#765: Asking for the truth behind family secrets.

Behind a cut because there is some discussion of violence, though the situation is not ongoing.

Hello, Captain!

I was wondering if you could suggest some scripts on how to breach a delicate and unusual topic with my mom.

My dad was murdered, with me as a witness, when I was a small kid. I’m in peace with his actual death now, but what still bugs me is that I never got explanations. Why, what happened to the killer and his identity, what was my dad’s relation to him, et cetera. All I know is that it was premeditated and that there is a lot that I haven’t been told. It’s been over a decade now.

I think this lack of communication wasn’t on purpose, but I can’t help the curiosity that shows up every once in a while. It won’t crush me if I don’t get the full story, but I think I’d wonder forever. It’s like a permanent unsolved mystery, and honestly, it also feels a bit unfair to be kept in the dark for so long. I don’t think that me having these questions is something that occurs to my mom, though. Besides, I love her, but feelings talk is just not a thing between us.

I’ve tried to start the talk subtly during Father’s day, for example, but the responses were vague and we quickly changed topics. It was also extremely awkward, and there’s no other family members that I can ask.

I’m also afraid that by suddenly dropping my barrage of questions, I’ll bring back her bad memories and wounds, or that there’s stuff that she doesn’t want me to know, maybe to preserve my ‘memory’ of him as a good man (something that I have doubts about sometimes) or some other unknown reason. Since the few things that I do know about his death came from snooping as a kid (things like overhearing adults and their conversations), I’m also not sure if I should pretend that I know even less than I actually do.

So… how can I bring this up? Should I try to find a perfect moment for it? Does that even exist? If she doesn’t want to tell me, is there another way to find out? I don’t think I can play detective. Do I even have a “right” to know this stuff or am I butting in? Should I try to let it go?

Thank you for listening!
Not Sherlock Holmes

Dear Not Sherlock Holmes:

How could you not be curious to know the full story of your dad – who he was, what really happened that day – now that you are older and have some distance from those events? And how could your mom not want to protect you from all of it to the best of her ability? This is a conflict where nobody is wrong and everybody loves everybody.

I don’t think a perfect moment for difficult conversations like this exists, but I wonder if you could make the request in the form of a letter.

Dear Mom, It’s time for me to know the truth about Dad. I want to know what he was like when you met him and how things were between you then. I want to understand what happened to him in the end. I think it’s time for me to know the whole story of who he was. 

I know you don’t like to talk about him, and I know you’ve done everything in your power to protect me from the violence and pain of that time and to preserve my memory of him. I have been afraid to ask you about Dad because I don’t want to cause you more pain, and I have been trying to find a way to do this without dredging up memories that you might rather forget. But this mystery is pulling at me, and I think it’s time that I knew the story and had a way to put my memories of that day into context. You are an amazing mother and I am so grateful that you are my mom and my fierce protector, and I think I understand why you have held back from telling me before now. Will you sit with me, one time, and tell the story once and for all, so that we can both put it to rest?

Your mom may need some time to think about it, she may want to tell you in the form of a letter, she may still say ‘no.’ I hope she will say yes, and that the two of you will spend a day with old photo albums from good times and a frank discussion of bad times and at least eleven of the biggest hugs in the world. If she says no, I hope you can forgive her; she’s still trying to protect you the best way she can. I think you do have a right to know the story, so if she tries to get you to promise that you’ll stop asking or looking, don’t give that promise. “Mama, I can’t promise that. I was a child then; I’m an adult now. If you’re trying to protect me or us from something, I want to know what it is, so I can protect myself and us, too. If you’re worried that the truth will tarnish my memory of Dad, how can anything be worse than watching him be killed and not knowing why?

There are no doubt some public records of what happened, and other ways to seek out the information if you find you still need to (though you have your whole life to decide if you need to). For example, does your mom have friends who could tell you the story in her stead? If you do decide to dig, I recommend having a friend along for that journey, to read things for you and ask questions and hold your hand.

66 comments
  1. Jill said:

    LW, you mention overhearing adult conversation. Is it possible to approach some of those adults with a conversation starter and see what they know? Even if it’s just a small piece of the full backstory. Maybe one person remembers your mom’s reaction when she first met your dad. Maybe another remembers what the funeral day was like. Maybe another has some mementos of your dad. If you’re able to glean bits and pieces of the story from others, approach your mom with what you already know and ask her to fill in the rest of the story.

    Perhaps the idea of having to tell you the whole story of her life with him and recount all the details of his death is a daunting task for her. Maybe if she knows you’ve already gotten some of the story and she, therefore, doesn’t have to tell you everything all in one sitting will make it easier. Plus if she can see that you’ve already heard some things – and you’re clearly OK and ready to hear more – will reassure her that you can handle this conversation.

    And maybe resist the urge to pounce and rattle off every question you have running through your head. She’s been holding onto this story for over a decade. Which means there could be a LOT you don’t know. It might be better for your own mental health if you get the story in pieces, digest it, then come back again with more questions instead of getting a big dump all at once.

    And hugs to you! I hope you don’t have to wonder for too long!

  2. Often people hide these things because they don’t want to face unpleasant truths. I did a degree in History, particularly studying the Nazis, and my father went ballistic. Turns out back in WW2, his mother dated a collaborator and turned resistance fighters in to the gastapo.

    Ouch.

    • JenniferP said:

      I can see why your Dad was ashamed, but I think it’s important to know histories like that and remind ourselves that awful things were done by regular people for the same reasons people always do things: love, fear, money. We aren’t responsible for the sins of our parents, though we might seek to correct the wrong they’ve done in the world if wrong is what they’ve done.

      If LW’s Dad was involved in something criminal (and maybe Mom was, too) I can see there being a ton of shame about letting the story out. But eventually we find out this stuff anyway, and once you’ve witnessed your dad getting murdered (by another family member?) the cat is pretty much out of the bag on terrifying stuff being afoot in the family.

    • Pinkie Pie Chart said:

      My grandfather was a German citizen (though not living in Germany) during WWII. He was an engineer and I’ve never asked what exactly he did. I’m not sure I want to know.

      • onyx said:

        My grandpop fought in Guadalcanal. He never talked about it much but there is plenty of historical documentation of the awful shit that happened there, namely the common American practice of mutilating Japanese corpses, preceded by torture and followed by taking body parts or bones as trophies. My dad said Gramps told him his unit committed those acts, but he didn’t personally. I don’t know if that’s true or not–whether my grandfather lied to my dad, or my dad lied to us–but I’m okay with the version I’ve been told.

        Still, war horrors are a totally different beast from LW’s issue. I understand both the LW’s desire to know the truth and Mom’s instinct to keep it hidden. Who knows how deep it could go. I’m sure LW is already well aware how traumatizing the truth could be, but I agree with others who say maybe try to discover it in bits and pieces so it’s easier to cope with.

      • erica said:

        I’m not sure I want to know.

        This gives me an idea which might be useful to the third LW in convincing their mom:

        “Mom, if I didn’t feel ready to hear the truth, I wouldn’t be asking. I have a good imagination and whatever happened, if you don’t tell me, it’s likely that I’ll assume it was something way worse.”

  3. I agree with the Captain: you do have a right to know. What happened that day is a part of your story, and belongs to you just as much as it does to your mother. That’s not to say your mom is wrong from keeping it from you-I also agree with the Captain in that there are no wrong parties or bad people here (except the person who murdered your father, obviously). But you’re not wrong for wanting to know, nor would you be insensitive for asking. Every family has its dark moments and secrets. And it’s normal for every young person, as they grow, to feel curious and want to ask about these stories, especially ones that you were involved in as a child.

    Asking while you’re spending time one-on-one is another way, starting with one question and gauging your mom’s reaction and willingness to talk about it by her answer, and going from there is another option. Or mentioning that you’ve been thinking about that time is another. I don’t think, based off your letter, that whatever you choose will be wrong or insensitive-you clearly are very aware and sensitive to your mother’s feelings.

    Good luck, LW. Sending Jedi hugs your way.

  4. Teaspoon said:

    Wow, that’s tough, LW. If you’d like to start by finding out what you can learn without involving your mom, may I recommend a trip to the library to talk with a reference librarian? There are two major avenues to pursue: newspaper articles and court documents, and a good reference librarian can help you figure out how to access both of those. It may be that the story is contained there in enough detail to satisfy your very reasonable curiosity, and then you can decide whether that’s going to be a thing you talk to your mother about or not, based on what you learn.

    Seconding the Captain’s advice that you have a trusted friend with you, and you may also want to line up the services of a counselor or therapist if you don’t already have one, in case what you find triggers a traumatic response. I was witness to some pretty heinous domestic violence as a very young child, myself, and I blocked out the memories. I ended up getting that information back while isolated from my support network, and that was…not good times. You might handle it differently or better, but you might really need that hand to grab when you start reading.

    • Charlene said:

      This is excellent advice. A reference librarian will also be able to find if the case was ever published in a case law collection, which it might be if it went to trial. He or she will also have a good idea of which newspapers and periodicals were more reliable 20, 30, or more years ago.

      • BeautifulVoid said:

        And if it did go to trial, it’s possible, if not likely, that the transcript is available. I know in my state at least, the court reporters are required to keep backups of their transcripts for quite a long time (I think somewhere around 40 years, last I checked). It might be expensive, but it’s probably available.

        • Charlene said:

          Transcripts can be exquisitely expensive, though – some can be well in to the mid four figures. Case law is often available for the cost of photocopying.

          • Charlene said:

            By this I should qualify, transcripts from the court reporter directly are often exquisitely expensive.

            If the court records still exist – and in some areas they aren’t kept forever – photocopying the transcripts on file can be a much less expensive option. Also, not every document is handled by the court reporters: they handle the actual trial as well as discoveries (this definitely differs from jurisdiction to jurisdiction), but the vast majority of what is filed with court is not actually transcripts.

    • Andraste said:

      If LW lives near a law school or has access to one, they could try to contact the librarians there. The librarians at law schools are specifically “law librarians” who have J.D. degrees and will know right where to look for this type of information. It would probably be worth making a few inquiries if OP wants to pursue this on their own.

      • Mayati said:

        Additionally, the clerks at the county/district courthouse where the case was prosecuted may have access to public records that are only open to people physically there. The prosecutors may be able to help too — sometimes court systems have victim’s advocate services that are run through or parallel to the prosecutor’s office.

    • Teaspoon said:

      To clarify a bit, as some later comments are a bit more forceful around LW asking their mother directly:

      I don’t think there’s anything wrong with LW asking their mother directly if the LW prefers. But I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with the LW feeling compassion for their mother’s possible pain and looking to other sources first, if that’s what feels most comfortable. One possible advantage to having looked up the official records is having fewer surprises during what may be a very fraught conversation. Another possible advantage would be for the LW to have a framework around which to generate specific questions they want to have answered, rather than just asking their mother to recount a traumatic incident that she may not have any good idea of where to begin, and that may well end up being triggering for both of them.

      • Marna Nightingale said:

        I also think LW might choose to tell LWMom that they’re ready to know more and let LWM have some choice about how that happens – so long as it remains up to LW that it DOES happen. LWM may want to tell the story, or she may want to send LW to a trusted friend, or she may want to give LW the info they need to go and look at the public records, or she may have another suggestion.

        She may have been waiting for LW to ask or she may want LW to get what they need while not having to go through it again.

        LW, I’m not saying that you can only know what your Mom’s comfortable with you knowing. How far you take this is absolutely your choice. I do think it’s worth making this as much of a collaboration as possible, though.

        The one thing I do think it is fair for you to absolutely expect your mother to tell you directly is – as far as she can – why she handled it the way she did, if you can hear her and not be quick to judge – and your letter suggests to me that you can. I’m not saying that she needs to explain because she made a bad choice – only because she made a huge choice.

        She did the best she could in an unimaginable situation, and you’ve made it this far so she did okay – and I know you know this, but since you say the two of you don’t do feelings talk easily – it’s worth making sure in what might be the only talk you have about this that she knows you know that. It may be something she needs to hear.

        I wish you both all good things, LW. So very many good things.

    • erica said:

      I wonder if the third LW’s mother even sort of expects them to go looking? Supposing the story is really a matter of public record and easily researchable, she has to know she’s not the only source of this information. Maybe she wanted to avoid talking about it because she finds it difficult to talk about feelings (something the LW mentioned), and figured when the LW was old enough to know how to use the library and to think of looking stuff up on their own, that meant they were old enough to decide for themself whether or not they wanted to know.

    • Myrtle said:

      I mentioned this downthread, but it also belongs here: it’s possible that the records in the area the event occurred in may have been altered or deleted, for instance the local newspaper deleting articles from the microfiche about an event hushed up by the City attorneys. But the records held at another source may have a complete microfiche. A university may have had their own subscriptions to the local papers.

    • slythwolf said:

      I firmly believe reference librarians have some kind of information-finding superpowers. They are incredible.

  5. Mary said:

    Hey LW – I have no experience of this kind of situation and I don’t know that I have anything very useful to add to the Captain’s excellent advice, but I just wanted to pick up on this:

    >>Since the few things that I do know about his death came from snooping as a kid (things like overhearing adults and their conversations), I’m also not sure if I should pretend that I know even less than I actually do.

    I think if you decide to bring this up with your mother or with any other friends or family, it is OK to be open about what you know and/or suspect. I am sort of getting the impression from the way this is worded that you still have that child-guiltiness for “snooping” and listening to conversations that you weren’t supposed to hear, and you’re wondering whether you still have to pretend the level of ignorance that the adults around you assumed when you were small. I don’t think you need to feel guilt for that. You were witness to something horrific and out-of-the-ordinary, and the adults around you had to make decisions about how to help you deal with it, and hopefully they made some good decisions and looked after you well and that was OK. But you were a kid dealing with something awful, which you naturally felt curiosity about. You don’t have to pretend or deny that you understood slightly more about what happened than the adults around you judged OK.

    I also just think it is kind of lovely that your mother is trying to protect you, and you are trying to protect your mother. I really hope that you find a way to have a conversation that is both within your comfort-ish zone and that leaves you both feeling safer and stronger. ❤

    • LW, I think you have a bunch of good ideas about how to gently raise the subject with your mother. And I think public record searches could be really helpful to you too. They could very easily give you a structure for what actually happened that will allow your mother to not have to describe the actual death of your father.

      I think having a friend with you to read through part of it and sort of “dish out” new information as you’re ready is a great idea. And I think possibly talking with other family members/friends who know the scoop is also a good idea. Just be prepared that these adults may end up telling your mom about your questions. They may do this is the most caring and thoughtful way, but they may just not be able to keep it to themselves that they know you are sort of digging into your father’s death.

      For instance, I love my nephews more than pretty much any other human beings on the planet. And if they come to me to talk about certain things, I know I couldn’t promise to keep all of those things to myself. You can imagine the scenarios: they are being abused by some other adult–I would alert parents/authorities/etc. as appropriate; they are concerned about their parents’ health/mental health–I will find out what I can do to help; etc. So this may actually be a scenario in which your mom asked these other adults to let her know if you started asking about your father’s death. She may have planned to use this is as a sign that it was time to talk to you.

      Basically, even though there are routes to take to learn about what happened that don’t involve your mom directly, they may end up getting back to your mom anyway. So be prepared to have the “mom, thanks for protecting me, but I’m an adult now and I’m confident that together we can handle whatever comes of these discussions” conversation with her too.

      I too hope you and your mom feel safer and stronger after these conversations.

  6. caryatid said:

    just wanted to add that if i were in your mother’s position, i would assume that this day would come at one point. even if i didn’t want it to, or knew it would be hard. your mother may be expecting this.

    i hope you get the answers and closure you are looking for.

  7. e271828 said:

    LW, no matter where you live, by ten years ago, most news showed up on the web, particularly if it involved violent crime. If you haven’t searched there, why not?

    If you aren’t ready to do that, then consider your reluctance to engage with this event in that light and reflect on how your mother may still feel about this violent event that took away someone close to her and left you fatherless. I am sure that she knows you have questions and I am sure she dreads hearing them.

    Ten years is not that long. It really is a short time in the life of an adult. If you feel that you must know now about something that happened ten years ago when you were “a small child,” then take responsibility for your need to know and show compassion and empathy for your mother by not pushing for answers to your questions now. From your description, it sounds like she isn’t ready to talk about it. If you are patient, you will, I believe, learn more about this from her in time.

    There will be publicly-available, easily-accessible records for much of the information you want. For some of the personal stuff, you may have to wait. Whether or not you have a right to know, you also have a responsibility not to drag your mother over the coals finding out.

    Most families have secrets. Most of us learn the family secrets eventually. I didn’t learn a few key things about my family from my mother until I was much older than you are now, when she was finally ready to talk about them. Time is on your side.

    • Mary said:

      I find this advice troubling. I am guessing by the compassion that the LW shows towards their mother in this letter that their mother did a good job of raising them despite this violent event. The LW’s mother has presumably worked pretty hard to balance her own needs for recovery and her child’s need for stability, honesty and protection from too-harsh truths whilst she was younger. Assuming that’s the case, she may find it very difficult to talk about, but she may also prefer that her child finds out what happens from her rather than a random search of the web. And it is a parent’s job to put their needs to one side as much as is possible to meet the needs of their child.

      What people have suggested above is that the LW goes to a library. If they do that, they’ll probably find some fairly dispassionate reporting of the event, perhaps from a trial or a police report of the event. They can also interact with librarians and ask them to filter some of the material that’s there to straight-forward news reporting. If the LW simply searches online, they might find much more disturbing and visceral accounts of the event. Their father’s death might have been part of gang warfare or civil unrest of another kind, and they might find themselves encountering slander of their father or hero worship, or ongoing speculation or enmities. That could be pretty overwhelming stuff to wade through.

      I don’t think the LW would be at all out of order in making one direct request to their mother for answers before concluding that their mother is simply unable to talk about it, given that the LW and their mother seem to have a pretty strong and successful relationship.

      • Sparky said:

        I work in a law library open to the public, we could help a patron look up these types of records.

        I do think the LW should approach their mother; I wish them nothing but good health, but something could happen to the mother, as things can happen to any of us, really, and then the LW won’t be able to ask her about the past.

      • caryatid said:

        i agree with you. i would start with asking mother – it’s not out of line in any way.

      • Big Pink Box said:

        I think this is spot on. A web or library search should be the last resort.

        LW – I wish you luck, and peace, and clarification.

      • I agree. This isn’t just the mother’s story; this is the LW’s story as well, and they are warranted in wanting to know what it is.

      • enn said:

        I’d second this – LW’s mother is going to have a vastly different, vastly more relevant perspective on her husband’s life than any case notes or news story. And I’m sure LW’s father’s life had many more facets than the pieces of someone researching his death would write down.

        Your mother may not be ready to talk about them, yet, LW, but if it is the case that she feels some shame or fear at the thought of telling you, I suspect she’d feel that all the more at the thought of you googling his life and death instead of asking. She might appreciate the chance to speak to you first, especially if you ask in the kind of indirect way that the Captain suggests, where you give her the chance to think if over and opt out gracefully.

    • Vicki said:

      What showed up in the news and hence on the web may be pretty minimal, depending on the circumstances (including race, class, and geography). Some murders are covered in a single paragraph, giving the victim’s name, the approximate time and location of the crime, and the murder weapon; that sort of summary won’t tell the LW anything about their father that they didn’t already know.

      On the other hand, suppose this was the headline story of the week in whatever city. The LW’s mother might prefer to sit down with her child (or hand them a letter) and tell them at least a bit more about it, in a conversation that doesn’t start with prurient details of the crime scene or, for that matter, an oh-so-concerned article about the effects on the victim’s child.

    • neverjaunty said:

      This is not “something that happened”. This is the murder of LW’s father, which happened in front of the LW. LW’s mother does not ‘own’ this story. LW’s mother is an adult who has had ten years longer than LW to process this horrible tragedy AS AN ADULT. LW owes her mother empathy and compassion. What she does not owe her mother is remaining silent against the someday-possibility that maybe Mom will feel like talking about it.

      Speaking as someone who has been on both sides of the ‘kids wanting to know more about unpleasant things in the past’, I could not possibly disagree with your advice more. And adults have a tendency to wildly overestimate how their children will react to the truth finally coming out, IME.

      • Part-time Jedi said:

        LW’s mom may not own the whole story of LW’s father’s murder, but she absolutely owns her piece of it, and her personal recollections of the father. And just as it’s totally reasonable LW wants to know the whole story, it’s also totally reasonable that mom might not want to talk about it. She may still find the topic triggering and traumatic. Or maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she’ll feel better letting it out. But ultimately, SHE is the one who gets to control HER piece of this story. LW can absolutely ask and broach the topic in whichever way LW wishes, but if mom decides that’s she’s just not up for dredging up that piece of her past, that is her prerogative and LW needs to respect that.

        That doesn’t mean that LW needs to give up on the story entirely. As noted in previous comments, they can look through online records, ask a reference or law librarian for help, or return to those other adults who they have overheard in the past and see if anyone is comfortable sharing their piece of the story.

        • neverjaunty said:

          I don’t disagree with you at all. I do disagree with the nasty, scolding comment upthread telling LW that she needs to STFU and say nothing to her mom in order to “take responsibility for [her] need to know”.

          Approaching her mother with love and compassion, and respect for mom’s boundaries and ownership of her part of the story is very, VERY different than ‘shut your nosy mouth until Mom is good and ready to bring it up with you’.

      • Chessie said:

        And adults have a tendency to wildly overestimate how their children will react to the truth finally coming out, IME.

        This, a thousand times this. Also? Adults have a tendency to wildly underestimate how children will react to not knowing something. Children are imaginative. Young adults are even more imaginative. My mother never told me who my father was or what the story was there until I was 26 years old, by which point my imagination was like… rape? abandonment? adultery? incest? god I hope it’s just adultery… So I finally sat her down and explained that whatever had happened, it couldn’t be as bad as what I was imagining. And then she told me the truth.

        And it was a one-night-stand. A one-night-stand was what had been the source of all those years of shame for her. That was all it was. My mother had a flipping one-night-stand with some dude whose name she now doesn’t clearly recall, and she was absolutely convinced that knowing this would shatter me. When I just shrugged and said that it sounded like something I would do, she nearly fainted.

    • Marna Nightingale said:

      I very rarely give flat, un-disclaimed advice, and I very rarely tell people that they are flat-out wrong.

      Please deploy your umbrellas, chance of frog-flurries for the next hour:

      This is terrible advice and makes a terrible assumption.

      Never google a violent or traumatic event in which you were involved, or have a stake, or knew the victim(s).

      Especially now that google shows you the top few image results without you even having to click that tab.

      If for some reason you have a need to know what’s out there about such an event, locate a trusted, prepared, resilent peraon who is not personally involved and have them do it. Maybe.

      • Ms. Pris said:

        As someone who has been in exactly the situation you describe, I disagree completely.

        • I am really really genuinely glad that it turned out to be the right thing for you. I still stand by the advice.

          • Ms. Pris said:

            My point is that what is true for you isn’t true for everyone. Sometimes knowing the facts and details is really helpful in resolving trauma. And sometimes these traumas are things we want to process alone, or at least to decide when we share them with someone else.

            You had or witnessed a bad experience, and I am sorry that happened to you, especially if you feel it increased your trauma. But not everyone is you, and not every situation is the same as yours.

          • Part-time Jedi said:

            @Ms. Pris
            I assume Marna Nightingale is referring to the fact that Google will automatically show you related images, whether you ask for them or not. So a person could be searching for facts and details, in written form, and wind up with a graphically violent picture that they didn’t want to see.

            It’s a point that I had not thought about, and I appreciate the heads up.

      • Anna Sthetic said:

        Yes definitely this.

    • gmg said:

      “Most families have secrets. Most of us learn the family secrets eventually. … Time is on your side.”

      I would not assume this. Some secrets are so traumatic that the person won’t voluntarily reveal them unless some other trauma prompts it. LW is in some ways fortunate that she at least has a place to start. The day he found out he was terminally ill, my dad revealed to my mom and me a very disturbing family secret: As a young child (so young that for a long time, as he explained to us, he wasn’t sure that what he saw was real) he witnessed an incident of abuse that had lifetime repercussions for his entire family. He was the only witness, and he kept it secret for almost his entire life, 60-plus years.

      I am honestly not sure whether I wish he’d told us earlier, because that opens so many cans of worms in an already less than functional family that I’m not sure what good, if any, it would have done. (The person who committed the abuse and the victim have also long since died, my mom and I remain the only people who know about it, and we will probably never tell anyone else.) But I sure DO wish he hadn’t had to deal with the pain of keeping a secret like that all to himself, while somehow continuing to act as a loving and attentive son and brother. I imagine an inner life of frequent self-questioning and a moral burden he never asked for, about which I never knew a single thing until weeks before he died.

      Every situation is different, but LW’s mom may find this request more of a relief than you think — LW is offering in some way to share this burden.

      • Tonia said:

        I would not assume this either. My family loves each other, and we are remarkably functional, but we do not tell secrets. It is intended as kindness – most of my family died in the Holocaust – but it means that, for example, I found out where (what country) my aunt was born last WEEK. I am 27 years old. “Where my aunt was born” is not a secret, but the surrounding information is secret.

        My grandfather solved much of this by writing out a 63-page memoir some years ago, but it is very much the information he wants to pass on, and everything he wants to forget is missing. 1941-1943 are summed up in a short paragraph, mostly a list of deaths.

  8. Aurora_Belle said:

    I had to have a similarly awkward conversation with my parents – I nearly died when I was 10, and that period of time where they didn’t know if I would pull through is obviously painful to recall. I felt bad for insisting that they talk about it, but I can’t remember 3 days of my life because of how sick I was. I know I was in the hospital, and I was physically awake, but understanding the context of what went on was very important. I put it to them just like that – “I know this is painful for you, and I’m sorry to ask you to relive these memories, but I can’t remember this time, and it’s very important to me to understand what happened while I was delirious. ” perhaps something similar would be a good way to approach your mom?

    If not, do you have the means to hire someone to help you look into the story? While you’re more likely to get the story viewed in the harshest lens this way, it might be a way to get some basic facts and understanding. It might also be a way of encouraging your mom to open up, if you have some of the information and she just has to embellish with details or correct misconceptions.

  9. Hannah said:

    Hi LW,

    I think the good captain’s advice is good, and I do think you have a right to know more about what happened that day. I just wanted to add an additional warning. You say you sometimes have doubts about your father having been a good man, so it seem like you’ve sort of prepared yourself for the possibility that you’ll learn some unpleasant truths about him. I would also steel yourself for the possibility that you may learn things about your mother too, things that may or may not mesh with your current view of her. It has certainly been the case for me that as I’ve learned about the family skeletons (nothing as extreme as your situation though!) I’ve learned a lot about people who are on the peripheries of the stories, as well as their central actors.
    I’m not at all trying to discourage you from asking. I’m certainly glad I know what I know now. Just that it’s something you may want to be ready for.

    Best of luck!

    • Myrtle said:

      This is such a good point! A woman wrote to me asking me for help at some of my relatives (whom I dropped 30 years ago) doing some extremely shady stuff to one of her relatives. She was ready to turn it all over to the authorities until it emerged the her relative was a co-conspirator in other of their shady endeavors.

  10. LeighTX said:

    The idea of writing your mom a letter is excellent. That will give her time to get over the initial shock of your request and put her thoughts together, rather than being caught off-guard and deflecting the question out of panic. Also, be aware that after you get the full story you may need a little help processing it and it might bring up memories you didn’t even know you’d kept, so maybe be prepared to talk it all over with a mental health professional if needed. Best of luck to you and to your mom.

  11. solecism said:

    LW, good luck with this quest. You have a right to self-discovery and to better understand your family, especially the ugly parts of its history. And you will need to figure out the best approach to this process for you.

    I too am struggling with an intimately painful family mystery. In my case, it’s who my biological father might be. I’m 45 now, and my mother and I have never had this discussion. I think she might have tried once, when I came home from my freshman year of college when I was 18. At that time, my feeling was that my need to know was not greater than the pain she would likely experience in the process, so I shut it down quickly to spare her the pain.

    But now I feel like my need to know is greater than her potential pain. And yet, that doesn’t make the course of action easy or simple.

    I have gleaned a rough picture from decades of tidbits about herself and the family that she has dropped here and there, and to a lesser degree from conversations with my youngest aunt and a cousin. My maternal grandmother married twice, and my mom was the oldest of 2 daughters of the first marriage and a third daughter much later from the second marriage, about when my mom moved out. My mom grew up in a very abusive household parented by alcoholics. That abuse was mental, emotional, physical, and sexual. My mom confirmed that last only this year, but I had inferred it several years ago. The rest of the family never believed her, I think. So it’s possible that I’m the product of incest, or at least CSA by stepfather. Or it could be that the family story of my mom dating a sailor shared with me last year by my cousin might be true (but it is a mighty convenient cover story).

    I know that she was in contact with her family when I was born because there are baby pictures of me being held by grandmother and grandfather. I know she was living on her own when she was pregnant with me. I once saw the hospital birth certificate with my little baby footprints on it, and it looked like there had been a father’s name written in and then scraped off, but I’ve never found that document again. The state-issued birth certificates have never shown a father’s name. I know that she cut off contact and didn’t resume contact until she divorced my dad when I was 10. That was the first time I met my maternal relatives (except for the grandfather, apparently). I know that my grandmother was an alcoholic with abusive tendencies based on my own encounters with her during my teenage years.

    I began to be really concerned about knowing more about my biological father when I was diagnosed with cancer. The family medical history I can provide is woefully inadequate. I tried to get at the topic sideways by asking my mom about family history, and is there anything else I need to know. Nope. Nothing about possible father’s contributions. I have discussed how to raise this topic with my mother with various therapists, and they have given me some suggestions. Here are some things to think about:

    1. Waiting for her to bring it up on her own–be prepared for that never to happen. You really do need to be the one to get this started.

    2. Start by mentioning to her that you’d like to have this discussion with her in the near future. That will give her time to prepare herself mentally for it. Surprise is not good when dealing with traumatic experiences and memories.

    3. Offer her the option of seeing the questions in advance, by emailing or writing to her. Again, it gives her a chance to prepare and know what to expect in general terms.

    4. If it is really traumatic and difficult for her, a series of closed questions (think yes-no, very short answers) will be better, because they break the whole thing down into bite-sized pieces that are easier to grapple with. The structured and limited approach can help ground her and make it easier for her to talk about it.

    5a. Consider having this talk while walking (if that is a possibility for both of you). Gentle physical exercise can sometimes be a mild mood enhancer, as can just being surrounded by all the vibrant life of nature. Also, you can talk to each other without the strain of looking directly at each other. Sometimes that makes it easier to expose vulnerabilities. And you can have silent interludes that are much less awkward than they would be if you were sitting across from each other somewhere. Walking faster, slower, coming to a stop–these all add to the nonverbal cues to interpret the emotional landscape of the conversation. And it allows one of you to disengage by physically walking away if it becomes too overwhelming.

    5b. Otherwise, the space should be someplace that feels safe for your mother. Make sure that the space is someplace where you can be uninterrupted and have some privacy, but also where either of you can easily disengage and escape if necessary.

    6. The hardest part probably will be just listening without interrupting once she really does open up. Definitely focus on both what she says and what she doesn’t say. Listen for both emotional and informational content. Here’s a link to think about: http://berkana.org/berkana_articles/listening-as-healing/

    7. In much the same way that parents educating kids about sex is probably more effective as an ongoing process rather than a single, highly awkward and fraught Sex Talk, expect this may be a process that may take place over weeks, months, years. The first time will be the worst, but each time you revisit it, you and your mother may be able to talk about your father and his violent death in greater detail, in more free-form fashion, with less pain. Over time, it may become one thing that connects to all the other things, rather than That One Thing. Such is healing.

    After years of thinking about this and talking to therapists, I am at #2 with my mom. Hell, even getting her to talk about herself personally so that I can know her as a person tends to be very difficult, fraught, and quickly shut down by her. So much pain.

    So I wish you the best of luck in exploring this. Remember to take care of yourself during this process. Find a friend that you can share with to process your own thoughts and feelings. Or journal. Or therapist. Or all of the above.

    • Big Pink Box said:

      I wish you luck with your quest. I hope you can find out who fathered you, and that the information isn’t too disruptive to your sense of self. I had a friend in a very similar situation, and the run up to getting the DNA results was very rough on her.

      Jedi hugs, if you need them, and I’m sending out supportive waves using the Force. Just remember, none of it changes who you the individual are.

      • solecism said:

        Thanks! I’m really not too worried about how it changes my self-identity. I’ve had years to contemplate the worst-case what-if. And I’ve never doubted that my mother loves me and wants the best for me, even if neither of us knows what that is. But it’s really hard to interact with her, since 20 years of toxic marriage after I was out of the house brought out the worst of the dysfunction of her (and made me question my entire childhood, which I thought was generally fine). I had to minimize contact with her and her husband over the last few years for my own protection. So now we are fumbling our way toward some sort of renewed connection. I appreciate the support and Jedi hugs.

        One thing I forgot to add. Don’t wait for just that right moment when there isn’t some sort of current stress or whatever. That sweet spot of connection is always just over the horizon. It’s part of why I’ve made so little progress in this for several years. There’s never a good time to bring up a difficult topic.

    • neverjaunty said:

      Thank you for sharing this.

  12. SekhmetAten said:

    LW, you were a material witness to this! You absolutely have the right to the full story, or as full as you wish to know. After all, as the captain said, the cat is out of the bag with you and this experience.

    I hope that your questions get answered in a way that you can find the answers you’ve been asking for.

  13. Tabitha said:

    One thing I don’t think anyone has mentioned yet, if the LW seeks out information on what happened before they talk to their mother they should be prepared for the possibility that she will be hurt and maybe even angry.

    I recently found out something about my family that my parents had known about but had chosen not to tell me. I wasn’t actively seeking it out but I found out anyway and both my parents were very upset about it. My mother in particular was very angry. Not at me, but at having the option to tell me herself taken away from her (even if she never intended to tell me).

    It’s possible that your mother will feel similarly, LW. Even if you ultimately decide to look up newspaper articles or court documents or ask family friends it might be worthwhile to give your mother a heads up. You deserve to know what happened but your mother may feel better knowing that she at least had the option of getting her side of the story across to you before you started.

    • Part-time Jedi said:

      Oh man, this. My mom was so pissed off when she found out I knew that she and my Dad had a lot of trouble conceiving me and my sister. To me, it was just a factoid of family history, and the explanation for why my parents were so old when they had me. But for her, it was this long, emotional, embarrassing (I think? For her? That was the vibe I got) ordeal that she didn’t want anyone to know or mention again.

  14. TW suicide

    My father died when I was 11-12-ish and circumstances around it appear approximately 90% to point to suicide (possibly exacerbated by lifelong depression and an aneurysm in his brain, which is total speculation after the fact based on behavioral oddities right before, and not something a post mortem could possibly have discovered for gruesome reasons) and maybe 10% to point to an intruder getting caught in the act of pilfering things from the house (neighborhood was in fact experiencing a rash of burglaries). That 10% doubt meant my mother’s church allowed us to bury him without any great fuss, and the life insurance company, though they fought us, did pay up.

    I’d like to know 100% one way or the other, but have dealt with it since it happened by assuming the worst scenario (suicide, for whatever reason) is the answer, as the alternate explanation involves someone getting away scot free with fatally shooting my dad. (It was done with a family handgun I had no idea we even owed, FWIW. Also, my dad was a lefty and he was shot on the right side while facing a bathroom mirror, which is another horrible detail I didn’t need to know, and which adds to that 10% doubt bit.)

    I don’t remember much as my response to losing my only reliable adult ally in my family was to internalize my grief and feelings and to focus on school work. I’m one of those rare kids who liked high school for the most part, because high school drama and mean teen kids were in no way going to be as bad as losing my dad to a bullet, and I was horribly unhappy in my role as scapegoat and dumping ground for plausibly deniable abuse and overcoercive control while at home. Unfortunately, my mother is not a reliable source about events, as she will spin everything to minimize any contribution she might have made to his decision (by being a narcissist and a jerk, as she was and currently is toward me–and I am also a depressive, yay genetics). Add to this the fact that I am currently trying not to speak to her too often as it ends badly most of the time and she is actively being abusive toward me right now while I am stuck in a house she owns and struggling to become financially independent all over again.

    If and when I choose to look into it, it is very likely that there will be no records left to look at. It happened before computers were ubiquitous and was a closed file likely attributed to suicide. The end.

    I have no good advice, but if someone knows how to go about looking into things like this, I will be taking notes. One day I may have the strength to initiate a query, and be in a good enough space that “sorry, those records are long gone” won’t be too much of a blow.

    All I can offer is sympathy. It sucks, and I hate that you had to experience it, especially as you were right there to witness it. I cannot imagine, and I ache for you.

    • Chessie said:

      Wow, absolutely everything about that sounds incredibly hard. I’m so sorry that your mom is who she is/is behaving like that, and I hope you can get out from under her roof really really soon. Sending you internet-hugs.

      • Thank you very much.

    • Anon today said:

      Your story is eerily familiar to what happened to me, except I was 15 (so a little older than you), right down to coping by digging 110% into schoolwork.
      I just want to offer you all the soft hugs in the world, in a pile where you can find them when you need them.
      Good luck on your quest for information, and in dealing with everything around it.

    • Sara (JC) said:

      What a horrible thing to have happened to you. I’m so sorry you went through all that.

      On the records issue. Records of these types of events do tend to be kept for a considerable period (it varies from country to country) so records may definitely exist including original investigation records (if there was a police investigation into possible murder), and inquest records (there will usually be an inquest into a murder or a suicide). Even if these records are closed, they are usually accessible to close family (children or grandchildren). It may not be super easy (usually the process is fairly bureaucratic) and I would recommend getting a friend to come along on the journey with you if you can. A place to start would be the local coroner’s office (or equivalent).

    • Myrtle said:

      One thing I learned, is that a cover-up made by my small town deliberately deleting key newspaper reports, was that a faraway state university had the complete microfiche. So if you strike out in one place, try another. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  15. starsandgarters said:

    LW, you have my sympathy. I am also someone from a family with many secrets. Our biggest family secret (at least as far as I know at this point; we have many, including a great-aunt who ran away to the Caribbean with all her husband’s money and his best friend) was that my maternal grandmother was killed. I don’t remember her at all. When I was growing up everyone talked a lot about her life, but they were very evasive about her death. I found out she was murdered when I was in high school: I found some old newspaper clippings about it in the basement. It turns out she was killed by a total stranger who was on a killing spree. The murderer did some truly awful things to my grandmother, and finding out the details of the killing in the paper was stomach-churning.

    I would recommend talking to your mother about this before looking it up online or at a library. Reading about my grandmother’s violent death in dispassionate reporter-ese was a really terrible way to find out, and had I asked my parents directly they could have told me about it much more kindly.

    Good luck.

  16. empty seas said:

    LW, I think the Captain’s advice here is very strong and I wish you all the best. To echo what others have said, getting Team You together as you begin can only help, so don’t hesitate to reach out to friends, therapists, your trusty journal, etc. for support.

    For whatever it’s worth, I wanted to share that my own experience with family tragedy has been that our relationships with those events change over time. While the circumstances are very different, I witnessed the sudden death of my younger brother when I was also very young. As a child, I also remember piecing together bits and pieces of the event from overheard conversations, though I have no memories of talking to my parents about what happened during that time, and it was largely a taboo topic for my family throughout my childhood.

    As I’ve gotten older (I’m now in my 30s), I’ve seen my parents open up about it. They have become more curious about what I remember, and have been more open about what they think happened, and what it was like for them to go through losing a child. My mom especially has been interested in talking more about this, and in learning more about what I could recall and how I perceived things, then and now. She didn’t seem surprised or upset to learn that I had gleaned information from other sources in the intervening years.

    My mom did seem to be carrying a lot of guilt and fear from that time; guilt that maybe my siblings and I didn’t have a happy childhood because of this, and fear that she had somehow let us down. I think that made it harder for her to initiate conversations about my brother and his death, because after so many years had passed, she really never knew how I felt, or if I blamed her for the things she blamed herself for. That simply wasn’t the case for me at all—I have mostly positive memories of my childhood, despite what happened—and one of the benefits of being able to talk more openly with her about my brother’s death has been helping her put some of those fears to rest.

    All of that is to say, I think it is completely understandable for you to want to know more about what happened to your father and to be able to put that time in context for yourself. I suspect your instinct that your mom is trying to protect you is on point—and to her credit. She may also be afraid to hear your reflections or memories of her from that time, so if that is something you are able to reassure her about (obviously, you should only do this if that’s actually what you feel), that may help her approach the conversation with less fear or anxiety.

    I think that approaching this as possibly a one-time conversation is the right way to go, as it creates some clear expectations for everyone, but you may find that this conversation opens the door to others in the future. When my mom first approached me to talk about it, she presented it as, “I won’t ever ask you about this again, but…” and we’ve actually talked about things several times since then, because we found we both had more to say. That may be too much to ask for from your mom, and it may not be what you want at all, and that’s okay too.

    Your mom may say no, that she can’t talk to you about this, though I genuinely hope that she won’t. If she does, I think it’s okay to ask her if you can ask her again someday. She may say no, but it leaves the door open if she changes her mind and her own relationship with those memories changes too.

    Sending you love, light, and Jedi hugs, LW. Take good care, and good luck.

  17. Drew said:

    This is clearly a very polarizing topic, and the opinions are (for CA) unusually sharply divided and unusually passionate. I’m impressed with the vast majority of comments, even those in disagreement, going out of their way to assume good intent on everyone’s part. Well done, Awkwardeers.

    Here’s my hybrid suggestion.

    Send your mom a note in some asynchronous medium (email or an actual letter). Tell your mom that you are ready to learn the truth about your dad’s death. Add in, if true, that you would really rather hear it from her, if she wants to talk about it. But also mention the research steps you’re lining up to learn things on your own.

    Your mom may decide to let you dig for a bit and come back with specific questions. She may shut down completely and refuse to discuss it with you. She may urge you to come talk to her first because the details that got into the press were (a) disturbing or (b) wrong. But by giving her this choice, it validates that you have a right to know what happened — after all, you were there — and that you respect her role in the situation and want to have the talk with her if she is up to it. She may well be dreading it but also aware that at some level, she will be relieved to have the anticipation (dread, really) done with. Talking about it once is the hard part.

    A previous poster said to be ready for this to be several conversations, and I think that’s wise advice; this is a heavy topic and it may become too much to contain in one night’s colloquy. But you also have the option of asking your mom to give you the bare details, enough to let you do some research on your own, and then you can come back with any unanswered questions at some point in the future.

    Regardless, I am sorry for your dad’s loss, and I am in awe of your strength in moving on from that horrific event. I hope you find your answers.

  18. I would advise against the law library/public record route.

    When I was about 10 an adult cousin was murdered, in an all over the news kind of way. I never got many details on it. There was an “inspired by true events” Lifetime style TV movie about it that I have not seen. 15 years later, I was in law school and had access to all these databases, and decided to look up what happened. I read the court decision on the murderer’s death penalty conviction appeal, which contained a lot of details and speculation and character attacks about my cousin that I wish I’d never read. Talking to my mom, while potentially uncomfortable, would have been a lot less traumatizing than reading the court documents. If I had it to do over again, I would have just asked my mom, or had a friend screen and summarize the court docs.

  19. SMK said:

    Offering you internet hugs, LW. I lost my dad to a heart attack in 2009 that was surrounded by unsavory characters, phone threats, and an actual car chase. I was 24 at the time. In the years since, I’ve discovered that details of my dad’s life between the ages of 18 and 30 are fuzzy and exaggerated, at best. He had a flair for the dramatic (and the dubiously legal) that continues to stir up trouble for us, years later.

    But that’s not all he was. He was also the dad who bought me a Wolverine action figure to live in the Barbie castle with all my dolls. He was the dad who took me and my high school friends to see death metal bands in the worst parts of town. He loved our family, imperfectly, clumsily, as we all do.

    My dad contained multitudes, and I’m sure yours did too. I hope you find some answers and some peace.

  20. LW, for Weird Family Crap That Happened When I Was A Kid, I’ve often had my best results going to a not-directly-involved family member. Said family member (my Aunt M) is in the know, calm and thoughtful, and kind. She also is not prone to “oh but your mom didn’t want you to know” nonsense with grown-ass adults, which some people are.

    If you have such a family member, you may want to talk to them instead of your mom.

  21. Tonia said:

    I love the idea of a letter.

    I mentioned this upthread, but five years ago, my grandfather – who has never talked about anything prior to arriving to the US, in my lifetime – walked into the living room, handed us a 63-page handwritten memoir, and walked away. My father was able to translate it as needed and type it up, and it has been shared with the entire family.

    No one has ever discussed it with my grandfather, beyond acknowledging that they have read it. He does not want to discuss it. He had some specific information he wanted us to know, and he got it to us. My dad and aunt know enough to know some major events that were left out. The years 1941-1943 are literally a list of deaths, and that’s it. 1944-1947 are pretty sketchy, too.

    I had been willing to let secrets be buried with the dead – it’s what my family does – but I am so very glad to have this information. And I am glad that my grandfather was able to give it to us in his own way.

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