Book Reviews

Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain by M D Deborah Cohen

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List Price: £28.78

 

Hardcover: 372 Pages.

Published: 24 April 2013 by Oxford University Press, USA

ISBN: 0199977801

EAN: 9780199977802

We live today in a culture of full disclosure, where tell-all memoirs top the best-seller lists, transparency is lauded, and privacy seems imperiled. But how did we get here? Exploring scores of previously sealed records, Family Secrets offers a sweeping account of how shame--and the relationship between secrecy and openness--has changed over the last two centuries in Britain. Deborah Cohen uses detailed sketches of individual families as the basis for comparing different sorts of social stigma. She takes readers inside an Edinburgh town house, where a genteel maiden frets with her brother over their niece's downy upper lip, a darkening shadow that might betray the girl's Eurasian heritage; to a Liverpool railway platform, where a heartbroken mother hands over her eight-year old illegitimate son for adoption; to a town in the Cotswolds, where a queer vicar brings to his bank vault a diary--sewed up in calico, wrapped in parchment--that chronicles his sexual longings. Cohen explores what families in the past chose to keep secret and why. She excavates the tangled history of privacy and secrecy to explain why privacy is now viewed as a hallowed right while secrets are condemned as destructive. In delving into the dynamics of shame and guilt, Family Secrets explores the part that families, so often regarded as the agents of repression, have played in the transformation of social mores from the Victorian era to the present day. Written with compassion and keen insight, this is a bold new argument about the sea-changes that took place behind closed doors.

Reviews

3.0 Stars3.0 Stars3.0 Stars  by Anne

Great idea but the execution didn't really work for me

This book seemed to me to be an interesting subject but sadly I found that it was disjointed in the way it was put together and that the time span and range of areas covered were so wide that it was difficult to come to any sort of conclusion.

The book is about families with "shameful" secrets as defined more or less in the Victorian area and afterwards. This would include families where someone had married/connected with someone of another ethnicity and produced a child that was not white, children with severe learning difficulties or physical impairments, or someone who was gay or lesbian. The book attempted to show how they might have been regarded as shameful and what strategies may have been used to disguise the difference. The author then looks at how things changed over the years. Because each chapter deals with a different "secret" there isn't space to devote to a lot of evidence so the book is mostly narrative using examples of certain families and what they did which rather prohibits it being a work of social history.

Some of this is fascinating but there was just too much material included to come to any conclusions so when reading it the book appeared to be one story about a family followed by another story about another family. It didn't do to read too many of these at once or you began to lose the thread - I also had no idea of how typical these examples were because there are no big figures about the number of people with this issue and so on.

The book has definitely got me interested in these issues but I think I really need a more in depth social history book to get them in context and to grasp the larger picture.

 
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