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Carolyn Hax: You are not bound to secrecy about your father’s abuse

(Nick Galifianakis for The Washington Post)

Dear Carolyn: Though my father has been dead for many years, he is still remembered by many in our community as an outstanding and well-loved citizen.

Behind the closed doors of our home, he was an unrelentingly cruel and abusive man, a secret we were all commanded to keep.

Now, as I still wrestle with the emotional and psychological scars of those years, I encounter people in the community who rave to me about what a wonderful man my father was. I feel that by explaining what really happened in my childhood, I might clarify behavioral incidents from my past and set the story straight; however, I am reluctant to blow up my family's history with those who are only trying to make pleasant conversation.

Long after these conversations I am haunted by childhood memories of "keeping the family secret," which triggers vivid and depressing memories of past trauma. What should I do?

— Anonymous

Anonymous: I am so sorry this happened to you.

I am also sorry you had to deal with the “chaser” as well, the forced secrecy that denied you an opportunity to get help, free yourself, expose the rot in the pillar.

If I read you correctly, then you do understand you’re under no obligation to remain silent now. That’s good.

But I’m not sure you’re as beholden to the only-trying-to-make-pleasant-conversation set as you seem to believe.

We’d all do well not to dump our life stories on people just because they tossed off a polite, “How are you?” I’m with you there.

These pleasant conversationalists are referring specifically to your father, though, opening that door — and they are harboring false impressions of him. While there is nothing inherently wrong with leaving those impressions intact of a man who can’t do any new harm, remaining silent plainly isn’t working for you.

And I could argue that correcting the record about your father fits into a larger, culturally sensible reckoning with the idea of airbrushing our “heroes.” It’s one thing to look the other way at routine human frailty — that’s fair, if needless and simplistic. But hiding monsters is toxic. Who else, we should ask, was on the wrong end of your father’s actions? Who else is suffering silently as you are through the hosannas of the misinformed?

Who learned things from him that are best unlearned, even now?

Add all those up, and you have enough to support as much of a paternal-bubble-bursting as you feel like taking on. “Yes, he turned his best face to the community”; “Not as wonderful as he appeared, unfortunately”; “Behind closed doors, he was abusive to us”; [your version here] — after reading your audience and your stomach for waves.

Or you say nothing, if you conclude it’s not worth taking it on. Sometimes just knowing you can speak up — knowing you’ve given yourself that permission — can be enough to settle angry ghosts, and make superfluous the actual speaking-up part. You don’t mention having sought therapy; it’s not only helpful in dealing with trauma, but also as an incremental step toward speaking out.

Regardless: There is nothing, no one and no social convention to muzzle you now. Say what you want, to the extent you want, when you want and only if you want. He blew up your family history. Not you.