Review in History Today

May 1 2013
History Today
Sally Alexander

"Cohen tells a psychic life of nation through private grief. Law and social institutions are built on the tension between private feeling and social mores; families are the incubators of such tensions. Everyone who reads this lucid book -- a memorable sentence on every page -- will understand their world more clearly."

Family secrets governed my thoughts and speech as a child growing up in Berkshire in the 1940s and 1950s. ‘Keep it in the family’ applied equally to the secret stash of sweets, in spite of ration books, and to the mysterious early ‘marriage’ of one of my maternal aunts, which precipitated her even more mysterious ‘nervous breakdown’. Children in postwar Britain ‘held their tongues’ about these and other shameful family secrets, which – if known – would damage the family’s reputation. Adoption, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy were whispered; homosexuality and incest never mentioned.

Family secrets have been detonators of change in law and social institutions for 200 years, Deborah Cohen argues in her gripping analysis of families and social mores. Children in the 1940s and 1950s, like Lily Pincus, pioneer social worker, who investigated families with mental health problems during those decades, ‘did not know what we talked about’. But we young moderns were learning, ‘behind the closed door of family life’, Cohen suggests, both the power of feeling surrounding family misfortune – adultery, an illegitimate child, alcoholism, domestic violence – and the ‘moral relativism’ that protects the individual’s right to privacy, one foundational principle of modern democracy.

Today the huge popularity of misery memoirs and reality television, especially Who Do You Think You Are?, which celebrate revelation while paying lip service to the ‘sacred right of privacy’, are testimony to our distinction between secrets and individual privacy. In the 18th century privacy and secret were interchangeable categories in Dr Johnson’s Dictionary (1750s). While secrets have underpinned family identity and the bonds of kin perhaps for ever – ‘Every home has its skeleton’, wrote William Thackeray in 1868 – then the meanings attributed to them, their social effects, changed over time. Modernity – smaller families, divorce law reform, the tabloids and eugenics (precursor of the modern ‘gospel of genetics’) prised the two apart. Cohen, using letters, diaries, memoirs and case notes from Victorian asylums and marriage guidance councils, plots the history of family misfortunes.

One example: John Langdon Down, evangelical Christian and liberal, with his wife, Mary, opened the Normansfield Training Institution in South London in 1868, offering ‘hope of recovery’ to parents of ‘imbecile’ children. Letters and case notes record their fortunes. One mother wrote that her son was unaccustomed to harsh or unkind treatment ‘and it would drive me out of my senses if I thought he would get it now’. However, Victorian belief in progress, in the power of education, of nurture over nature was replaced by 1914 with the taint of hereditary. Langdon Down’s son took over Normansfield. A convinced eugenicist, silence obliterated evidence of his own son’s ‘mongoloid’ condition because by the 1930s the weak in intellect had become a ‘danger facing the nation’. As notions of normality narrowed, ‘imbeciles’ suffered incarceration – a form of ‘social death’ – until the 1960s when a volunteer’s memoir, a strike at Normansfield and family-led campaigns liberated them.

Cohen’s focus on the social power of strong feeling questions Foucault’s influential claim that today’s confessional culture (incited by law reform, tabloids, and digital media) leads to increased social regulation. The consequences of social institutions, she points out, are unpredictable. Natural mothers of adopted children did not stop missing them, for instance; their wish to trace their children changed the law. Homosexual revelations anticipated law reform; even the producer of Who Do You Think You Are? expected genealogy to throw light on historical events – instead it strengthens family bonds. Democratic rights and a wider definition of the family have been the legacies of postwar welfare and social movements.

Cohen tells a psychic life of nation through private grief. Law and social institutions are built on the tension between private feeling and social mores; families are the incubators of such tensions. Everyone who reads this lucid book – a memorable sentence on every page – will understand their world more clearly.

http://www.historytoday.com/blog/2013/04/living-shame-victorians-present-day