Family Secrets and Bowen Theory

  • July 22, 2020
  • Sandra Caffo, LCSW

I just finished reading the book When I Was White, a memoir by Sarah Valentine, Ph.D., who found out she was Black at age 27. It served as a vivid illustration of what Bowen theory describes as “the family emotional unit.”

Ms. Valentine’s narrative centers on the family secret that she is Black. It highlights a kaleidoscope of factors that actively supported her denial and that of her nuclear and extended family. As I was reading, these words Dr. Bowen used to describe families came into my head: “Families so profoundly affect their members’ thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same skin.” (Kerr, Michael E. “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory.” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. 2000.  This seems relevant to understanding family secrets.

The process Bowen is describing unfolded page by page in Valentine’s book. The author says, “We build up fantasies little by little every day until they become a story we can live with. Things are smoothed over, and inconvenient bumps – the ones that lead down roads to things that are even more terrifying – are edited out.” (St. Martin Press, New York, 2018 pg.9)

She reports her thinking as it evolves: “I began to feel like my denial of my race all these years was more about protecting my parents than protecting myself and that deep down I always knew.” (pg. 118)

“These questions were the reason my ethnicity was taboo in our family. If I were black, then I had a different father, and my mother had been with another man. I’d never been able to consider that possibility, and perhaps, for her own reasons neither could my mother.” (pg. 73)

The author’s mother offers her rationale for not telling her daughter. No one knew of her relationship with Valentine’s biological father, and the decision to marry worked for both Valentine’s mother and her husband, the dad who raised the author.

What is not said is often more powerful than what is shared. The book details how the members of her family of origin and the extended family came to suspect or know she was not biologically related to them and ‘not act’ on that information. The father who raised her says this is between Sarah and her mother.

Ms. Valentine details how she struggled to ask her mother directly about her race and the process of dealing with her newfound identity. “My rational mind knew I was not responsible for the way I’d been born and that I was entitled to know who my father was, but I felt guilty for stirring up what I knew would be a terrible family conflict. I felt guilty for my own denial and resentful of my parents for theirs.” (pg. 82) “My parents gave me a culture and an identity. Growing up I knew who I was and where I belonged. We built our family together. For them, that was enough.  As I grew, I realized there was more to me – not less – than the person my family recognized.” (pg. 120)

This description of Dr. Bowen’s: “Families so profoundly affect their members’ thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same skin”, is one that I have focused on throughout my many years of study and application of the ideas.  What seems straightforward in the family often turns out to be more confusing and unclear. In my view, Dr. Bowen is describing the subtle yet profound ways in which we are connected. As one example, family secrets hold the information and the relationships surrounding it in ways that are difficult to question.  Taking on the task of gathering facts and becoming more objective about the situation is challenging.   Ms. Valentine’s memoir provides such a clear example of this journey.

I would like to hear your thoughts about this idea of Dr. Bowen’s and any other comments you have relative to what was presented here. Let’s keep the conversation going.

Sandra Caffo, LCSW
WPFC Faculty Member

4 Replies to “Family Secrets and Bowen Theory”

  1. Sandra,

    Thanks for this window into the way secrets powerfully affect thinking and behavior in a family. For me, it prompted a line of questions about Bowen Theory and Race. The content of the secret was the author’s race, and from your post I gather that the import of the secret, for the family, was managing anxiety around the implied history of alternate sexual partners for the mother, etc. Though you did not address it directly, I hypothesize that there was also significance attached to the racial identity of the author in and of itself.

    For me, it begs the question of how a Bowen perspective might guide one’s understanding of racial identity. Modern racial identity is a communally held “story” that has been deployed in emotional processes over generations, with horrible consequences, for almost six hundred years. And yet, I would argue, it is also a source of grounding for principled action for many (part of solid self). I would look forward to more in depth treatment of racial identity within Bowen circles.

  2. Dave,

    Thanks for sharing your thinking. Dr. Valentine gives the reader intimate access to her voyage of discovery – the uneven and often painful process of confronting her whiteness as well as her new identities as bi-racial and Black. Family is as related to this as it is to the secret. ‘In process – a continuing process’ is how I see the author and her family addressing racial identity.

    I observe there are many communal stories about racial identity; Black families, churches, and communities among them. I understand your focus to be about racism. There are several ways in which I find the ideas in Bowen theory helpful. At the individual and family level, the ideas help me figure out how to focus myself enough to learn and think. At the societal level, the ideas contained in “societal emotional process” are useful in moving beyond a tendency in me to focus on blame. Both roads are ultimately directed to figuring out how to move from thought to action in a principled way and in a continuing process.

  3. After reading this blog, I was in the car and listening to an NPR piece about “anti-racist curriculum” and the speaker noted that a significant number of students in Albemarle County, Virginia did not know that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder. This is the county where Monticello, Jefferson’s home is located. It seemed an example of the kinds of things that were being brought forward in the blog and the writing upon which a reflection was being made. We do know some…tip of the iceberg probably…of the pain that “secret” has meant for the people of that area.

  4. Marnie,

    Thanks for sharing your example. It made be think about what Dr. Bowen describes as “Emotional Process in Society”. This concept of the theory indicates that it is possible to observe at the societal level, patterns of chronic anxiety and stress which exist in families and move beyond the family. Seeing at that level is no less challenging than a family member like the author of the book I talked about observing her own family and herself as a member of that family.

    I would agree not knowing Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder is a “tip of the iceberg’. Unraveling more of the factors that contribute to this way of not seeing what is right there would be an example of exploring the societal level of how secrets form and are maintained. This would be an interesting research project.

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