Every family has its secrets–uncomfortable remnants of the past or matters of the heart too raw to reveal. But what if you discovered a family secret so powerful that the truth challenged your very identity?

All her life my friend Suzanne Handler struggled to understand why her mother remained emotionally distant. “I was never able to climb the mountain to reach her,” Suzanne laments. That changed when Suzanne turned fifty and a beloved aunt unraveled the family’s dark past.

Suzanne writes her history in The Secrets They Kept: The True Story of a Mercy Killing that Shocked a Town and Shamed a Family.

The book tells the story of how her immigrant Jewish grandfather, a man whom she adored and who played a large role in her upbringing, came to murder his own child, a teenager named Sally, in 1937. The event would be deemed a mercy killing. Sally had schizophrenia, a mental malady for which there was little relief in the 1930’s save for crude treatments and a lifetime locked in a sanitarium. Sally was only sixteen when she begged her father to end her life. She couldn’t bear her illness, nor the idea of being separated from her family, and death, it seemed, offered a kind of freedom. Her father’s decision to comply with her wishes hinged on one caveat: he would kill himself as well. A double suicide.

You will have to read the book for more of the details, including what happened to Suzanne’s grandfather and the rest of the family. And how Sally lay for decades in an unattended grave with her name misspelled. You will have to read the book to appreciate the history and context to make your own determination as to why the family could not speak about Sally–as if the memory of her never existed. 

I do not think it a coincidence that long before stumbling upon her family history Suzanne worked as a mental health educator for twenty-six years.

For Suzanne, the process of unearthing her family’s secret allowed her to make peace with her mother and extended family. Writing has allowed her to give voice to the aunt she never knew. The journey of discovery has been laden with pain, but it has also given Suzanne the passion to speak the truth. This fall she plans to replace and rededicate her aunt Sally’s grave marker–this time with the correct spelling and proper tribute.

“Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned.”  –James Joyce

Secrets hold us tight as a straightjacket. Dethrone them, make peace, and live openly in the world.

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