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(For reasons of readability, the male form is used with personal names, however the female form is also always intended.)

Family Secrets

Author: Silvia Prosquill (TVP)


Etymologically speaking, the term "family" has its roots in Latin and refers in a figuratively sense to a housing community defined by marriage or ancestry. Frequently in today´s households, only two generations live together.

Accommodating the Zeitgeist, however, there is a change in the classical family structure "father-mother-child(-ren)" of the twentieth century. The rise of divorces brings forth both families with single parents as well as remarriages. The nuclear family model points to the diversity of the relationship constellations within these two generations. Looking back only one or two generations, several generations usually lived together under one roof. According to Buchholz (1995), with the concept of the "institutional family“, the traditional image of the cross-generational family has been passed down. It represents the smallest government unit and has been a guarantee for the security of women and children for centuries. In the "ideological family" the same ideological ideas and common standards form the organizing core of the understanding of the family. The family defines itself here by the common ideological connection in different areas like politics, religion, race, etc. in this family concept the army and that of a therapeutic school can be found as well. This "unconscious family” had an unconscious influence for several generations on family dynamics which been taken into consideration.

In each of these groups, the best prerequisites for committing forbidden things is an isolated environment. This framework, which in large part is committed to silence by virtue of primarily demonstrating loyalty, and thus becomes the breeding ground for secrets. One of the most important features of these systems is the insularity to the outside. There is usually a ban on talking about private things outside these "families". In this isolated atmosphere, secrets and the uncanny flourish. For this insularity to the outside, there is a specific commitment among members. Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy and Geraldine Spark (2006) point out loyalty as a positive attitude of fidelity expected by a person towards an "object of loyalty":

"The principle of loyalty is a basic prerequisite for the understanding of morality, that is, the underlying relationship structure between families and other social groups."

Conversely, the authors use the concept of a "multi-person loyalty construct". This is characterized by a structured group expectation and all members are obligated to uphold it. Here, loyalty is understood as a group feature and the needs of the individual are not as important as those of the group. It assumes that the human being, in order to be a loyal part of a group, has internalized the values and rules of this group and communicates this bond through a group-specific attitude. Here, Freud makes a comparison to the dynamic basis of groups, in which he notices a mission of the superego. The most important groups, which are committed to the principle of loyalty, are religions, families, army and political parties.

A secret is always a sensitive piece of information that is usually only known to a small group. However, the unconscious feels changes, atmospheric fluctuations, moods, which also touch those who do not know the secret in the context of the relationship, and they invoke a sense of the uncanny. The concept of secrecy can be spontaneously associated with "Hidden, covert, worthy of protection, fear of discovery, shame and guilt". The author John Bradshow (1999) explains that secrets are a self-evident part of our lives. However, he distinguishes between "healthy secrets" and "dark secrets". Regarding the first category, with reference to the family, he describes them as a means of strengthening and protecting both personal growth and individuality as well as the family. The second kind of secrets, however, are destructive and destroy trust, intimacy, and the development of personality.

In the time of Freud, the collective was propagated as a protective authority and the emotional world of the individual was suppressed. Consequently, it was self-evident to join the collective thought of a family and the social grouping, which seemed the most opportune. It was regarded as a virtue to sacrifice one´s own interests in favor of the group’s interests. Refusing these principles meant risking the exclusion from the family. Despite his socio-critical and confrontational theories, Freud also appears to submit to conventions when he forbade his daughter Anna to study medicine, and who obeyed this command. It was only when Anna considered psychoanalytic training that he gave his permission - documented through correspondence - with the benevolence and perhaps pride of a father who knows that his ideas will be carried on in his spirit. Here, one aspect of the secret can be deducted: due to the psychoanalysis of Anna conducted by Freud himself, a special bond can be assumed, which probably also includes the transmission of secrets around the psychoanalytic training, dreams and fantasies. According to Bradshaw, this can be understood as a secret that strengthens the self-esteem - it invokes pride in the secret owner, the knowledge presents itself as an increase in narcissism and leads to an enormous gain of self-worth. This pride can appear with its exhibitionist side as well as a quiet guest.

As a counterpart to pride appears the feeling of shame. This can now be created on the one hand by exclusion - of not belonging to the ´knowing circle´, of being unworthy. On the other hand, the sense of shame plays a major part in "dark secrets", the secrets that, according to Bradshaw, captivate us. Secrets accompany us from birth to death; they often regard the body with its disorders and diseases as well as the self with all its deviants. In addition, Bradshaw locates material possessions (concerning its origin), intimacy, and sexuality as a frequent cause of mysteries in the realm of secrets.

The sense of dignity of the self represents an important aspect regarding secrets. When it comes to belonging to a group, for example, the "good reputation" often arises, to which we (should) quickly feel obliged. In this context, the family once again represents a unique association when the issue of family honor is often strongly emotionally charged. Perhaps we remember the often-made demand "that we should not besmirch the good reputation of the family". If it was impossible to fit into these conventions, secrecy was a way out. Until the previous century, it was still essential to protect the good reputation of the family name under all circumstances, "whatever the cost" - often even suicide was considered acceptable to restore the family´s reputation. Here, emotions of shame and guilt can be seen as motivation for secrecy and secrets. The feeling of shame is one of the social affects - whether implemented by the environment or in the superego, a violation will be either externally or internally sanctioned, and is thus accompanied by humiliation and the fear of annihilation. Subsequently, feelings of guilt and loss of self-esteem develop. These two affects point to the fear of humiliation of the self. The face, with the author, represents the place for the feeling of shame, which is evident in the expression of "loss of face" and the shame reaction, to conceal or veil our face in order to avoid further exposure.

Anne Schützenberger (2010) invented a concept for the transfer of family secrets, in which she explains how the life of one´s ancestors reappears in our psyche. According to it, biographically relevant events in the lives of one´s ancestors have an impact on the psyche of the offspring. If these conflicts and traumatizing events are not resolved, they cause actual mental disorders and diseases. The knowledge of one´s own family history can help the sufferer, according to Schützenberg. However, the author makes an important distinction between transgenerational and intergenerational memory gaps. She differentiates between the content of the secret, it is passed on either as intergenerational through thought and spoken communication, or as transgenerational, in it "the secret, the concealed and the unspoken flourish". Serge Tisseron (2000) focuses on different types of family secrets. He differentiates between secrets that arise in the context of events from personal life, and those that develop from the collective life. The phenomenon of shame connects successive generations with each other, and is thus passed on from one to the next. Tisseron´s distinction is similar to that of Schützenberger and differentiates between secrets that tell of an imaginable but unspeakable event and those who testify of inconceivable events. Freud (1919) explains in his chapter "The Uncanny" [Das Unheimliche] a linguistic link exists that in German between the terms "secret" [heimlich] "homely" [heimisch] and "home" [heim] and that it can be traced back etymologically. Therefore, the uncanny is a secretly recollection of something repressed from our homely, infantile times, and thus scares us.

“According to him, everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.” (Freud 1919)

Contactinformation of Mag. Silvia Prosquill

Sigmund Freud Museum SFU Belvedere 21er haus stuhleck kunsthalle
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