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We live today in a culture of full disclosure, where tell-all memoirs top the best-seller lists, transparency is lauded, and privacy seems imperiled. But how did we get here? Exploring scores of previously sealed records, Family Secrets offers a sweeping account of how shame--and the relationship between secrecy and openness--has changed over the last two centuries in Brit We live today in a culture of full disclosure, where tell-all memoirs top the best-seller lists, transparency is lauded, and privacy seems imperiled. But how did we get here? Exploring scores of previously sealed records, Family Secrets offers a sweeping account of how shame--and the relationship between secrecy and openness--has changed over the last two centuries in Britain. Deborah Cohen uses detailed sketches of individual families as the basis for comparing different sorts of social stigma. She takes readers inside an Edinburgh town house, where a genteel maiden frets with her brother over their niece's downy upper lip, a darkening shadow that might betray the girl's Eurasian heritage; to a Liverpool railway platform, where a heartbroken mother hands over her eight-year old illegitimate son for adoption; to a town in the Cotswolds, where a queer vicar brings to his bank vault a diary--sewed up in calico, wrapped in parchment--that chronicles his sexual longings. Cohen explores what families in the past chose to keep secret and why. She excavates the tangled history of privacy and secrecy to explain why privacy is now viewed as a hallowed right while secrets are condemned as destructive. In delving into the dynamics of shame and guilt, Family Secrets explores the part that families, so often regarded as the agents of repression, have played in the transformation of social mores from the Victorian era to the present day. Written with compassion and keen insight, this is a bold new argument about the sea-changes that took place behind closed doors.


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We live today in a culture of full disclosure, where tell-all memoirs top the best-seller lists, transparency is lauded, and privacy seems imperiled. But how did we get here? Exploring scores of previously sealed records, Family Secrets offers a sweeping account of how shame--and the relationship between secrecy and openness--has changed over the last two centuries in Brit We live today in a culture of full disclosure, where tell-all memoirs top the best-seller lists, transparency is lauded, and privacy seems imperiled. But how did we get here? Exploring scores of previously sealed records, Family Secrets offers a sweeping account of how shame--and the relationship between secrecy and openness--has changed over the last two centuries in Britain. Deborah Cohen uses detailed sketches of individual families as the basis for comparing different sorts of social stigma. She takes readers inside an Edinburgh town house, where a genteel maiden frets with her brother over their niece's downy upper lip, a darkening shadow that might betray the girl's Eurasian heritage; to a Liverpool railway platform, where a heartbroken mother hands over her eight-year old illegitimate son for adoption; to a town in the Cotswolds, where a queer vicar brings to his bank vault a diary--sewed up in calico, wrapped in parchment--that chronicles his sexual longings. Cohen explores what families in the past chose to keep secret and why. She excavates the tangled history of privacy and secrecy to explain why privacy is now viewed as a hallowed right while secrets are condemned as destructive. In delving into the dynamics of shame and guilt, Family Secrets explores the part that families, so often regarded as the agents of repression, have played in the transformation of social mores from the Victorian era to the present day. Written with compassion and keen insight, this is a bold new argument about the sea-changes that took place behind closed doors.

30 review for Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain

  1. 5 out of 5

    Liz

    A Goodreads Giveaway Book Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain by Deborah Cohen "About families and their secrets, much can be known, but much more is silence" (Cohen's Epilogue). Hidden children. Secret paramours. A runaway adulteress. Non-fiction with all the intrigue of a novel, Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain is a fascinating and enticing read. From scandal in the Victorian Divorce Courts to heartbreaking tales of children kept secret from the world, their fami A Goodreads Giveaway Book Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain by Deborah Cohen "About families and their secrets, much can be known, but much more is silence" (Cohen's Epilogue). Hidden children. Secret paramours. A runaway adulteress. Non-fiction with all the intrigue of a novel, Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain is a fascinating and enticing read. From scandal in the Victorian Divorce Courts to heartbreaking tales of children kept secret from the world, their families, and themselves; Deborah Cohen delivers a detailed account of the changing face of shame, secrecy and privacy in Modern Britain. Using detailed research and historical accounts, Cohen masterfully unveils the family secrets that have shaped modern privacy. She takes us from the Victorian era through World War II highlighting social mores and key movements that forced so many individuals--and their families--into secrecy. As she brings us through the Post-War era and into contemporary society, we see the birth of modern "tell-all" culture where Cohen explores the apparent paradox created by confessional culture and our much-sought-after privacy. Does "tell all" really mean "secret no more"? Is the era of privacy dead? Cohen redefines privacy for the 21st century. Her work is illuminating, and it is important (I hope she writes another focusing solely on the divorce courts. It's scandalous. And fascinating). I'll leave you the quote with which Cohen begins: "Of my father, my mother, myself, I know in the end practically nothing." -J.R. Ackerley Read this book.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Britt, Book Habitue

    (Copy received for review) Possibly the most fascinating and compelling work of nonfiction I have read. Combining history and psychology, this is definitely a most interesting read.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Liz

    ‘Family Secrets’ is an interesting effort to uncover the evolving history of privacy and its relations to secrets in British families, from the Victorian era to roughly the 1960s. Deborah Cohen has uncovered some rich sets of sources including adoption records, Mass-Observation data, court records, and personal diaries. She uses these to explore areas of shame in family life: illegitimate and mixed race children as a result of colonialism; adoption; mentally disabled children and the institution ‘Family Secrets’ is an interesting effort to uncover the evolving history of privacy and its relations to secrets in British families, from the Victorian era to roughly the 1960s. Deborah Cohen has uncovered some rich sets of sources including adoption records, Mass-Observation data, court records, and personal diaries. She uses these to explore areas of shame in family life: illegitimate and mixed race children as a result of colonialism; adoption; mentally disabled children and the institutions that cared for them; divorce; and homosexuality. The result is a telling portrait of the shifting line between what can be shared widely, what less widely, and what never spoken about. The book also, not incidentally, is a description of how painful it is when we cannot meet our own or others’ expectations. Cohen’s book does demonstrate that much of the shame created by secrecy exposed came from well-meaning notions about the social interest of providing abject examples of behavior people should avoid and the cost of making mistakes. Not so now. “To have privacy, as we now define it,” Cohen writes in the Epilogue, “is to be able to conduct one’s affairs and develop one’s personality without significant social detriment.... In the twenty-first century, privacy is not the ability to hide but the right to tell without cost” (268).

  4. 5 out of 5

    Wealhtheow

    Described to me as "white bourgeois British families' attitudes towards biracial, illegitimate/adopted, divorced, disabled, and homosexual relatives during the nineteenth century." Described to me as "white bourgeois British families' attitudes towards biracial, illegitimate/adopted, divorced, disabled, and homosexual relatives during the nineteenth century."

  5. 4 out of 5

    Margery Osborne

    interesting although not the greatest read

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jamie Bernthal

    In this important and fascinating volume, Deborah Cohen takes us through the (hi)story of family secrets from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first. Meticulously researched, Cohen introduces us to newspaper reports, letters, government surveys, and TV reviews, to support her argument that the family has been a cultural lynchpin for the last two centuries. There are essentially three parts. First, Cohen deals with 'Victorians', by which she seems to mean the long nineteenth century. Secrets, C In this important and fascinating volume, Deborah Cohen takes us through the (hi)story of family secrets from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first. Meticulously researched, Cohen introduces us to newspaper reports, letters, government surveys, and TV reviews, to support her argument that the family has been a cultural lynchpin for the last two centuries. There are essentially three parts. First, Cohen deals with 'Victorians', by which she seems to mean the long nineteenth century. Secrets, Cohen suggested, confirmed status onto families. It wasn't just that skeletons were in the cupboards of even the best families, but that only the best families had really important secrets. Second, Cohen deals with the first half of the twentieth century. This, she suggests, was a more secretive time for families (smaller, more inbred, war-conscious, and influenced by advances in medical/psychological knowledge) than the previous century. Finally, she charts a post-1960 'confessional culture'. Reality TV and a stereotypically British interest in genealogy signify a world where personal liberation comes from 'outing' one's family. Cohen writes with scholarly precision but is very accessible and human. Take these lines from the introduction. >>"There was, though, an important distinction between the stigmas families truly feared and those that they attributed chiefly to the prejudice of others. Some things mattered only if the neighbours knew about them."<< It tells us everything we need to know, in very few words. We don't feel patronised. We don't feel out of our depth. We feel like we're having a chat with a clever woman. Well, I did anyway. And for a book about family secrets, that staple of British gossip, I think that's very important. All in all, a fascinating book for anyone working on or interested in the family unit in British society and popular culture.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Cleopatra Pullen

    I read this book against the backdrop of my adult daughter and her close friend trawling through Facebook to find out whether a rumour they'd heard about a school friend was true or not - it wasn't, but it certainly leant weight to Deborah Cohen's affirmation that there is a difference between privacy and secrecy. As an amateur genealogist I have delved into the papers of the late 19th century and wondered how some of those whose actions were written about continued to live in their tight-knit c I read this book against the backdrop of my adult daughter and her close friend trawling through Facebook to find out whether a rumour they'd heard about a school friend was true or not - it wasn't, but it certainly leant weight to Deborah Cohen's affirmation that there is a difference between privacy and secrecy. As an amateur genealogist I have delved into the papers of the late 19th century and wondered how some of those whose actions were written about continued to live in their tight-knit communities with little opportunity of escaping their past misdemeanours, but of course they just had to, particularly if they were poor. The subjects of this book tend to be the middle-classes, those who had the money and the means to hide their secrets or at least have some measure of control over how much of their secrets were exposed. The book starts in the late 18th century detailing the ways that men who had relations with women in India integrated their sons and daughters into society. Deborah Cohen then moves through the decades detailing those secrets that were important to their times; divorce, mental disabilities, adoption and homosexuality alongside careful explanation of popular views of the times, laws and the importance to the family that these were either kept secret or not. The last section deals with the views of RD Laing and how his views helped to change society's view of the family to the re-drawing of boundaries about what today is viewed to be privacy and an individual's right to keep secrets which is not the same as the requirement to keep the family secrets. This is a fascinating and accessible way of presenting social history, well researched using some previously closed records it is well written has enlightened me about each of the areas covered.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Anna

    Doesn't so much present an argument as give a descriptive summary of societal attitudes to shame, secrecy and privacy and the shifts in these over time, using several real-life examples to illustrate changes between generations. Looks at the way families and societies addressed embarrassing or potentially ruinous secrets like illegitimate, biracial or mentally handicapped children, adultery, divorce, adoption and homosexuality. Interesting and unexpected revelations in some cases--like the shift Doesn't so much present an argument as give a descriptive summary of societal attitudes to shame, secrecy and privacy and the shifts in these over time, using several real-life examples to illustrate changes between generations. Looks at the way families and societies addressed embarrassing or potentially ruinous secrets like illegitimate, biracial or mentally handicapped children, adultery, divorce, adoption and homosexuality. Interesting and unexpected revelations in some cases--like the shift from Victorians' fairly open treatment of handicapped kids as merely 'unfortunate' to the early 20th century's hiding them away as 'shameful' after the rise of eugenics--but I found the chapter on homosexuality seemed fairly weak in comparison to earlier chapters (seeming to concentrate specifically on middle- and upper-class 'discreet' gays and ignore more 'flamboyant' gays or relegate them strictly to the poorer working class--as if there were no flamboyant well-to-do homosexuals--and only giving the most glancing mention of lesbians). The final chapter gives an interesting, if less organized-feeling, look at the increasing difference between ideas of secrecy and privacy from the days of Victorian silence to the days of marriage counsellors and advice columns, and later to open blogging and reality TV. Overall, interesting to hear some of the real-life stories described and the very different ways that similarly-circumstanced lives played out depending on certain variables. It took a little work to get through, but brought up some interesting historical points to argue over, but if you're looking for a clear argument of a specific point, you might be disappointed here.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    An engaging and incredibly timely work of social history, tracing changing conceptions of privacy and secrecy in British families from the late 18th to the early 21st centuries. Viewing these abstract notions through the lens of various topics - mixed-race children, divorce, developmentally delayed children, illegitimate birth, homosexuality - Cohen shows how dramatically things we now see as "basic rights" have shifted over the generations. For example, "Skeletons, the Victorians recognized, we An engaging and incredibly timely work of social history, tracing changing conceptions of privacy and secrecy in British families from the late 18th to the early 21st centuries. Viewing these abstract notions through the lens of various topics - mixed-race children, divorce, developmentally delayed children, illegitimate birth, homosexuality - Cohen shows how dramatically things we now see as "basic rights" have shifted over the generations. For example, "Skeletons, the Victorians recognized, were inevitable and as a sign of family unity, even laudable." They perceived "transgressions" as being "of communal interest, to be protected by family secrets" and felt that "a person's past was most emphatically not their own private business." By the end of the Second World War, however, came from "a new democratic language of a right to non-interference." Still, they could hardly imagine that by the early 21st century, "privacy is not the ability to hide but the right to tell without cost." Cohen's work is interesting in its own right, for the insight it offers into the Victorian era, much scorned by later generations - and, she argues persuasively, not always justifiably so - but also for the way it could help us frame urgent questions we now face regarding these subjects. There is a lot of value that we could learn from the Victorians. My only quibble is that women are entirely absent from her chapter on early- to mid-20th century homosexuality. Where are Radclyffe Hall, Violet Trefusis, Vita Sackville-West and the rest?

  10. 4 out of 5

    Corrie Ann

    An utterly fascinating and well researched look at privacy and shame in modern Britain. The topics covered include race, divorce/adultery, illegitimacy/adoption, the mentally disabled, and homosexuality, all in relation to shame and privacy within both the family and society. Cohen moves through Victorian times into the Edwardian Era, the interwar years and then into what we would consider 'modern' times (post WWII). She also covers how the definition of privacy changes after WWII with the onset An utterly fascinating and well researched look at privacy and shame in modern Britain. The topics covered include race, divorce/adultery, illegitimacy/adoption, the mentally disabled, and homosexuality, all in relation to shame and privacy within both the family and society. Cohen moves through Victorian times into the Edwardian Era, the interwar years and then into what we would consider 'modern' times (post WWII). She also covers how the definition of privacy changes after WWII with the onset of psychoanalysis, the feminist and gay liberation movements, and society's new desire for openness and truth telling. It was so interesting to see how different time periods dealt with a variety of 'secret' issues and how this related to propriety and familial respectability. In some instances, the earlier years (surprisingly) proved to be more progressive and compassionate (mental disability). Although this book is non-fiction it reads like a novel and I did not want to put it down. Cohen does an incredible job at engaging the reader. A definite 5 stars!

  11. 4 out of 5

    Wanda

    Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain Author Deborah Cohen takes us on a journey through family circumstances that were held as taboo in Britain’s not too distant history (19th & 20th centuries); Mistresses; Illegitimate children; Shocking marital problems; Mongol children; Adopting other’s illegitimate children; And the homosexual in the family. In British history’s upper and upper middle class these things were hidden away and hushed up. I think I felt sorrier for the kids that we Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain Author Deborah Cohen takes us on a journey through family circumstances that were held as taboo in Britain’s not too distant history (19th & 20th centuries); Mistresses; Illegitimate children; Shocking marital problems; Mongol children; Adopting other’s illegitimate children; And the homosexual in the family. In British history’s upper and upper middle class these things were hidden away and hushed up. I think I felt sorrier for the kids that were innocent victims of the times. Then the author goes on to describe how things have changed in British society. It is an interesting book. I received this book through Goodreads First Reads with many thanks.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Lynnee Argabright

    I enjoyed the first four chapters and was disappointed throughout the remaining three chapters. The book had some really interesting topics in it regarding family secrets, shame, and privacy in Victorian and Modern England, such as empire, divorce, mental institutions, adoption, and homosexuality. However, as in the last two chapters (Part Three), I was disappointed that these topics turned into a general purview of the shape of the family in modern England. As an American reading this book, the I enjoyed the first four chapters and was disappointed throughout the remaining three chapters. The book had some really interesting topics in it regarding family secrets, shame, and privacy in Victorian and Modern England, such as empire, divorce, mental institutions, adoption, and homosexuality. However, as in the last two chapters (Part Three), I was disappointed that these topics turned into a general purview of the shape of the family in modern England. As an American reading this book, these chapters seemed like they didn't apply to my understanding of the family.

  13. 4 out of 5

    !Tæmbuŝu

    KOBOBOOKS Reviewed by The Guardian (26 Jan 2013), The Independent (17 Apr 2013) KOBOBOOKS Reviewed by The Guardian (26 Jan 2013), The Independent (17 Apr 2013)

  14. 4 out of 5

    Vanessa Meachen

    Fantastic read - detailed, thoughtful, and beautifully illustrated with real examples from archives and primary sources. Explores the prevailing attitudes of families to "secrets" like illegitimacy, physical and intellectual disability, divorce and family breakdown, homosexuality and mixed-race children and how attitudes have changed - or not - from Victorian times to the present day. I found some of the examples here surprising and nearly all of them moving. Fantastic read - detailed, thoughtful, and beautifully illustrated with real examples from archives and primary sources. Explores the prevailing attitudes of families to "secrets" like illegitimacy, physical and intellectual disability, divorce and family breakdown, homosexuality and mixed-race children and how attitudes have changed - or not - from Victorian times to the present day. I found some of the examples here surprising and nearly all of them moving.

  15. 5 out of 5

    David

    I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the book, which was more anecdotal and personal than the last part. Sometimes the process of discovery can be more interesting than what is actually discovered. The last one-third of the book was rather drier, and more like a sociology text - it seemed to lack the vitality of the first part of the book, Still, I found it worth reading, and it is very well researched.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jane Walker

    "Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day" is the sub-title. But we get little on the Victorians, and not a lot about shame. There is some fascinating stuff here, based on impeccable research, but it doesn't entirely hang together. The epilogue on the current fashion for family history misses the mark. Altogether, the book left me a little disappointed. "Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day" is the sub-title. But we get little on the Victorians, and not a lot about shame. There is some fascinating stuff here, based on impeccable research, but it doesn't entirely hang together. The epilogue on the current fashion for family history misses the mark. Altogether, the book left me a little disappointed.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Kazimiera pendrey

    some of the topics within this book are very shocking some of the things that the general public do not like to face .Although interesting the writing style and indeed the chapters wera bit long winded still worth a read

  18. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    Read for my historians craft seminar. Very interesting history of family secrets from the Victorian age to circa 1980. It was fascinating to read about how the secrecy of certain things changed over time--oftentimes in ways one wouldn't have expected. Read for my historians craft seminar. Very interesting history of family secrets from the Victorian age to circa 1980. It was fascinating to read about how the secrecy of certain things changed over time--oftentimes in ways one wouldn't have expected.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Trinity School Summer Reading

    A wonderful book about the history of what we keep private and why.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Lesley

    Very good, but not sure if it was trying to do too much in the space available.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Sean

    "Only by refusing the ‘self-oppression’ of silence could a person live authentically and honestly." - Deborah Cohen, Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain. "Only by refusing the ‘self-oppression’ of silence could a person live authentically and honestly." - Deborah Cohen, Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Alyson

    Fascinating. See http://www.eatreadandbemommy.com/2014... for why! Fascinating. See http://www.eatreadandbemommy.com/2014... for why!

  23. 4 out of 5

    David Allen

    see my review at: http://davidmallenmd.blogspot.com/201... see my review at: http://davidmallenmd.blogspot.com/201...

  24. 5 out of 5

    Penny

    3½ I enjoyed this but maybe not quite as much as I thought I would. Interesting idea for a book, and well done although I thought some chapters were much more interesting than others.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jane Housham

    Excellent

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kaylie Bowman

  27. 5 out of 5

    Cecilia Dunbar Hernandez

  28. 4 out of 5

    Helen

  29. 5 out of 5

    Martha

  30. 4 out of 5

    Helen Andrews

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