The week I learned some family secrets



By Caitlin Kelly

Intimacy isn’t easy.

A new friend — of about a year, someone a decade younger than I but the mother of teenagers — recently told me I had disappointed her. She took the risk I wouldn’t listen or that I would get angry or get defensive. I didn’t. It wasn’t a huge thing (to me) and I apologized for disappointing her and she seemed mollified and relieved we had discussed it calmly.

I am glad she took that risk because a friendship soured by unspoken disappointment can’t last.

But on reflection I wrote her an email to explain why, in some ways, I’ve hurt and disappointed people I care for unintentionally. I’ve done a lot of therapy so at least I have a clearer understanding why.

Intimacy with oneself is often a work in progress.

When you come from a family where everyone’s feelings were routinely ignored or dismissed, taking others’ seriously and responding to them quickly, just isn’t how you behave.

I really hate unpacking my family history, since it’s weird and painful and the polar opposite of the Hallmark card closeness, trust and kindness that is soon about to be celebrated again in the U.S. with Thanksgiving and then Christmas and Hanukah.


The very word “family” is used in much American advertising as a proxy for close, loving stability — when for many people it’s just not that at all.


A total stranger who writes a blog about crime fiction has been researching my American maternal grandmother, great grand-mother and grandfather — whose marriages were legion and some deemed so scandalous, (thanks to their wealth and social prominence), they made the newspapers.

He recently emailed me to share his findings. They were…enlightening. But also unsettling to read about people I knew as entries in public documents.

My grandfather, an author, who my mother only met twice and I never met, (long since divorced anyway), apparently added a “von” and the letter “H” to create the name von Rhau — which sounds pretty Euro-aristocratic, as he hoped.

He was actually Henry Rau from Staten Island.

I knew none of this until last week.

If of interest, here are his blog posts; first part, second part.

My maternal great-grandmother ended up as the Countess Casagrande on Park Avenue in New York City, (yes, really), while her daughter kept marrying and re-marrying at dizzying speed.

I knew my mother had a very rough emotional childhood, despite plenty of material wealth.



An extraordinary story of survival


So when it comes to “normal” behavior, our family is not the place to look for role models or sterling behaviors.

My late paternal grandfather, a self-made millionaire in Vancouver, had an affair with his sister-in-law and kept the boy with his own family; my father has four adult children, two by wives (divorced, dead) and two women he did not marry. I haven’t even met one of them.

Why tell you any of this?

Because when you meet someone new, as my friend did when she met me  — and they might be fun and funny and charming — and I am all of these things, they might also be carrying some tough history as well.

And when you hit those spots,  which I call emotional bone bruises because they’re not visible, it can be difficult to open up or to explain.

No wonder I married a small-city preacher’s kid whose emotional life and financial history could not be any more different than my own.

I also find it ironic that I come from a family that so resolutely avoided discussing our tangled histories — while I have made my living persuading total strangers to share some of their toughest moments with me for my two books and decades of journalism.

Do you carry some difficult stuff from your own family of origin?

Do your intimates know about it?


How does it affect you and your life today as an adult?


20 thoughts on “The week I learned some family secrets

  1. Jan Jasper

    Wow – I don’t expect many of your readers have family stories that rival yours. My family has had more than its share of heartbreak and premature deaths. Perhaps the most interesting, offbeat tale from my family is what my mother told me about her favorite uncle. He was a policeman in Detroit, this was shortly after the Depression. He happened to be an excellent swimmer. He went swimming one afternoon with some friends and he drowned. It was very suspicious. .My mother was devastated at the news of his death. Apparently he’d learned of some police involvement in organized crime, so they had to get rid of him. Around the same time, there was a mysterious fire that “accidentally” killed someone else who knew. One of the people who was involved in this was a founding father of Detroit, his name was Robert Oakman – he is still widely respected. There’s a street named after him, Oakman Boulevard. Apparently people who knew what he was really up to didn’t survive to tell the tale.

  2. I went to the links and read about your relatives. Quite the history. As the blogger noted, if you were to put all that in a novel, the writer could be accused of producing a soap opera! These types of “family behaviours” lead to a lot of instability (and it seems to me that your parents may have been rather narcissistic) for the children. One thing I have read about is that an unpredictable, unstable home life is worse for children than many other difficulties. I also had that experience when I was growing up – I was never sure what was going to be on the other side of the door. As an adult, the fallout becomes difficult to deal with as you try to figure out how you’re supposed to behave and react. Although I’m better than I used to be, I can still get bogged down.

    1. So true…and yes, that description of my parents is a good fit. Add in alcoholism and mental illness for my mom — which is likely why I was at boarding school ages 8-13 and summer camp ages 8-16; I lived at home with her only Grades 6 and 7.

      Boarding school was certainly a stable environment, but brought its own issues — I was top of my class in grades but often in trouble for (surprise!) attention-seeking. So it’s been interesting.

      I was on a fellowship of journalists about 15 or 20 years ago — many of them women — and discovered that something like five of us had had mentally ill mothers. I am not at all surprised that we chose journalism, which requires constant and immediate adjustment to one’s new surroundings and people, and compassion and flexibility — all the “skills” you need to get through a chaotic earlier life. Your adaptations become excellent professional skills.

  3. Product of tangled family history? Aren’t we all to some degree? I left home at 15, determined to self destruct in a blaze of contemptuous glory just to be heard. Seven years old the first time I witnessed Mom taken away in a straight jacket (relieved a nervous breakdown meant we wouldn’t have to endure nights of her gut wrenching sobs in the next room or tumultuous arguments with Dad ). In the 60s wives were expected to love, honour and obey – Mom never got that memo. She was brilliant, a published author at 17 (beat Sylvia Plath in a writing contest). Her mother was a fashion illustrator for Vogue in 1920s San Francisco, her Dad a gay gold miner. She wrote books, my Dad (a farmer) thought reading books was a sign of laziness.
    They had five children, when they divorced, she took my youngest brother and sister with her. We told ourselves she wouldn’t cry anymore, it was our turn to cry.
    Fast forward to a nutshell – it took almost 40 dysfunctional years, decades of blame and outrage to realize life doesn’t come with a manual. I woke up one morning with realization damaged people are beautiful. Everyone I loved was damaged, it explained who I am, but for damage I might have evolved with rigid, judgemental, unempathetic, oblivious or simplistic perspectives.
    Life doesn’t come with a manual, we do the best we can. 🙂

    1. That’s an exhausting childhood….and I agree with your final sentence and the one prior.

      I’m aware that my work as a journalist has been (at best) profoundly affected by my experiences — allowing me to meet hundreds of people with VERY different lives than mine and just listen to them, like the many people who own and use guns I spoke to (104 people in all) for my first book — including teen girls arrested for gun crime, (possession and assault, not murder.)

      I don’t own a gun or want to, but I fully grasp why some do — you can’t even interview someone honestly without withholding judgement.

      I saw my mother in a locked psych ward, which was deeply frightening, and also endured too many events where she ended up in jail or hospital far, far overseas in a manic phase. It’s one reason I have given up on her (and vice versa.) Rescuing one’s parent just gets old after a while — when you’re the one who needed support and guidance.

  4. The practice of my family is to ignore as many problems as possible, and to be surprised and concerned when these undiscussed problems surface later in time, whether in the people involved or in later generations. It feels … Canadian, somehow.

    1. My crazy family is mostly American here…but I agree.

      My father (Canadian born and raised) has no time for such discussion. I once finally exploded and said “There are families that actually discuss feelings!”

      “And we’re not one of them,” he replied.

      There you have it….

  5. People will be surprised to learn that one major reason I’m still living in Paris is because I made the decision to stay far away from my sister and her husband in Toronto. For my own sanity and self-preservation I need to stay far away. I was very close to my parents but, sadly, they passed away in the 1990s. All that’s left is my toxic sister, her husband, and I have a 21 year old niece who I do not know, nor does she know her aunt. Such is the destructive nature of my sister, two and a half yrs older than me.

    My plan was to live in Paris just for a few years, then return home and settle permanently in Toronto, close to my family. Didn’t turn out that way. After my mother’s death in 1997, my sister behaved abysmally. I ended up having to hire a lawyer just to get a portion of my rightful inheritance back which she stole from me. And we’re not talking about a lot.

    Writing my memoir (due out early next year) has been extremely cathartic. To tell the truth, I wrote that memoir more for myself than anyone else. I needed to understand how I got here, how my life trajectory took me from my protected childhood in Toronto to living alone in Paris. I hope you’ll read my book when it comes out.

  6. Fun? Funny?? Charming??? YOU???? Well, okay.
    When I hear the word “Family” it makes my guts clench. It smacks of ownership and abuse with impunity. I have a mother, four sisters and a bunch of aunts, uncles and cousins. My big sister is the only one of them I even care about a little bit, because I can remember our always being there to support one another. As for the rest of them, they are the reason I call “family” the “F-word”.
    I grew up a Navy brat and I had access to unlimited medical care, including the mental health care that might have changed my life. Too bad Mom couldn’t bear up under the hardship necessary to take me to the appointments. Of course, in her world, there is no problem that can’t be oversimplified out of existence.
    I have freely admitted on more than one occasion that I am not easy to like. That’s the thorny little weed I have grown into. Make no mistake though, I am truly a good person. I’m kind and generous to a fault,, even to strangers, but I do not cast my pearls before swine. I’ve seen what that gets you.
    My wife and sister, my family, know about all this. Cathy understands to a certain extent but I think she worries about it. Insulting or disrespecting me is like bringing a knife to a gunfight and, in our current climate of fear, that can put me in a dangerous position. So the puny little bullies say and do as they please and plead that I am too big and scary to be permitted to object. Some things never change.
    This is a real good thread, Caitlin. I feel kind of relieved after blowing that out of my head, so thank you. I hope to be fun, funny and charming at some point in the future. I’ll let you know when it happens.

  7. so interesting, and very tough to not be impacted by them. my family had lots of drama, and those closest to me know it, others less, but it all has made me who I am, and has had an impact on how I deal with the world

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