The other day I was headed to a meeting, listening to NPR in the radio. Fresh Air was on and Terry Gross was interviewing Sarah Polley about her new documentary, Stories We Tell, which is about Sarah examining the story she was told. Sarah’s mother died when she was eleven and she died without telling Sarah that her husband was not Sarah’s biological father. Sarah discovered this as an adult and she was the one who ultimately had to tell her dad that they’re not biologically related.
I stopped and listened because the parallels to closed adoption and parents who don’t tell their children when they are conceived donor gametes are so similar (except that in those cases one can assume that both parents know the secret).
In the featured quotes pulled out from the interview, Sarah says she doesn’t regret her mother choosing to keep this secret.
“To be honest, I don’t see what the point would have been [of] telling me when I was a child about this. I mean, I was growing up as a member of the Polley family and I was very much a part of that family, and I’m not sure what the point would have been in adding all this confusion.”
When I heard that I thought about the many parents who will take that and hold it tight to justify their own secret keeping. But note that her mother died when she was eleven. And note, too, that the story is complicated by the fact that Sarah was conceived during an adulterous affair.
I wonder if/when Sarah’s mother would have finally told her. By keeping the secret, Sarah’s mother gave away her opportunity to be the person to tell her daughter, to ask her for understanding, to explain herself. She also made the decision for Sarah to not know her own truth and the decision for her husband and Sarah’s biological father to not know either; she gave away their opportunities, too. And she saddled Sarah with the responsibility to keep the secret since Sarah knew for some time before she told her father (her hand was forced when a journalist confronted her with it).
That is a lot — A LOT — to put on your kid.
I haven’t seen the movie and I don’t know why Sarah’s mother made the decision she did although I am sure her intentions were good.
Parents keep secrets because they want to protect their children but the secret-keeping can do more harm than the secret itself ever could. Because when the child (or adult) finds out the truth they have to contend with this truth and also their feelings about having that truth kept from them.
If you’re trying to figure out how to talk to your child about his or her adoption or conception story, please think of giving me a call. Maybe I can help you sort through the muddle.
One reason we have so many disagreements with each other is that there is Big Truth and little truth and we get mixed up over which is which.
There is the Truth (I walked towards you) and the truth (I lunged at you aggressively, I simpered as I tiptoed to you, I drunkenly veered your way). We both may agree on the Truth (I did indeed move from one end of the room to the other end of the room where you were standing) but we may violently disagree on the truth. You might say I deliberately tracked mud onto your just shampooed carpet. I might say that I was in a hurry because the phone was ringing. We might both be right. We might both be wrong.
Clearly, truth telling can create a lot of conflict.
So much of our struggling in our relationships has to do with telling our truths and denying your truths. We get hung up on specifics and never get to what’s really wrong. We are so busy defending our truth (You did call. You did not call. You never call. Well, you’re never home.) and so we argue argue argue but we never make any resolution.
A long time ago there was a woman at the shelter where I worked who was a liar. She had a very complex, very disturbing story about abuse and it was clearly not true (nor was she delusional). One of the case managers got a little obsessed with trying to get this woman to admit that the story wasn’t true but the rest of us felt (and told the case manager this at the weekly staff meeting) that what was True was that this woman felt victimized and harmed and wanted/needed attention around that. Now mind you, we were an emergency shelter so it was not our job (or our expertise) to counsel but we felt that what was more important than forcing this woman to shed her truth was to figure out how to help her within that truth so that she could get to the next place — secure housing, real therapy, etc. This haggling over details wasn’t getting anyone anywhere.
So the truth is not always True and the Truth doesn’t always matter.
Sometimes counseling is mucking around in truth and listening hard and honestly? To me it can feel a lot like writing an essay. If you’ve done any writing then likely you know how you write into what you know that you didn’t know you knew. (My favorite quote about this is: “How will I know what I think until I see what I say?” That’s E. M. Forster.) That’s how counseling can be, too. Just as we write to understand ourselves and the editor helps the writer (myself or others) in the process, so in counseling there is that storytelling structure.
So you can show up at a counseling office without any idea of what you’re thinking because part of finding out what you think is seeing what comes out of your mouth.
The counselor is a lot like an editor helping you make sense of your story. You don’t have to understand your story when you come to the counselor because she’s not listening for The Truth, she’s listening for your truth and seeing the big structure so she can ask the questions that will help you understand your experience.