In defense of the family secret

In this age of extreme candor, a family's right to privacy is under fire

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In The Jewish Daily Forward last week, Adena Cohen-Bearak argued that because the Jewish community helped find the missing teenage son of prominent Jewish columnist Jeff Jacoby, it's owed an explanation as to why he left home.

"It is important that we don’t hide our flaws, our faults, and our tragedies behind a wall of privacy," she wrote, after speculating that the son's disappearance could have been due to "mental health issues (depression, anxiety or some other problem), sexual identity issues, abuse issues, or any number of things."

Cohen-Bearak, in fairness, did offer a caveat — "Of course, we aren't obligated to tell everyone in our community the details of our family problems" — but then immediately contradicted herself by criticizing the journalist for not including at least a sentence of specifics in his Boston Globe column about the incident. "[I]t is denying others in our community the opportunity to see how we handle our challenges," she wrote.

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This case offers a clear window into a choice faced by many families in the social media era. If a family chooses not to publicly announce the reason for a son or daughter's troubles, is it because it's putting its reputation before at-risk youth? Or is it protecting his or her privacy?

Count me in the second's camp. Yes, the internet has obviously made privacy, including a family's, harder to maintain. Maureen O'Connor at New York argued, convincingly, that "[t]here is no such thing as TMI on the internet." If you're annoyed by someone's updates, she says, you can simply not read them. O'Connor added, as an aside, this crucial caveat: "Assuming the information in question is yours to share […]."

That caveat is at the heart of my problem with Cohen-Bearak's plea for transparency. Overshare — on social media and in publications — is often about someone else. If you're the one who came out as gay, or was assaulted, or was diagnosed with a mental or physical illness, it's courageous for you to speak up. But if you're simply privy to a relative's situation, and that person wants privacy, the story isn't yours to share publicly. Even if you're seriously impacted. Confide in trusted friends, support a related cause, but resist publishing 'your' story for a wider audience.

This is not a popular view. After writing an article in The Atlantic critical of parental overshare, much of the response I received was as follows: Yes, writing about your child's troubles in a public arena outs your kid as having them. But you're raising awareness. This culture of openness will, in turn, benefit your child.

Those who spill are praised for their bravery, even when they admit to having decided to write non-fiction about a relative without his or her consent. The more you talk about a family member's plight, the more you care. We've reached the point where reticence is looked on with suspicion, as if anyone not sharing family secrets is a free rider, benefiting from the stigma-shattering efforts of others.

Yet stigmas do exist, which is part of why sharing needs to be up to the person directly stigmatized. But it's also that people judge one another, sometimes fairly, on the basis of the latest information. On first dates, people don't provide medical records or college transcripts. One should not be ashamed of one's schizophrenia, one's abortion, or, for that matter, one's mole shaped like Elvis, but one should not feel obliged to open with such items. Sensitive disclosures are best left up to the person the information is most directly about, which becomes impossible once relatives feel they must spill.

In this age of extreme candor, a "family secret" is no longer something kept strictly within the family. Cohen-Bearak doesn't know that the missing boy's family hasn't reached out to friends and professionals. Is something a secret if it hasn't appeared in a newspaper? Today, unless you're willing to share everything with everybody, it's as if you want the issue in question to be stigmatized. When all you want, really, is to be a decent person to those who trust you most.

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