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Medawar, C. (2013). Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day, Deborah Cohen, Viking, 2013.. Cpl. Fam. Psychoanal., 3(2):251-253.
(2013). Couple and Family Psychoanalysis, 3(2):251-253
Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day, Deborah Cohen, Viking, 2013.
Review by: Caroline Medawar
Deborah Cohen is an American historian who specialises in modern British history. In this fascinating book, that is accessible to the general reader as well as those working with families or couples, she examines how living with shame has changed from Victorian times to the present day and how dread secrets in one era hardly raise eyebrows in another.
The book combines assiduous research, a wealth of supporting references, and a capacity to engage our interest in the human tragedies and triumphs that emerge. It is enriched with a nostalgic selection of grainy black and white photos, and engages a rather prurient interest with chapter titles like “The nabob's secrets”, “Revelation in the divorce courts”, “Children who disappeared”, “Other people's bastards”, and “Bachelor uncles”. We are reminded in each of these chapters of the shame and guilt surrounding illegitimacy, divorce, mental handicap, adoption, and homosexuality in different eras, and how attitudes have changed. Surprisingly, the author does not include mental illness in her list of family secrets, although shame about this aberrant behaviour must have equalled all the others; nor is there any reference to abuse.
The trajectory of change is mostly familiar, that is, to a more liberal view, but there are surprises, as for example, in tracing how Victorian attitudes to mental handicap were a great deal more enlightened and accepting than those of the Edwardians.
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