This month’s display from our Special Collection of Biographies at Kensington Central Library focuses on secrets and deceptions. This is a rich subject for memoir, with many fascinating stories of people discovering family secrets that have been hidden for decades. Sometimes the exposure of a secret takes long, painstaking excavation; sometimes a split second’s revelation overturns everything an individual thought they knew about their background or those closest to them. Some secrets are never suspected until they are revealed; others resonate through suspicions and inconsistencies and sometimes pure gut feelings, until those concerned determine to find the truth.
Of course, there are fascinating stories of secrecy relating to warfare, diplomacy and the machinations of the State. Espionage and covert surveillance could be the subject of a whole display in themselves, so I am not focussing on them in this one; neither am I going to look particularly at criminal conspiracies, or at the terrible stories of people having to hide their sexual orientation due to the persecutory laws of previous times, or at the false identities forced upon people by war and tyranny. Instead I am focussing on the secrets and lies played out within families; although these may touch on huge historical themes, the reasons for secrecy are connected to intimate and domestic relationships.
Some people’s whole personal lives seem to be secrets they wish to guard from the world. This has often been true of the super-rich of twentieth century America, whose birth into situations that could never be “normal” has sometimes made them seek privacy to a pathological degree. If you are one of the richest women in the world, as the copper mining and railway heiress Huguette Clark was, your relationships with other people must inevitably be complicated. Clark progressively disappeared into a world almost no one could penetrate – apart from her personal nurse of 20 years, to whom she left over thirty million dollars in her will when she died in 2011 aged 104, triggering a legal battle involving several members of her family. Doris Duke‘s billions came from the family tobacco and hydroelectric industries – she became literally the richest woman in the world upon her father’s death in 1925. She stage-managed her life in a more sociable way than Clark, but her world was so full of strange unreliable characters that it is difficult to say what reality they could agree on.
For some people, deception becomes a lucrative career move. As spiritualism and the investigation of psychic phenomena gained huge popularity in the late Victorian period, attracting the attention of serious scientists and philosophers, a host of fake mediums and illusionist fraudsters sprang up. Ada Goodrich Freer was one of these, convincing many eminent intellectuals of her completely bogus psychic powers – her rise and fall is described in The Strange Story of Ada Goodrich Freer by Trevor Hall. By the same author, The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney is a truly tragic one – so devoted was Gurney to the scientific study of the psychic phenomena in which he passionately believed, that he suspended disbelief of cynical tricksters not dissimilar to Freer, in ways that led to his complete humiliation, despair and death in 1888.
Sometimes parents hide secrets from their children and try to erase all clues, but like the spindle in the story of The Sleeping Beauty, some echo of the past will always be overlooked – sometimes in such plain sight that one wonders about subconscious motivations. As a teenager, the eminent film critic Derek Malcolm chanced upon a book belonging to his father, which detailed the histories of important criminal cases. He was astonished to find his father’s name listed in the index, and further disturbed to find that all the pages relating to him had been torn out. His memoir Family Secrets is a moving account of his efforts to piece together the buried story of his parents’ involvement in a violent drama which made legal history before he was born. Diana Petre was the half sister of the distinguished writer and editor J. R. Ackerley – her unputdownable memoir The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley describes growing up as part of the secret, unofficial family their respectable father created outside his marriage, an experience which left her with a lifelong obsession with secrecy and duality.
Julie Metz‘s life was shattered when her husband died suddenly in his forties, swinging a wrecking ball through what had been an idyllic family life complete with seemingly happy marriage, beloved daughter, affluent lifestyle and beautiful home. After negotiating her first six months of agonising grief, Metz’s sense of loss was complicated, to put it mildly, by the discovery that her husband had at no time during their marriage been faithful to her, but had managed to conceal a series of long and sometimes concurrent affairs, in some cases with women she knew. Her book Perfection is a beautifully written record of a journey through deepening levels of loss – the loss of an adored husband, and the loss of the sense she had had of who he actually was.
Some secrets require a particular kind of courage and honesty to uncover. In the last couple of decades, as the children of Nazis pass into old age and confront last chances for confronting the past, and their grandchildren come of age, some have sought to find out the true extent of their forebears’ guilt with enormous courage. It’s hard to imagine a more traumatic discovery about her family’s past, or a more shocking way to discover it, than the experience of Jennifer Teege. Browsing in a library on an ordinary day, Teege found out for the first time that her maternal grandfather was none other than the concentration camp commandant Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes in the film Schindler’s List). Plunged understandably into deep depression, Teege soon realised that she could not move forward without plunging herself into all the implications of this terrible, hitherto unsuspected truth. She began to make sense of trails of emotional damage in her family, and writes brilliantly about the pain of confronting the fact that, as the daughter of an Austrian mother and a Nigerian father, as she states baldly in the title of her book, “My Grandfather would have Shot Me“. Uwe Timm was a small boy when his older brother volunteered for the Waffen SS and was killed at the age of 19. As an adult Timm read fragments of his brother’s diary and was haunted by the question of the extent of his involvement in atrocities. The resulting memoir In My Brother’s Shadow is a moving example of the work of coming to terms with the scars of the past.
These are just some of the many books in our Special Collection of Biographies which tell the stories of secrets discovered and negotiated, and if you visit Kensington Central Library you can see many more as part of this display. Of course there is always something compelling about the dramas and mysteries of other people’s lives, but reading about very different secrets and how they relate to different situations and impulses is not just riveting – it can also tell us some profound things about how human beings construct and communicate their identities, and at what cost.
Claudia Jessop, Kensington Central Library
Don’t forget to check out BioEpic, our monthly podcast delving into the lives of fascinating people and their impact on our world, through our Special Collection of Biographies. Available on Anchor, Spotify, Apple, Breaker and Pocketcasts.