Margaret K. Nelson

Oct 24, 2023

Keeping Family Secrets

Shame and Silence in Memoirs from the 1950s

NYU Press 2022

All families have secrets but the facts requiring secrecy change with time. Nowadays A lesbian partnership, a “bastard” son, an aunt who is a prostitute, or a criminal grandfather might be of little or no consequence but could have unravelled a family at an earlier moment in history. In Keeping Family Secrets: Shame and Silence in Memoirs from the 1950s (NYU Press, 2023), Dr. Margaret K. Nelson is interested in how families keep secrets from each other and from outsiders when to do otherwise would risk eliciting not only embarrassment or discomfort, but profound shame and, in some cases, danger. Drawing on over 150 memoirs describing childhoods in the period between the aftermath of World War II and the 1960s, Dr. Nelson highlights the importance of history in creating family secrets and demonstrates the use of personal stories to understand how people make sense of themselves and their social worlds.

Keeping Family Secrets uncovers hidden stories of same-sex attraction among boys, unwed pregnancies among teenage girls, the institutionalisation of children with mental and physical disabilities, participation in left-wing political activities, adoption, and Jewish ancestry. The members of ordinary families kept these issues secret to hide the disconnect between the reality of their own family and the prevailing ideals of what a family should be. Personal accounts reveal the costs associated with keeping family secrets, as family members lie, hurl epithets, inflict abuse, and even deny family membership to protect themselves from the shame and danger of public knowledge. Keeping Family Secrets sheds light not only on decades-old secrets but pushes us to confront what secrets our families keep today.

This interview was conducted by Dr. Miranda Melcher whose doctoral work focused on post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with qualitative analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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Miranda Melcher

Miranda Melcher (Ph.D., Defense Studies, Kings College, London) studies post-conflict military integration, understanding treaty negotiation and implementation in civil war contexts, with deep analysis of the Angolan and Mozambican civil wars.

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