Why Are Books Built Around Family Secrets So Gripping?

Do these stories resonate so strongly because, as readers and as human beings, we are completely terrified of and fascinated by what we may not know?

In Jami Attenberg’s new novel All This Could Be Yours, the family matriarch Barbara is the only one who knows her husband’s secrets. As he lies dying and unable to communicate in the hospital, Barbara focuses on clocking thousands of steps each day to (seemingly) process and avoid conversation with her family. Meanwhile, her adult children, Alex and Gary, acutely aware that there are things they have never been allowed to know about their father, find themselves obsessed with the secrets that have defined their lives.

The novel’s dizzying narrative had me in its thrall because I wanted to know more about this domineering figure who casts such a long shadow over the fates and obsessions of his wife and children. But I was most strongly drawn in by the slow unveiling of how each member was trapped through circumstances of age and gender by one man’s mysterious multiple lives.

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I am intrigued by fictional families — that rich, borderless canvas lending itself, if not to innovation, then to deeper insight into human relationships. The family in fiction fascinates writers as much as it does readers. When done well, its layered stories unfold and evolve with time, exposing dynamics of power, money, gender, and emotional faultlines and malleability. And of all the tropes in such literature, the one that recurs the most, and holds the richest veins of storytelling, is the family secret.

Reading All This Could Be Yours left me with questions. Why does secrecy remain an enduring and effective theme in family-centric fiction? What keeps bringing readers back to this familiar plot point? In an essay on why she returned to the orphan trope repeatedly in her fiction, the writer Liz Moore said that “the orphan…comes with a built-in problem, which leads to built-in conflict. And, as I am constantly telling my creative writing students: conflict is all.” Is it the same with family secrets? And how does this manifest in fiction from India, where shame and the keeping up of appearances hold so much power?

In Sandip Roy’s novel Don’t Let Him Know (2015), a son discovers an old letter among his parents’ papers. He is surprised by it, but feels closer to his parents because of it. What he doesn’t realise is that he has stumbled upon a partial secret. The novel is not consumed by whether or not the son will discover the remainder of the secret as much as it is interested in the way an incomplete understanding of people shapes the way we see them.

Roy tells me he wanted to write about a family that “seemed perfectly happy and content, and show how secrets simmered beneath that placid surface”. “I almost wanted to suggest the happier the family seems, the more the secrets,” he says.

Is collective happiness or the appearance of it sometimes dependent on omissions? Roy’s novel certainly seems to suggest that shrouding and compartmentalising may have seemed the most sensible choice to Indian middle-class adults in the late 20 century.

It’s a choice echoed in Tishani Doshi’s Small Days and Nights (2019) where a young woman discovers after her mother’s death that she has a sibling her parents never told her about — one who is alive and living in an institution for girls and women with intellectual disabilities. Doshi remembers reading an article about how playwright Arthur Miller and photographer Inge Morath institutionalized their son Daniel, who had Down Syndrome, in 1966. It made her think about what it might mean “to discover later in your life that you had a sibling, particularly if you’d been raised as an only child.” Her brother Ajay has Down Syndrome, and she’s always wanted to write about that relationship “with all its challenges and joys”. But she had something else in mind as well. “I wanted to explore fictionally the impact of a big family secret, which I think families hold in some measure or the other about a variety of things,” she tells me.

While in many cases, the uncovering of a secret has disruptive if not devastating consequences for families, in Small Days and Nights, there is reunification and a fresh beginning. The secret isn’t demonised, which is in and of itself an interesting choice. Like Roy, Doshi sees a sociohistorical context for the secret – both these novels feature characters who may be (slightly) better integrated in society today but were invisible not so long ago.

Of course, secrecy, whether driven by identity or by personality, isn’t exclusive to particular eras. Avni Doshi, author of Girl In White Cotton (2019), sees secrets as inherently human. “The truth is we all have secrets, even secrets we keep from ourselves, and that was very clear to me from the moment I started writing,” she explains. But it wasn’t her primary concern while crafting the novel. Instead, she says, “I thought about a mood, a feeling, and then the characters began to emerge. After that, as the relationships began to form, the secrets that characters kept from each other took shape.” As the mother in her novel ages and forgets people, eras, and secrets, the daughter is the only one with access to that vault of common history – a relief and a burden.

As I rethought Girl In White Cotton with the idea that each of us has secrets in mind, I wondered if the characters weren’t so much aberrations, but merely further along the spectrum of secrecy we all live on. Roy appears to agree. When he started writing the novel, he realised that secrets could range from “delicious like a stolen mango” to “excitingly taboo like the widow crunching the fishhead she was not supposed to have” to “devastatingly toxic like a man hiding his true sexuality.” In his novel, there isn’t one big secret or one sole bearer. Everyone has them. Scanning just the last month in my own life, I can identify a handful of details I have deliberately withheld from people in order to keep the peace, save myself embarrassment or not hurt someone’s feelings. It is a surprisingly common manipulation.

Akhil Sharma’s disquieting novel An Obedient Father (2000) delves into the complicated consequences of revelations in situations where the traumatised do not have support and requisite emotional tools, showing that the fraught volatility of these moments can retraumatise survivors rather than be cathartic for them. The novel follows a low-level and corrupt government servant in Delhi who lives out his final years with his recently widowed daughter and her child, who are forced to move in with him for lack of anywhere else to go. The novel doesn’t keep the reader waiting long before disclosing the corrosive and horrific secret of their relationship, and then proceeds to explore the troubled terrain of trauma and the prioritising of respectability over accountability.

Sharma explains that the novel’s intensity and atmosphere emerge from a dissimilar episode from his own life: “For me, the source of the character’s guilt was my own shame for being physically okay while my older brother was not after a cataclysmic accident. This guilt was what I wished to express and so I needed to find a subject matter that would make the guilt seem reasonable to the reader.”

Perhaps the reason the trope appears so often in fiction is because of how integral secrecy is to the fabric of families. Secrets are often carried by men and women trying to protect what is familiar. In All This Could Be Yours, Barbara isn’t interested in excavating the past. At one point, Attenberg writes about her, “She had lived the longest, so she could see the real story. But she saw no point in revelations; she was simply trying to keep everyone alive.” Her old-school, practical wisdom (which I saw variously echoed in An Obedient Father and Don’t Let Him Know) reminded me that the preservation of secrets aids the preservation of traditional (and sometimes toxic) family structures. Afraid of burning down the house or their own tenuous sanity, the keepers of these secrets reorient their focus on survival. Taught, especially in an Indian context, that their respectability and power comes from keeping up appearances, they don’t see the truth as powerful. Healing, trauma, or maladaptive coping mechanisms are simply not a part of their vocabulary.

The memoirist Dani Shapiro hosts a podcast called Family Secrets that she started after discovering well into adulthood that the man who had raised her was not, in fact, her birth father. In an episode where she interviews fellow memoirist Kiese Laymon, she notes that she often encounters in the stories of her interviewees a contradictory logic for what they have been forced to endure: “making all kinds of sense and making no kind of sense”. The logic of secrecy shares this attribute – it protects the existence of family while betraying central tenets of what it should mean to be a family. The trope also endures because it is always surprising to realise that we may not know our loved ones as well as we think. As Doshi says, “in families, particularly when we think of our parents, there’s always an idea of them and a revealing of them which shows them to be otherwise. Those who are notionally the closest people to us are in some ways strangers.”

Speaking of photography as a lens into secrets, Diane Arbus observed, “…the more it tells you, the less you know.” Secrets in a family may uncoil in the same way. A revelation can be validating and freeing for some, but for others, practiced in the art of distracted attention, a revelation can be alienating. The more they learn of the fuller truth, the less they can believe they really know their family. What else have they been missing? What might they be forced to choose between?

It’s a trope with endless variability, and while I see the many ways in which secrets can contribute to effective and layered storytelling, perhaps the reason these stories resonate so strongly is simply because we – as readers and as human beings – are completely terrified of and fascinated by what we may not know.