The History of Secrets

S. Lochlann Jain

Family Secrets by Deborah Cohen injects the marrow back into two centuries of skeletons locked away in household closets. A leading historian of modern Britain and Europe, Cohen has put together a rollicking read through the hidden land of cultural morality and its fundamental institution, the family. A son who prefers lipstick to lip balm might bring little shame to the family name today, but Cohen takes it as her project to explain how the secrets of the 19th century have been transformed into questions of privacy in the 20th. The sources of family shame have shifted in several ways, notably from the moral failures of individual family members to their genetic deficiencies. But the family itself has also changed, becoming the victim of its own success at hiding flaws from the public eye.

Cohen observes that privacy has been accorded an “idealized pedigree” as an anchor of the liberal individual. Today we British and North American individualists and our kin take privacy as a right and assume that secrets are damaging. Cohen exposes the link between the former, seen as a virtue, and the latter, seen as a vice, by demonstrating that earlier practices of secrecy prepared the way for the modern conception of privacy and became, indeed, its “indispensable handmaiden.” Although privacy was not a freestanding right in the UK until 2000, she shows “how secrecy served privacy and why they came apart.” Cohen also reveals the historical novelty of the notion that we know ourselves better through knowledge of our families and their secrets, and that we must know them for our own health and well-being.

Lost to us in this shift in judgments about secrecy is the idea, which Cohen reclaims, that the secret shored up the very possibility of contemporary notions of privacy that champion our ability to expose transgressions without shame or cost. (Confessional culture, though, has its own complications. Moving away from a simple Foucauldian explanation, she writes that confessions “serve many masters and with unpredictable consequences,” and her book contains many wrenching examples.)

The secret shored up the very possibility of contemporary notions of privacy that champion our ability to expose transgressions without shame or cost.

Managing the public face of a family challenged by a moral infringement required secrets. In the 18th and 19th centuries, such management sometimes required some strict border policing around family membership. The British colonial state flung its nabobs far and wide, often toward the darker-skinned East. Respectable British families could suddenly find themselves related to mixed-race children who appeared—with or without parents—on their doorsteps after the first wave of colonial migration to India. Familial responses varied from discreetly integrating these children to stashing them away. The boundaries of the family were also challenged by divorce, available for the first time in the 19th century. However, as an institution reserved only for innocent parties, the divorce court encouraged secrecy even as it instigated lurid and public revelations when misbehavior became impossible to hide. It is not surprising that even within families many such moral judgments were held to double standards: mixed-race children accepted and adored in India were shunned in Britain, and adulterous spouses sued for divorce based on their partners’ disloyalty.

A book sensitive to the family condition, Family Secrets can be read as an elegy to the victims of these struggles over family loyalties and of the consequential judgments of their peers. It also develops a rich understanding of how the family cracked under that pressure. Edmund Leach, in the 1960s, claimed, “Far from being the basis of the good society, the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all of our discontents.” Cohen’s history shows us that the British family never had a chance.

Drawing on large and varied archival sources, intimate questions of how families defend and protect themselves become the block from which Cohen chisels a majestic book. With different interests and stakes, each family member must either guard or disown the fissure that threatens the families’ reputation, figuring out along the way when to reveal and when to hide, who could be trusted, and what should be told to whom. The stakes of keeping such secrets were significant: the assumed moral standing of a family must often have greatly influenced its economic—as well as social—position. One imagines tightly corseted Brits clinging to shreds of drawing-room gossip like rope as gentried life threatened to send them down the pit of boredom. Any chance of a robust social life for a family depended on securing ties among a few unchosen—or chosen among limited options—members of the local community, ties that families must secure for their own well-being.

At work in these negotiations, the reader discovers, are a series of interests and emotional drivers: shame, prurient interest, economic and social aspiration, love, moral judgment, and scientific prediction and aspiration. Many more factors remain beyond Cohen’s purview, yet surely played a role: envy, discrimination, the counsel of close friends. The historical archive limits the places where Cohen’s curiosity might take us. Still, she manages brilliantly to fill the space beyond written correspondence and documentation with empathic extrapolation based on her learned understanding of the contemporary social mores.

One of Cohen’s most interesting and complex narratives traces the history of familial and institutional responses to children with diagnoses such as “imbecile from birth.” Contrary to what their prudish reputation might suggest, the Victorians cherished mentally challenged children, who were often sent away to an institution for a handful of years to learn useful skills before returning home. In only a few decades, such children were essentially banished from the home, institutionalized with no expectation of return, with no hope of improvement in their mental capacities, and often, with no social or legal acknowledgment of their existence by their families.

Cohen uses the rise and fall of Normansfield, an institution set up by Mary and John Langdon Down (after whom Down’s syndrome is named), to illustrate this story. The institution’s more than hundred-year history, from 1868 to 1970, spans the Victorian era; the rise of the eugenics movement; the sale of Normansfield to the National Health Service in 1951; and, finally, the closure of the institution after a nursing strike brought attention to the filthy and abusive conditions in which the inhabitants were forced to live.

Cohen notes, “Unlike an adulterous liaison or an illegitimate baby, the backward child reflected no wicked choice in life and no moral failing—the categories of transgressions that for the Victorians incurred the largest burdens of shame.”

Several ideas converged in the 1850s and ’60s to create the possibility of Normansfield. At the time, mentally disabled children did not influence their families’ reputations in any way. As Cohen notes, “Unlike an adulterous liaison or an illegitimate baby, the backward child reflected no wicked choice in life and no moral failing—the categories of transgressions that for the Victorians incurred the largest burdens of shame.” Christian duty toward children in need and a hope that these children could be educated and trained combined with Langdon Down’s interest in his own family’s economic and social advancement. Normansfield was hugely expensive, costing twice what a trained nurse at home would have, in line with the top public schools (or private schools, as they are known in the US) at the time. The institution made the Langdon Downs tremendously wealthy, and the juncture among institutional wealth, Christian sentimentality for children, and changing scientific notions of heredity and progress continued to come together in messy combinations over the next decades.

The differences between parental and professional attitudes toward the children could be extreme. The first generation of children at Normansfield were out of sight, but “emphatically not out of mind.” Parents sent weekly letters, detailed instructions for dress and hair, expensive clothes, and birthday and holiday gifts. Cohen recites many beautiful excerpts from parents’ letters to the staff that convey their love and concern for their children’s well-being. This affection was not always echoed by those at Normansfield. Cohen writes: “Freddie Bailey, characterized by his doctors as a ‘driveling idiot,’ was, in his parents’ description, ‘a child who enjoys life and takes a great interest in everything and is most sensitive.’” It would be hard to speculate further on the gap between the parental and professional concern for, and interpretation of, these children based simply on the archive (which is all we have), and it’s not Cohen’s goal here. Still, the distance between professional diagnosis and family sentiment must have produced anxieties, in the parents if not in the doctors. This gap certainly seems to have resolved in favor of the institution’s, rather than the family’s, expertise.

The first students stayed at Normansfield for some five to seven years, and were welcomed back into their families during frequent visits home. Still, there seemed to be little progress in their ability to integrate into everyday life. Just 40 percent of discharged students were deemed recovered, and nearly a quarter of the 19th-century admittees “died in the institution after more than ten years.”

Cohen notes a gradual shift at the turn of the 20th century toward longer stays and a more permanent idea of institutional living, which began to change even more dramatically during the interwar period. These mentally challenged children became a source of embarrassment; while several made occasional trips home, visits were carefully circumscribed and children were kept away from company for fear that they might reflect badly on the family by staring, drooling, or worse.

As the “Victorian promise of all-conquering progress was finally ebbing away,” John Langdon Down’s ideas about training and rehabilitation came to seem foolhardy. Whether based on evidence or the increasing stigma of mental disability, an increasing pessimism about the ability to improve the lot of the mentally disabled descended. Embracing contradictions between the competing models of assessment and care, the Langdon Downs’ son Reginald, who had by now taken over the operations of Normansfield, was a leading advocate of sterilization even as he promoted his parents’ mission. The eugenics movement of the early 1900s offered a new scientific model grounded in heredity and efficiency. Jettisoning the ideals of Christian charity and vocational training for the dictates of social improvement, eugenicists insisted that “idiots, imbeciles, and the merely feeble-minded be barred from producing families of their own.” Socially, this meant that the “feeble-minded” became dead branches of the family tree.

The new potential for personal and professional humiliation can be illustrated through the actions of the pharmaceutical giant Henry Wellcome, who sent his son, a “slow learner,” to the countryside.

Perhaps for these reasons, a general consensus emerged that the needs of the healthy children in a family should come first, and so money to pay for institutional care dried up. Finances were not the only factor to negatively affect sibling relations though: as the evidence of an invisible and pernicious inheritance, a mentally deficient brother or sister could affect his or her siblings’ chances for marriage. The new potential for personal and professional humiliation can be illustrated through the actions of the pharmaceutical giant Henry Wellcome, who sent his son, a “slow learner,” to the countryside. Wellcome worried that his child’s condition would undermine his own reputation as a man of genius. By the early 20th century the upper classes generally believed that their offspring would weaken their already shaky claims to social superiority.

This mesh of related but distinct factors belies a simple explanation of scientific (i.e., eugenic) cause and effect. For even as he believed that “mongoloid” children should be cared for and could learn to be productive community members, John Langdon Down himself blamed a “subtle interplay” of hereditary factors “such as a mother’s constitutional excitability together with a father’s tubercular history.” In contrast, Cohen observes, hereditary explanations remain conspicuously absent from the accounts of parents, who explained their children’s dispositions in other ways, locating the cause of mental slowness in their children’s masturbation, thumb sucking, or emotional disturbances during birth or in other accidents. The 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, which made it legal to deprive those deemed mentally deficient of individual liberties and enabled their detention and segregation, captured this dramatic shift in attitudes.

Significantly, the Langdon Downs maintained their own brutal secrets. One of John’s sons, Everleigh, bled to death on the floor of the Normansfield workshops in the company of his younger brother Reginald. The circumstances were somewhat suspicious, given that Everleigh was found with a tool lodged in his groin, but an investigation ruled the death accidental and exonerated Reginald. The family never spoke of Everleigh again. Bad luck would also plague Reginald, who, years later, had a son born with Down’s syndrome. Despite Reginald’s directorship of Normansfield, his research into Down’s syndrome and his daily work with many Downs children, he omitted his son entirely from all correspondence and family records. The family that enabled other families to maintain their secrets kept their own through similar codes of silence.

Waterford District Lunatic Asylum (ca. 1880s). National Library of Ireland on The Commons

Toward the end of this discussion, Cohen reminds us that her data support a very different story from the stereotypical narrative of stuffy and squeamish Victorians with crazy aunts hidden in every attic. In fact, Victorians of the middle and upper classes were more open-minded than the generations of the 1900s–1960s.By the mid-20th century, discrimination against mentally challenged children started to wane. According to Cohen, the National Association of Backward Children, a foundation led by the mothers of the disabled, “became one of the largest grass-roots voluntary movements in post-war Britain.” But the horrific conditions did not change for many people until much later. After a governmental review of Normansfield’s abusive conditions, its doors permanently shut in 1976. As Cohen writes, “Institutions such as Normansfield created the conditions for secret-keeping, at the outset, inadvertently” by encouraging segregation. Indeed, one could make a similar claim of the nuclear family itself, with its uniquely enforced social and economic segregation.

Cohen suggests a reason for the decrease in social acceptance of difference: the sheer exposure to diversity among the Victorians enabled them to brook tolerance for (at least certain kinds of) difference. As she points out, in the 1870s a quarter of children in the UK lived in families with at least 11 siblings, and couples with no children were also common. By the 1920s, families witnessed a dramatic homogenization, with the rise of the two-child norm, the concentration of childbearing years, and the near-universalization of marriage. Cohen’s book suggests other reasons too, but leaves them for readers to find between the lines. For instance, she hints that the Langdon Downs’ social aspirations drove some of their influential ideas about the children. Could Cohen extend her argument to include the economic and class interests at play in eugenics and medicine more generally?

Another subplot Cohen traces concerns the role played by scientific argument in mediating affective engagements. Given the increasing willingness of families to institutionalize their children, medical and scientific definitions of the Child—in this case, the Child as a reflection of heredity—clearly shaped how parents understood love, kinship, and inheritance. This cultural shift sheds light not only on changing ideas about secrecy, but on science’s role in cultivating, and destroying, the possibilities for intimacy. Who gets to be cherished, and why, and when? One reason families gave for relinquishing children with learning disabilities was that they needed to focus limited resources on the siblings with more potential for successful jobs and marriages. Again, these are reasons of economy, based in notions of the efficient advancement of family projects and legacies.

Cohen exposes the historically contingent, sentimental, and fragile core of what we may prefer to think of as biologically wired love relations between parents and children. These surprises stand out as especially compelling in a book that contains many wonderful, sad stories. Cohen is a powerful writer and storyteller. While commentating on broad social shifts, she never loses sight of the heavy price paid by individuals for the codes of silence, and describes these varieties of trauma with a light and compassionate touch. She is one of the rare scholars who leaves one wanting more. I hankered, then, for her ideas about the family’s relationship to other institutions.

For example, Cohen comments on the changing relationship between secrecy and privacy. She notes that, to “have privacy, as we now define it, is to be able to conduct one’s affairs and develop one’s personality without significant social detriment.” Although Cohen’s argument is convincing, families continue to play a central role in brushing aside residual detriments. After all, shaping one’s affairs and personality requires resources—education, healthcare, a therapist, housing—that are increasingly available only to those with family support and funds. This paradox, the dependence of the individual on familial support in order to develop individual potential without detriment, seems worth spinning out in the context of the family secrets that Cohen so lucidly reveals. That would provide ample fodder for a whole new book. The family and the individual remain ineluctably entwined, in spite of the perhaps overly cynical critiques of 1960s psychological theories that Cohen cites. The fact that familial inheritance enables individual privacy just might make up the last remaining family secret.