Family Secrets

By Philip Lawton

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My son named his cat Scratch because he’s forever making a fresh start. He is in his forties now, my boy, as thoughtful, generous, droll as ever, but still contending with all sorts of afflictions that have bedeviled him since early childhood. It’s a long story, one that I want to tell for reasons I think valid: composing a memoir would probably help me understand his challenges, my responses, our relationship, and sharing it might help readers in similar circumstances find their own answers.

There may, of course, be other forces at work, frustration verging on rage, perhaps a need to justify myself, to prove that I’ve treated him more lovingly than my folks did me, or at least that I’ve shown him rather more forbearance. These caves call for exploration. In addition, I am committed to the craft of creative nonfiction, the punishing effort to articulate vital experiences, compose authentic memoir pieces and compelling personal essays that editors will clamor to publish. Like many writers, I have a canine appetite for recognition.

They are all strong reasons. But I cannot write about my son. I’ve already said far too much. When he was 15, I worked at one of the great Hartford insurance companies, spent nights and weekends writing a monograph on Freud. In the kitchen, he asked, “Why are you working so hard on that book?”

“Because!” I said. “I want to understand what he thought, you know, about how people’s minds work.”

“But you’re going to publish it, right? Sell it?”

“I hope it will be published.”


“Promise you’ll never write about me.”


“Because I don’t want people reading about me.”

“All right,” I said. “I won’t write about you. Or—wait—I won’t publish anything about you.”



Sooner or later most writers of creative nonfiction have to come to terms with family secrets. Let’s take it for granted that we seek emotional truth, however arduous it may be to unearth, embarrassing to expose, ill-advised to air. We want to know ourselves as well as the world and the people with whom we share it, including those closest to us, partners, children, siblings, and we try to describe that world and those people as faithfully as possible, freely giving ourselves away in the process. Faithfully, not objectively: more like a painting than a photograph, a great essay gives authentic expression to the author’s vision. We write creative nonfiction for the same reason we read it, the same reason we listen so intently when we want insight and not just information. Yet how can we be truthful about anything if we cannot address the relationships that affect us most intimately?

For everything is connected. That’s a metaphysical proposition, one that I firmly believe, but I first sensed this universal interrelatedness around the dinner table. When I was young, my father dominated my nuclear family, my explosive family of origin. He was a drinking man, charming and funny when sober but vituperative when he was in his cups. On bad days, dinnertime conversation became a chess match: as a team, my mother, sisters, and I always had to think a few moves ahead, because if we mentioned one thing it might remind Dad of another, and that one might, in turn, touch upon a topic we all wanted to skirt. My speaking of a high school play rehearsal, for example, might make him think of his acting in college, then of the war that prevented him from completing a master’s degree in English literature, then of his hated midlevel employment in the insurance industry, a job he would quit in an instant if he didn’t have to feed us. In an alcoholic family, eternal vigilance is the price of peace. But avoidance is contagious, it spreads from thought to thought, finally infects the whole brain. And it’s self-defeating because, seated at a table, we continuously had to bear in mind what we did not want to address—his anger, his thirst—so that anything we said refracted what we saw but did not say. We often ate in near-silence. “Pass the salt, please.” I want to shake it on my wound.

I learned another lesson at home: family matters are nobody else’s affair. “What goes on in the privacy of this house,” my father said, “is not to be bruited about in public.” My mother, a social worker at Catholic Family Services, agreed: “It’s nobody’s business but ours.” We children had customary roles: my big sister rebelled, I buried my nose in books, my little sister tried to keep the peace. After an early-morning row, Mother washed the tears from the little one’s face, gave her one of Dad’s Valiums, sent her to school. I got the message, took it to heart, excelled in class, never let on there was anything wrong; even my high school girlfriend remained in the dark. In time, I went further, learned not to take things so hard, not to feel too much. I mastered the art of absenting myself.

And yet another lesson, the usefulness of equivocation. Mother put it in historical context, said the Irish taught themselves to speak English in such a way that the British couldn’t tell for sure what they thought, felt, meant. (Dad’s contribution: “We have the best of both worlds—a name that sounds English, but isn’t.”) When he was not “unwell,” as Mother called it, conversation in our house could be ludic, a shell game, a spirited contest of concealment and misdirection, even, sometimes, a magical display of linguistic artifice, alive with arcane allusions, archaic expressions, arch asides. My father loved the language, kept reference books by his armchair, a dictionary in the dining room.

But wordplay isn’t reliably innocuous. When we were first married, my wife misunderstood entire conversations that she innocently thought she had followed: she didn’t know what the subject really was­­­­­­­­. I’d spend the drive home translating for her.

Creative nonfiction is the opposite of denial, evasion, ambiguity. My parents are long gone. Mother died in 1979, Dad in 1987, decades ago, and I can break the silence, try to understand their lives, write about them with some measure of equanimity, even forgiveness. They are in no position to quibble. My younger sister recently said, “They never should have had children!” But wait, I thought, I love walking the green earth, don’t want to be anybody else, wouldn’t have missed this hike for the world.—My logic is tortured; if I’d never existed, I’d never have missed anything. But I am not tortured, I have come to terms with the past, can write about it, with effort, to be sure, but faithfully. Not only about what happened to me, but also about things I’ve said and done, damnable decisions, disgraceful behavior, the rare selfless impulse.

Ongoing family relationships are another matter, my son a case in point, but I also shy away from writing about my sisters, wife, daughter. Our dog, Chérie, is the only one I can describe with impunity; this morning she stole my print copy of The New Yorker, shredded it, didn’t read a word. If I were compelled to write about the people who share my life, the alternatives would come down to these:

Write, don’t publish. There’s something to be said for this plan; many writers keep journals in which they explore live relationships. This doesn’t work for me, and not merely because encryption is a nuisance. Scribbling my immediate, unedited reactions to others’ words and actions might be useful, but I’m going for both honesty and art, and I’m not satisfied until I’ve got it just so. And, having written something true and pleasing, I cannot keep it to myself.

Publish under a pseudonym. Potentially a viable option, but see above, canine appetite for recognition, an abiding pattern in my life, a central theme in my writing.

Write fiction. But it’s all I can do, at present, to write a memoir or a personal essay that touches an emotional chord; imagining fictional circumstances, devising credible plots, creating true-to-life characters whose models are nonetheless unrecognizable, I haven’t yet acquired those skills. Moreover, recall my sister’s complaint that our parents ever brought children into the world. Had I been born to different parents, I—“I”—would be someone else, hard stop. A fictional version of my son would either not be fictional, and he’d see himself butterflied on the page, or not be my son at all.

In short, I do not have a near-term workaround. I can write neither about my son—I promised—nor about my sisters, wife, daughter, except insofar as they make incidental appearances in my work. They have a right to their own stories, the faces they present to the social world, and my putative art gives me no competing right to publish an alternate narrative, portray them differently. They must remain background actors, at most bit players, in my writing. It’s a limitation I mostly accept, a boundary I generally respect. I cannot write about my son, but I have written here about not writing about him, and this will have to do. No problem! The world is wide and beautiful, there’s plenty of terrain to explore, people to meet, stories to tell. I’ll move on.

Philip Lawton