a great way to tell the story she wanted to tell.

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