Family Secrets


Louise Ure


I’ve just returned from another sojourn to Seattle, this time a happy one to celebrate my father-in-law’s 89th birthday. Seattle proved welcoming, with 80 degree days and windless nights. Perfect for short sleeves and dining alfresco.

Ade had regained his strength from an earlier setback and was once again ready to dine out, go shopping, visit the bank and try his hand at the casinos. A fine celebration all the way around.

Until we got the call about Uncle Bob.

Bob was the last remaining of Ade’s wife’s six sisters’ husbands. Did you follow that? He’s my father-in-law’s brother-in-law.

My only exposure to him over this last thirty years has been this image of a dirty old man who greeted me at Christmas with a bear hug and then ground his pelvis into my crotch. I learned to embrace him with my elbows locked and my torso turned sideways.

Every family has an Uncle Bob, right? Mine is Cousin Pete (or Re-Pete) as we call him for his reiteration of his favorite stories and his sometimes breaching of personal space norms. You live with it, right? No family is perfect. 

In later years, my contact with Uncle Bob was escorting him to the casino with Ade. He started with martinis at 9:00 a.m. and by noon grew adept at pinching my ass or my breast as I was positioning his walker for him. His language was foul and bigoted, but I cut him some slack as a 90-year old who was having to adapt to a world changing faster than he was.

I didn’t know much about his family, except that the kids never came over for the big family gatherings and his wife was a sweet and exceptionally devout woman for whom the church played a central role in life.

Uncle Bob had been taken to the hospital for an unknown illness that was soon determined to be a fibroid piece of flesh that had wound its way around his intestine. Surgery was successful and they sent him home. But three days later, it was evident that the surgery had taken too much of a toll and his organs and systems were all shutting down.

We spent the day with him on Wednesday, by which time he was no longer conscious or tracking any activity around him. Frail and cadaverous in the bed, I couldn’t even recognize the face that had leered at me across the blackjack table.

One of his daughters was there, stoic and silent, making sure the blankets and air conditioner were correctly positioned,  and that she’d dissolved the necessary pills and painkillers in a little water. She wasn’t crying, and neither was her mother.

Strength, I thought. Momentary strength that a caregiver has to find in those last hours, in order to help usher a loved to the exit and to not cause extra grief to the rest of the family and friends.

He died while we had tuna sandwiches and lemonade on the back deck.

Calls were made: to the coroner, the mortuary, the hospice service that had provided the hospital bed, the agency that had sent sweet young men from Nigeria to act as 24-hour caregivers. (I hope they didn’t have to put up with too much racist ranting from Uncle Bob before he lost consciousness.) Cell phone calls reached the rest of his children and the neighbors.

It was only then that the stories started.

“I was worried about how to keep him from driving,” his wife whispered. “But I did not pray for this. I promise you, I did not.”

“After everything he did to you? After he broke your arm? You would have been justified,” the daughter said.

Aunt Phyllis cast her eyes down.

“After he shook Carol so bad when she was one month old that she was unconscious? After he beat up Rick so badly that he hasn’t been home for thirty years?”

The dam was broken, and all the stories came out. Beatings. Violence in language and fists. Controlling his family to the point of enslavement. Children leaving home at fourteen, just to save their lives. Two of his children living within a half-hour drive of the house but would not come by or come to any funeral service.

I’ve known Uncle Bob for thirty years and never knew any of this. Family secrets. 

And at that makeshift eulogy on the back deck on the day he died, no one had anything good to say about the man, not even his gambling partner, Ade. “I don’t know why I stayed friends with him,” he said. “I guess I always hoped he’d change.”

Some family secrets shouldn’t be secret at all.




34 thoughts on “Family Secrets

  1. Barbie

    Louise… you always have such gut-wrenching posts…

    Speaking from personal experience, some secrets remain secrets because you don't want them to look at someone they love differently. Sometimes, you just know they won't believe you, because no matter how hard you try to tell, they can't see how serious the situation is. Sometimes, they remain secret because you're protecting someone, literally, because you're being threatened with their life.

    Sometimes, you're just so ashamed of the secret, of YOUR secret, you'd die if someone find out, because you can't stand the thought that your family would see you differently.

    So, I disagree. I think some secrets should just remain that way forever… and ever.

  2. Zoë Sharp

    Dear Louise

    A heartbreaking post, as always. I feel some family secrets should be left to lie . . . but learn how to punch Uncle Bob's lights out.

  3. Sylvia

    Ah, Family Secrets. Honestly? Let them spill. Had they been spilled, perhaps my mother would still be alive today and see her 3 grandchildren (she only met 1). Perhaps she would not have suffered a lifetime of mental issues due to the abuse that started at 18mo. Did people know? Many suspected, but no one ever dare ask her for "fear" of embarrassing her or her parents.

    Fear be gone. Spill the secrets. Save a life.

  4. PK the Bookeemonster

    “I don’t know why I stayed friends with him,” he said. “I guess I always hoped he’d change.”
    Sometimes people stay not for the hope of change, but to be the one good thing in an otherwise pathetic life. I'm sure there comes a point of simply too much and one leaves but for some it is hard to walk away from a drowning person. Somewhere in the murky past, this was a little boy who never dreamed of turning out how he did.

  5. Shizuka

    I have a hard time understanding why his wife didn't leave him.
    When her children were young, she probably had no choice.
    But what about when she was older or when her kids were grown and could help?
    Or maybe it was too late for her by then and she was too scared.

    I think the family could have kept their secrets and still walked away.

  6. Tammy Cravit

    Louise, an unflinching and powerful post. Thank you!

    Family secrets are a tricky thing, I think. I have one in particular, one which should be a rich vein for me to mine as a crime writer. And I do, indirectly, but any tellings I make of THAT story will forever be fiction. The murderer is no longer a threat to anyone, but giving voice to the unvarnished truth would hurt people I care about, deepen rifts that have already grown over forty years, rip the scabs off old wounds and set them bleeding again. And right now, at least, that isn't something I'm prepared to do.

  7. Gayle Carline

    At my grandmother-in-law's funeral, the pastor said you write your own eulogy by the life you lead. Sounds like this guy wrote horror.

    It's sad that he was allowed to get away with it. Sad that he wasn't called out on his behavior. I do dream of a world where we squash those bullying, violent tendencies and show people a better way, but I fear it's just a dream. As Springsteen said, "Sometimes there's just a meanness in this world."

  8. Louise Ure

    Barbie, you've nailed some good reasons to keep secrets. Maybe not the right thing to do, but certainly understandable.

    Zoe, I'm with you. It should have happened 40 years ago.

    Sylvia, you've got to tell that story, Evan if it's years later now. Save another life.

    PK, I can't imagine him as a little boy…unless he was the schoolyard bully.

  9. Louise Ure

    Shizuka, I don't understand why she didn't leave either. She's a mouse of a woman, but mice can roar (or flee) too.

    Tammy, I hope the time comes that you can tell that story. It's an important one.

    Gayle, I love the thought that we write our own eulogies. Talk about words to live by!

  10. David Corbett

    Wow. Great post, Louise. Grabbed me and shook me then said, "Okay, finish your coffee."

    The charming abuser. Yes, I think everyone knows one. I've often thought that fascism is the political version, the great charming, wily, impassioned leader, full of winks and smiles and big ideas, who is really a small, debauched, violent horror.

    Anger is a very seductive thing, it's a coward's power. This is why, when I hear "family values" or "where is the outrage?" I see someone like Uncle Bob.

    The parish pastor when I grew up was a former boxer named George Foley, and he was a "strict disciplinarian." I watched him beat one of my friends with a cane. And yet he was also impressive, humble, proud, determined. People either loved him or hated him, as they say. My family was charmed by him. I was too, for a while.

    My dad's dad was exiled from one small Ohio town for behavior involving boys in the lavatory. When he died. my dad found pictures of boys in his belongs. This prompted my mother, when reflecting on the cause of her own son's homosexuality, to propound generously, "I think it's genetic. But it comes from your father's side."

    Ah, mother. Mary Elizabeth Corbett. God bless her heart. People either loved her or hated her — as she herself often remarked. She could be so sweetly fun and smart — and yes, charming. And then there were the other days.

    I call those days "my childhood."

  11. Jenni

    I think there are good reasons why women don't leave in these situations. Unless they have an extensive support system and job skills good enough to support children on their own, it can be nearly impossible. And when someone is so violent, it can be dangerous to even try to separate or leave.

    I have a family member who survived her husband trying to murder her after they'd been separated for nearly a year. In the state where she lives, a couple must be separated for a year before the courts will allow a divorce. He was calm, deliberate, and he had a plan. He didn't care that their teenagers were in the house and actively trying to stop him at the time. He beat her unconscious with a baseball bat, crushing her arms and fingers and skull in several places. She's been told by doctors and authorities that most women beaten as badly as she was don't survive. She knows that when he is done serving time for "assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill" (not attempted murder – the jury couldn't seem to equate the two, so he'll be out in about 7 years), there is no place she or the children will be safe; he will find them and kill them. He is a monster. I try not to wish bad things on anyone, but I hope his temper gets the best of him in prison and he pisses off someone bigger and stronger and meaner than he is.

  12. Louise Ure

    David, you are a whole encyclopedia of family secrets. And, oh Lord, that damning phrase of tolerance, "you either love them or you hate them." unspoken acceptance.

    Jenni, what a horror for your relative. I, too, hope things are different seven years from now. When I think about the options available to Aunt Phyllis, now 89, I can understand her dilemma.

  13. Tammy Cravit

    Louise, it's a tricky thing. The act to which I'm referring was nothing less than monstrous, but at the same time I recognize and empathize with the inner struggle, the set of conditions and catalysts that must have given rise to it, in a man whose life was dedicated to the rule of law. I can see, in the ravaged landscape of three generations of the family how much of a toll keeping his secret took on him, and also the price everyone else paid — either in suspicion and distrust, or in defense and rationalization. His actions finally came to light a few years ago, like another nuclear warhead detonating in the midst of the grieving and wounded. I don't know that I'll ever name names in public, because the harm would almost certainly outweigh the good for the living, but one way or another I'll tell the story.

    Jenni, so sad (but so predictable, says the paralegal in me) that the jury couldn't see your family member's husband for what he is. But we so desperately want to believe that the monsters look like monsters…

  14. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Powerful, powerful post, Louise. It's going to haunt me all day.
    Why are these things always secrets to the end? What is the power they have to keep people silent?

  15. MJ

    I give all of you such big hugs. I grew up really believing that I was so weird and defective due to MY family secrets (little kid me ended up suffering for the misdeeds of those 2 generations up or already dead) that no one could ever accept me. Of course friends, and a husband, did, and then around 39-41 I really became able to accept myself too.

    I hug all of you because I see others surviving, or thriving, and writing, and living and getting beyond it all, and your blog posts and stories prove to me that I can do it too, we all can do it. And, lovingly, I must say that I feel a bit of relief that many fine mystery writers have less than ideal family histories, because I found a club that I'm already pre-qualified to join. Louise, Stephen, David, Cornelia – I understand, believe me, I understand….

    My most scarring family secret? Illegitimacy. One 100 years back on Mom's side (mostly whitewashed by time), one in a grandparent generation on Dad's (still, no one living knows who that bio dad was, and what the circumstances were – rape? incest? passionate love affair? true teenage love? who knows?!?!?). You would think that the world had ended, and we all had black marks on us for the sin and the taint. My husband always asks how I managed to grow up non-Catholic but so guilt fixated, and I don't feel like explaining that hearing about being the tragic product of dirty, dirty sin tends to do that to a person (and his children, and their children, and a whole line of a family).

  16. Louise Ure

    Tammy, even if you twist the facts, your family would probably see through to its real inspiration. I hope someday you'll find that the time is right to write it.

    Stephen, they don't always remain secret. Some end in open violence. Some in death. Those are the ones we read about in the paper.

    MJ, I am shattered that this supposed "taint" has remained a stigma for your family all these generations. God, we're good at guilt, real or imagined.

  17. Reine

    Some times you tell, and no one believes. Some times you tell, and they hate you. Some times you tell, and they take away all the love. You have nothing then. No one. And they pass it on. And no one will love you.

  18. David Corbett

    Jenni: That state wouldn't be Maryland, would it? Or somewhere in the South? I have a friend in a similar situation. You think the Middle Ages are over, then you read divorce law in one of these locals.

    MJ: Thank you, and I feel the same.

    Reine: You've responded quite succinctly — and, as always, heartbreakingly — to why it is these secrets remain so powerful.

  19. Sarah Pearson

    Reine said exactly what I wanted to say. You don't tell because they say, you're already a child in care, your real parents didn't want you. You're a problem child, who will believe you? By the time you grow up and realise someone might believe you, they're dead, and it's too late.

  20. Jenni

    David, the state where this happened, where this archaic law is in place, is North Carolina. Truly, a lot of those southern states don't care about protecting women and children, just protecting some 1950s, Leave it to Beaver version of "family values."

    Tammy – what you say is so true. I worked in criminal law for years, and nothing surprises me anymore. I saw that some of the most violent people met just ends once they were in the system, but also saw the opposite, some who were not guilty, or not very guilty, who ended up being crushed by the system. But I do agree, we do not want to think that the monsters are the charming neighbors next door.

    Reine, very nicely stated, and so very true.

  21. Reine

    In my approaching old age, the aunts come to apologize. These, the women who wrote his obituary for the Boston Globe and forgot I survived him. These, the women who remember everything, forgot me. I made them uncomfortable. Now, in my approaching old age, they say it. Now, in their old age, they say they are sorry. But they had to do it. What if their mother knew? It would have devastated her.

    So after her funeral we go to the club, and I introduce Step to the "outcast table" where we will forever sit with the other family rejects. He smiles and says he likes it here. We look out over the harbor. We can see Teddy's condo. Is that Jack's boat? Would you like another drink, m'dear?

  22. Susan Shea

    Louise, I think every family or at least neighborhood has an uncle Bob. I still remember the man next door who invited me in for lemonade one hot day when I was 11, urged me to sit on his lap (he was an adult – I obeyed) and then suggested I spread my legs to get more comfortable. Fortunately, my self-protective instincts kicked in big time in about a third of a second and also fortunately, he didn't try to stop me when I ran like hell. My father raced over, threatening to kill him, and the man pleaded for forgiveness – and silence. I'm not sure if my father agreed – we moved soon after – but silence only feels like a solution. It's actually the problem.

  23. Louise Ure

    Reine and Sarah, what sad but powerful comments. You sound like you know whereof you speak. It's either the end to a very sad tale or the beginning of a very good book. You could teach us all.

    And yes, Susan, I guess every neighborhood does have its own lecher and would-be rapist. Good on you for fleeing and then talking. Thank God your father believed it and acted so quickly.

  24. Tammy Cravit

    Wow, three comments today…but this discussion is amazing. I am in awe of the number of my fellow "Rati readers (and authors) who are willing to share with such unflinching honesty and bravery.

    Though there are of course many kinds of secrets, it seems that sexual violence (in forms from the subtle to the overt) underlie a great many of the secrets we keep, or are asked to. One day, perhaps we'll live in a world where those secrets will be told, and where the perpetrators will no longer be protected. In his Burke novels, Andrew Vachss has a wonderfully descriptive label for those who have survived child abuse and molestation. He calls them the Children of the Secret. May we one day live in a world where there are no more Children of the Secret.

  25. Judy Wirzberger

    Louise, I echo what everyone said. I swear, Louise, you could write about a river rock and made it engrossing. I still think you're missing you calling by writing mystery.

    Hugs. Judy

  26. Louise Ure

    Reine, Tammy, Judy: it's all a mystery isn't it? What we do, why we stay, why we care. Thank you lajfies.

  27. Allison Davis

    Asshole. I would have made it front page news. His poor wife — they are lucky he didn't kill someone. It's the silence and then the shame that entraps people in the relationships, and the thought (bless Ade) that someone might really change. I agree with Susan, silence is the problem. The father of my sister's son did ten to twenty for trying to murder them both (and then sued for custody of the baby). We had a posse ready to lynch him (it happened in Alaska). The DA wanted to geta plea for three years and the judge refused to accept the plea, and threw the book at the guy. The DAs are so used to the domestic violence they don't even try to get real sentences. Thank god for the judge.

    What an interesting experience to say the least. A nice short story about sitting on the back porch eating tuna, on a death watch. I think the New Yorker would love it.

  28. Judy Wirzberger

    I finally had a chance to stop and really read every comment. Sad how pervasive the abuse is. Worse, the secrets. The shame. Shame covers the family, shame taints the victim. Pretend it isn't there and it won't be. Don't give it a name or it will belong, be a part of. It won't lurk in the shadow, everyone will know and what will they think, what will they think of the family, like wearing underclothes with a safety pin. It isn't done.

    As a society we are learning, we are talking about it, reading about it, watching it on television. Slowly changing our attitudes. That each of us could share is a tribute to the change. We voice what was unspoken merely a decade ago.

    Ah, Louise. You've helped us smell the garbage.

  29. PD Martin

    I've just logged in now and seen this post and the comments. Louise – a wonderful and thought-provoking post that has generated some intense discussions. So many amazing comments – 'we write our own eulogies with the lives we lead'. What a great sentiment.

    Susan's strong instincts (unfortunately I think many children don't see those comments and suggestions for what they are and they wouldn't have run). As a mother, sometimes I'm not sure how to strike the balance between knowledge and innocence.

  30. Barbie

    I, too, like Judy, finally had the chance to stop and read all the comments. And I have to say, how BRAVE people here at Murderati are for spilling their secrets, for baring their hearts, for protecting others at the cost of themselves. In a way, it makes me ashamed of the kind of person I am. I live with the guilt of having kept a secret, and, God only knows how many people got hurt because I did that. People who went through the same sort of terror I did, who have to live with the same damage. Because I wasn't brave enough to share secrets. So, maybe you guys are right. Secrets shouldn't be secrets after all.

    Sylvia, how heartbreaking about your mom. My heart goes out to you, to her. I wish she'd had someone to protect her from what she endured. Big hugs.

    And, Susan, how lucky you've been that you father did protect you and threatened to kill the damned bastard. The world needs more parents like him 🙂

  31. Susan Shea

    Phillipa, I'm a grandmother now and share the concern about how much and what to say to my sweet grandkids.

    My story ended the way it did partly – probably in large measure – because my father (actually my step-father) was so clearly our protector and a good man. I could count on him. Kids who don't have that security or whose own parents are complicit or worse, have much larger hurdles to overcome and it makes me crazy to think of what they endure emotionally as well as physically. It's heartbreaking, truly.

  32. lil Gluckstern

    So many moving posts, and too many tears shed for what is essentially brought on us. My family had some very serious secrets-still do-but the truth teller is often ostracized and criticized. I tell people that it it's not an accident that I am a psychotherapist. Family secrets can be so toxic. No wonder, I love mysteries where there appears to be some justice. Louise, you are a remarkable woman, for many reasons. Reine, I really admire your heart. And to the rest of you, have good lives; it's the best revenge;-)

  33. Louise Urr

    Allison, you and your family have the strength of ten. I am — from a distance — feeling so proud of you all (and the judge).

    Judy, we've smelled the garbage. Now we need to take it out. (But, like you, I am agape with the stories that have been related here.)

    PD, teach your children to be strong.

    And Barbie, keep that secret until it's less painful not to. There's no shame in that.

    Susan, I once again applaud you and your step-father.

    Lil, you have the last word and it's a good one: Live a good life; it's the rbest revenge.

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