Family Secrets
An Interview with John Bradshaw

by Randy Peyser

Randy Peyser:  How do we create healthy dynamics in the family when so many people have experienced some type of abuse within their family structure?

John Bradshaw:   Most people who have survived abuse have great strength.  They have the ability to dissociate and they have found ways to survive quite heroically.  They have courage and they have developed strategies of taking care of themselves when no one else would.  It's like the phoenix rising out of the ashes. 

Once they've done some grieving and have accomplished some finishing around the abuse issue, the strength that people have developed just to survive can be used in a lot of different ways. 

I don't think there's any right way to do the work around grieving or finishing that process, but it's important to do it and then go on and use what strengths you do have.  There's certain areas where I will always be wounded, but I can learn to develop other strengths. 

I saw a guy ice skating with one leg, and he was doing figure eights.  He was skating better than anybody out there.  In other words, he had adapted to his wound and he was functioning better than anyone else out on the rink.  He may never be an Olympic champion, but he certainly can enjoy ice skating and get a lot out of it. 

The same is true for a lot of us who have had wounded families.  I think that the more wounded, the more a person has to deal with it.  It takes longer when a violation has been chronic and it's severely abusive.  It takes longer for a person to get through that and start focusing on their strengths, but I think they can.

RP:  One of the things I noticed in your new book, Family Secrets, is that you caution people, especially those who have experienced heavy abuse, not to rush into any process, including rushing into healing or rushing into uncovering family secrets.  You advise people to take things at a very easy pace, to be gentle with themselves and not to get extreme in their recovery process.

JB:  That's right.  In the initial excitement of discovery, there has been a tendency to go too fast.  There are so many people dumping everything out on television interviews and that's not altogether good.   I think that the talk shows revictimize a lot of people by having them come out and dump all this stuff.  And I think some therapists in the beginning got too eager as well. 

RP:  Can you talk about the different types of secrets that you've discovered? 

JB:  I've discovered four types of secrets.  Secrets about actions that involve criminal activity are first degree lethal secrets.  They are secrets that violate your life, liberty or pursuit of happiness and all of these need to be dealt with under certain guidelines.  Theft, arson, sexual crimes and crimes that involve emotional or spiritual abuse are examples of first degree secrets.

Second degree secrets are addictions which may not be against the law, but they're killing or destroying the person who has them.  They  diminish a person's life as well as affect a number of people around that person.  These secrets need to be confronted.  Substance abuse, eating disorders, gambling or work addictions are some types of second degree secrets.

I also believe that people have a right to know about their birth and their identity and their origins, so I put that in the level of second degree secrets as well. 

Third degree secrets are the ones where you have to look at the context.  Family enmeshment issues, such as where one person is the scapegoat or the 'problem' in the family is an example of a third degree secret.  Marital secrets including infidelity and suffering- related secrets such as mental illness are also in this category.

 I give the example of two guys that were involved with abortions.  With one, his mother found out and moralized and raged against him.  He became very defensive and promoted abortions.  He married a woman who was anti-abortion and didn't tell her this secret. Their marriage got increasingly dysfunctional because of their argument over abortion.  In that case, I recommended that he tell the secret and talk about it. 

In another case, a guy was involved in an abortion and felt bad about it.  He became anti-abortion, and married a woman who was anti-abortion. Did he need to tell this secret? I don't think so. It's not affecting his marriage in any way. 

So the very same content in third degree secrets can be treated quite differently depending on the circumstances.  Sometimes it may need to be dealt with.  Other times it is better left unsaid. 

Fourth degree secrets are about individual secrets that do not hurt anyone else but may be diminishing a person's own freedom.  Toxic shame issues around fear, guilt, anxiety, and depression, and cultural shame including issues around one's ethnic backround or socioeconomic status are in this category.  Fourth degree secrets are not going to cause anybody else pain, but yourself. 

RP:  Can you talk about the distinction that you make between secrecy and privacy?

JB:  Yes.  I suddenly realized that we have a nature covering that we use.  It's called modesty; it's call natural shame.  Natural shame guards privacy. 

When someone's violating our privacy, we blush.  That is, when we're uncovered and we need to be covered, we blush, and that's an innate signal from the organism that's saying, "Hey, you're exposing me and I'm not ready to be exposed." 

This is what we feel when somebody comes in on us in the bathroom, or if we're the only one eating and everybody's watching us. 

Sexual modesty is considered square. "What's the matter with you?"  "You're not liberated" and "You're a prude."  Yet I think that we really need sexual modesty.  Sexuality is private.  It's not something that should be made public. 

When a private act is made public, it is obscene.  It's pornographic.  There are reports in the media, for example, where people were sticking microphones in the faces of victims in Oklahoma.  There are stories of reporters dressing up like priests, trying to get in there and take pictures.  This is obscenity. 

Look at all the behaviors surrounding private acts such as birth and death, eating and elimination, sexuality, the holy, your good name, and your body.  We all have tons of secrets.

RP:  I've done a lot of healing with my family and I think we're doing rather well but when I read your latest book, Family Secrets, I found more areas to look at.

JB:  Well, if it isn't broken, don't fix it.  I think that Family Secrets will help people to look at their family as something much larger and maybe more mysterious than most of us really think of in terms of our families.

RP:  What do you mean by 'more mysterious'?

JB:  It's pretty obvious if there's some traumatic thing like a suicide or a scandal and nobody talks about it, that that's going to impact the family and it's going to be carried on for generations as long as nobody talks about it. 

On the other hand, I think the more mysterious part of a family is that there are strengths we get from the family that are sometimes hard to really nail down. 

When I was working on this book I had a very profound sense that I was acting out my father's frozen dreams.  Most of his life was about survival.  But I know that he had a lot of ambition.  I remember when he retired he made up cards that said 'Jack Bradshaw Inc.'  He wanted to be more than he was and I think that I picked up on that in some way. 

RP:  In Family Secrets you talk about how patterns or secrets that we have may have come from our parents, their parents, or other previous generations.   And by discovering or uncovering these types of patterns, a lot of healing can take place for individuals in the family.

JB:  Yes.  There is a family mapping system that was developed by Murray Bowen called a Genogram.  Most family systems theorists and therapists use this family map because it's a way to get a rather quick picture of the generational context of a person's symptoms or problems.

Bowen felt that most failures in families were about the parent's developmental deficits and immaturities, so that they would function like an adult in some areas and more like a child in other areas. 

Bowen discovered that people were often carrying the projections of their parents own immaturity.   He could trace it back to the previous generation.  And he saw that that generation had not gotten healthy parenting because their parents may have been extremely immature. 

The genogram helps you to see your family visually in a larger context.  And this helps to reduce blame, because you see that a lot of problems you have, your mother had and her mother had. 

For example, I had alcohol addiction and a certain propensity toward hypochondriasis.  I worried and fretted about bodily illness.  When I did the family map I saw similar patterns with my mother.  And my grandmother was bedridden and agoraphobic. 

RP:  When you can see yourself on the map, and see the patterns that you have that you've gotten from your family, it helps you to let go of blame.

JB:  Yes.  The family map helps you to get out of pathologizing or blaming your family.  That's what I think is good about it.
You can freeze-frame your family map to the moment you were born.  It's a way to see what was going on with mom and dad in their marriage, or what was going on in the family the day you were born, or what was going on in history. 

I was born in 1933 around the beginning of the Great Depression; Hitler was beginning to rumble in Europe; my dad and mom had to live with my grandparents, and my dad, who was eighteen years old, sold apples on the street.  Doing the family map gave me rich knowledge about the context of my life. 

The value is that I can clearly see that it's not all about my 'badness' or 'goodness'.  It's about something larger that I am a part of.  And when I become conscious of it, I can do something to change the patterns. 

For example, sometimes a child is used as a triangle to keep a marriage going or to fulfill dad's or mom's disappointed life or unfulfilled dreams.  When this happens, the child is effectively de-selfed and not nurtured in a way that he or she has any internal structures to be able to cope with the world.  By using the family map, I can break patterns in order to make the family stronger, and to make my own life stronger.

RP:  You make the point that we become stronger within ourselves by not creating cross-generational alliances between parents and children.

JB: Yes.  Those kinds of generational alliances are not healthy for children.  If I've seen 'cross-generational spousification', where the parents may project onto a child and use that child to fill their own unfulfilled needs, I can work very hard not to do that to my children.  Children that have been 'spousified' are progressively weakened and become more and more neurotic. 

I've set a generational boundary in my life with my spouse.  We keep the children out of our personal stuff.  When my spouse and I went to marriage counseling, our children understood that our issues were about their mother and I and not about them. 

RP:  Were there other patterns that you discovered while doing the family map that you feel you've been able to change?

JB:  Yes.  I realized the history of alcoholism in my family.  I was able to tell my son about that before he reached the drinking age.  He did some experimenting with drinking, but he certainly didn't do what I did.  I think it helped a great deal for him to understand the genetic and emotional history of alcoholism in our family. 

RP:  It seems like a whole lot of healing can come from doing the genogram.

JB:  That's true.  Suddenly, all these problems that you think are your own are seen in this larger light.  It's hard to blame anybody for it. You see that your mother had it and your grandmother had it and then, god knows, how many generations before that had it.  It makes us realize that we're up against something very profound. 

On the positive side, it makes us realize that the strengths in our life are the fruit of a lot of other people too.  I think we pick up the good vibes in the family as well as the secrets.   The family is my fate.  It's also my grace. 


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