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. http://www.thebowencenter.org.) 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