The Secret DeniedAfter hearing my Aunt Mary's story of how she discovered the Family Secret, and what it revealed, I spent the remainder of the weekend reading through the papers she found in the manila folder my grandfather had forgotten to destroy. There were letters and telegrams between my grandfather and his mother; there were letters from landlords, lawyers, and former family friends to my grandfather demanding money that his mother owed; there was correspondence with officials at institutions and organizations where my great-grandmother had been placed, and then expelled from, over the years; and there were police reports from her final known days. Among the papers there was also a three-page, single-spaced, typewritten recollection written by my grandfather that described what happened, at least from his perspective. It all vividly brought to life to me my great-grandmother, an incorrigible, emotionally damaged, ungrateful person who left a trail of broken promises, waste, and frustration wherever she went. My great-grandmother Darling was, I learned, a thoroughly rotten egg. And a crazy one, too.
As I read through the documents and letters I felt increasingly sorry for my grandfather, a man who had been thrust into a situation that he clearly was not able to resolve satisfactorily, nor equipped to understand despite his best efforts. How lonely he must have felt, I thought, and how miserable. And isolated. As I read through the documents I wept for my grandfather and for the misery that he felt all those years. And I was profoundly saddened, too, by the private embarrassment and intense shame he felt, and also for his need to cover it up, and to keep it all a dark secret for all those years. Poor, dear fellow.
Several weeks later I visited my father, FD, in Washington, D.C. One evening, while the two of us were sitting in his living room after dinner, I asked him what he thought of the materials he had received from his sister.
FD froze. "What are you talking about?" he asked.
"The copies of the documents that Aunt Mary sent to you, FD, that explained what happened with Grandfather and why he left England after his father died, and what became of his mother."
"Reggie," my father carefully responded, "your aunt Mary is a delusional, troubled person. She forged those documents."
"What?" I asked incredulously, "I read the originals, FD, and they weren't forged, they were real."
"No, they weren't! They are nothing but lies, and outright fabrications by Mary to elevate herself and disgrace the memory of my grandmother!" he responded with his voice pitched and his face flushed with anger.
"But I read them, FD, and I held them in my own hands. They were not faked!" I said.
My father was wildly upset. He jumped from the sofa, grabbed me by the arms and shook me, and shouted, "Stop it! Shut up! Don't you believe a word that Mary says, that lying bitch! You're just as bad as she is for spreading such lies! You can go to Hell, the both of you!"
He then slapped me across the face, hard enough to send my spectacles flying across the room. He stood over me, shaking with rage, and raised his arm to strike me again. Just as he was about to do so he hesitated and then abruptly turned, left the room, and slammed the door. I then heard the sound of the front door slam behind him and his car screeching out of the driveway, as he drove off into the night, abandoning our confrontation, and me.
I was absolutely stunned.
I rose from the sofa, picked up my glasses, and put them back on. As I did so, I wondered how was it possible that this had just happened? Why was my father in such denial? How could he doubt the veracity of the evidence, when it was so clearly documented? Why did he think his sister had fabricated all of the papers? Why did he react so violently when I asked him about them, and slap me?
My father was not a physically abusive person, and I cannot remember him striking me more than two times in my life, this being one of them.
I attribute FD's reaction to his emotional immaturity and his own alcoholism, which by then (he was in his late fifties when this happened) was beginning to interfere with his cognitive abilities, particularly when he drank (as he had been doing for much of that evening), and which at times made him irrational, even when he was sober. I also believe that what I witnessed was the lingering after-effect of my Grandfather having kept his own story a deeply hidden secret from his children their entire lives. How else could my father harbor such delusions?
The next morning FD apologized for hitting me, and said that he preferred to leave it at that.
I left shortly thereafter to return to New York. As I rode the train north, watching the scenery pass by the window, I reflected on my visit with my father and the one I had with his sister and my mother only weeks before. The contrast was startling, to say the least. Given what had happened the night before, I decided that it was probably best for me not to pursue the topic of the Family Secret with FD any further. That is, if I wanted to maintain any kind of relationship with him in the future, however unsatisfactory it might be.
I never spoke about it with him again.
So, what do I make of all of this? That mental illness, substance abuse, and addictions frequently go hand in hand in hand. I believe that a family's not acknowledging situations such as my great-grandmother's is unhealthy and leads to further unhappiness, and increases the likelihood that such behavior will be repeated in future generations. I also believe that Family Secrets have a way of festering and metastasizing when they go unheeded, and can become cancers that invade a family's collective mental health and emotional stability.
I am not suggesting that I think it appropriate to air all of one's dirty laundry, far and wide at every opportunity. But I do believe the frank acknowledgement of and honest discussion of such situations among those who need to know is the only way to ensure that history does not repeat itself, and that lessons are appropriately learned.
And with that, Dear Reader, I conclude the sad and shocking tale of the Darling Family Secret.
Photographs by Boy Fenwick