HBO is currently showing The Debt, a drama/thriller movie about three Mossad agents who are to capture a Nazi war criminal in East Berlin and bringing him to justice in Israel. But the plan goes horribly wrong, the "Doctor of Birkenau" (based on the real Josef Mengele) manages to escape while the agents, (one woman, two men) are in hiding with him. However, instead of admitting what happened and coming home a failure, (spoiler alert ahead) the three make a pact to say they killed him, and that they must keep this secret forever.
Their assumption is that the doctor can never admit that he was captured by Mossad agents, because in doing so, he will reveal himself to be the evil doctor who perpetuated horrors on the prisoners at Birkenau.
HEROES BECAUSE OF A SECRET, AND A LIE
The three agents are welcomed home as heroes. The woman of the trio is carrying the child of one of the men (but in love with the other); the parents marry; the third man leaves Israel and travels the world, tormented by the secret. The movie opens many years later as the daughter, now married and a mother herself, is enjoying the flush of success at having a book published about her parents' daring exploits in 1966 Berlin. We learn the mother (played by Helen Mirren) had refused to be interviewed for the book, but she is a presence, as is her father, at the daughter's reading and book party. The parents are no longer live together, but are civil to one another, and still bound by the secret. And the lie that it is, the lie they have built their lives on. As heroes.
But. The third man has returned, and he is aware that word is leaking out on the Internet that an old man at a nursing home in Kiev is claiming to be the Doctor of Birkeneau. If a journalist interviews him and publishes the story, their cover, the image of them in the eyes of their world, will be blown. They will have found to have been a failure, and a fraud, not only to their country, but also to the daughter. The doctor must be killed before he can talk to the press. Realizing this is the likely scenario to unfold, the third man runs in front of a truck and is killed. The two remaining members of the pact are left with the job of finding the doctor, and once and for all, killing him before he speaks to the press. The woman is the only one who can do the job; the other man (Tom Wilkinson) is in a wheel chair.
Halfway through the movie I was struck by the power of this secret, and how if the truth come out, it will change their lives, for being discovered so many years later to have been a fraud will be devastating. I could not help but begin to think of first mothers in hiding, those who have never talked of their lost children to anyone, save those few who knew at the time. Maybe since the adoption, the lost family member has never even been mentioned; it is as if she does not exist. Some women marry, and never tell their husbands; certainly if that is the case, they never told their children about their sibling. Surely the relatives who knew never mention the lost family member. The secret prevails, and rules their lives. They are not a someone who gave up a child. What child? Should the secret come out, everyone will know that the part of them kept secret has let them live life somewhat as a fraud; they will not be the person they were before. They will be a woman who has given up a child. Not an admirable thing.
THE DAMAGE DONE LIVES ON
Then one day, a phone call, a letter arrives. It threatens to change the public image of these hidden women; family members in the dark will be shocked, some will feel lied to; neighbors--if they find out--will gossip. The secret must be maintained at all costs. The person paying the cost of keeping this secret is the returning child, who wants recognition, acceptance, information, and maybe even love. Most probably love, even if the child is unwilling, or unable, to admit to this.
So much damage has been done by keeping this secret. So much damage continues into the future if the secret is not revealed.
I kept my daughter secret from my family for nine years. My father died when my daughter was two, long before. I thought, at the time, that I might keep this secret from my family forever. I would never have to be the daughter who let them down, right? My father thought I should not go to college because girls just got married and had kids anyway, what was the point of college? Now look what I had done--gone to college and had a child without a husband. Gave her up. So disgraceful. So shameful. Though it was the supposedly hip Sixties, the world had not changed one iota in this regard.
Two years after I gave birth to my daughter, I told my first husband when he asked me to marry him. I told him right on the spot. Later I told one friend in New York--and she turned out to be a first mother too! (see sidebar, that's her)--and a girlfriend back in Michigan. But still, not my family. Not my mother, and my brothers, and their wives, and my nieces and nephews, et cetera. To them, I had been married, was divorced, was childless. But as I began to be involved in the adoption reform movement, I was asked to testify in a trial in New York State for an adoptee who wanted her records, her true identity. Though the attorney for Ann Scharp said I could be anonymous, I realized I could not be effective as a spokesmother for adoptee rights and still be in the closet. I was done with hiding, with pretending to be someone I was not, with a public lie.
My family had to know. Telling my mother was difficult--oh yes, it's never easy--but you do it one step at a time, one word at a time, until the secret is no more. The power of the secret to hurt you, to control your life is gone. I write this hoping to reach one mother who has not yet been able to talk of this, to claim her true and full motherhood, to embrace the lost child. I know that many such women are not likely to be trolling the web looking for guidance on this, but some may, and maybe the way the phrases written here will find them, and somehow give them courage.
My mother turned out to be a stalwart champion of all that I was trying to do, let the neighbors gossip at will. She was my mother, after all. --lorraine
For more on secrecy today--this is about being gay in professional spots, but totally relates, read Frank Bruni's column in today's New York Times: A New Inning, Late in the Game
Jane has written about this quite tellingly in: Speaking Out Makes A Difference!!!
Birthmothers of the World Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Shame
And Linda wrote about
Coming out of the closet as a birthmother: To Tell the Truth...Or Not?
And other FMF posts
How Do You Tell Your Family You Had a First Child?
Reaching Those Women in the Closet
For more understanding about the power of this secret, read The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade.
From an Amazon reviewer: Until I read this book, I never dreamed that even after 30, 40, or 50+ years, that these women would still carry so much shame and guilt. ” Click above to order from Amazon.