Why Family Secrets Do More Harm Than Good

Life & Love | Gerren Keith Gaynor | 11/04/2013 | 01:45 PM EST

Writer Gerren Keith Gaynor Speaks On The Trouble Of Holding Back Secrets Out Of Shame

Fallen football star Terrell Owens recently sat down with Iyanla Vanzant in an attempt to piece together his broken life, caused by a massive family secret: the man he thought was his neighbor growing up was actually his father. What was even more shocking was the way Owens found out.

When he developed a crush on his next-door neighbor, he was told that he couldn’t date her because she was his sister. 

Owen’s mother kept the truth in the dark because, at 16, she had an affair with his father, who was married with kids. Rather than acknowledging the neighborhood scandal, Owen’s parents and grandmother kept a closed lip on the family secret. And when the truth finally came out, they remained silent on the issue out of shame.

Consequently, the former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver lived a lifetime of daddy issues, including being an absentee father to his own children. Professionally, Owens’ emotional void led him to a reputation of arrogance that left him team-less, broke and miserable.

For many families, particularly in African-American households, Owens’ family drama is not unlike their own. What happens in the Black family sometimes stays in the Black family. Oftentimes, there’s little room for discussion about very needed dialogue to facilitate healing and healthier relationships within the home. Whether it’s about traumatic experiences like sexual abuse or taboo topics like homosexuality, there’s a level of shame that hovers over many Black households like a dark, gloomy cloud that only thickens the more it’s ignored. Rather than addressing feelings head-on, they’re often swept under the rug, never to be revisited again.

But the effects of such sexual and family shame can have severe consequences. People who are abused as children, for example, tend to develop low self-esteem, identity confusion and other serious emotional problems. And for those who struggle to share their sexual identity with family members out of a fear of rejection or isolation, sometimes wind up on a path of risky sexual behavior or the inability to have healthy relationships with others, among other things.

The roots of the Black community’s tendency to hide its dirty laundry can often be attributed to slavery and its aftereffects; such as the cultural trend of father abandonment that many sociologists ascribe to the lack of a strong father figure among young children in slavery. Behind the visage of what appears to be a mighty, solid unit, is often a broken family home front. Somewhere between trying to prove how strong and resilient it is, the Black family fails to address very real realities, resulting in the fragmentation of the family unit and the social ramifications that come along with it.

No matter how good of a poker face some Black families may display, no wound can go untended. If an environment of honesty and love is not exercised, we will only continue to watch the Black family cripple before our eyes. It’s time we stop shaming one another and start speaking up. So the next time you think about putting off that long-avoided topic of discussion, find the strength to open up the lines of communication with your family. It can do a world of good.

(Photo: Diane Diederich/Getty Images)

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