Family Secrets

Winner of the Forkosch Prize of the American Historical Association, 2014
Winner of the North American Conference on British Studies’ Stansky Prize, 2014
"Public Pick," Public Books, 2013
"Book of the Year," 2013 -- the Spectator, The Sunday Times, and the Times Literary Supplement


In an Edinburgh town house, a genteel maiden lady frets with her brother over their niece’s downy upper lip.  Would the darkening shadow betray the girl’s Eurasian heritage?  On a Liverpool railway platform, a heartbroken mother hands over her eight-year old illegitimate son for adoption.  She had dressed him carefully that morning in a sailor suit and cap.  In a town in the Cotswolds, a vicar brings to his bank vault a diary – sewed up in calico, wrapped in parchment – that chronicles his sexual longings for other men.

Drawing upon years of research in previously sealed records, Deborah Cohen offers a sweeping and often surprising account of how shame has changed over the last two centuries.  

Both a story of family secrets and of how they were revealed, this book journeys from the frontier of empire, where British adventurers made secrets that haunted their descendants for generations, to the confessional vanguard of modern-day genealogy two centuries later.  It explores personal, apparently idiosyncratic, decisions:  hiding an adopted daughter’s origins, taking a disabled son to a garden party, talking ceaselessly (or not at all) about a homosexual uncle.  Cohen 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 familial dynamics of shame and guilt, FAMILY SECRETS investigates 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.

Press Reviews

Book of the Year -- Times Literary Supplement

Wednesday, November 27, 2013
The Times Literary Supplement
Frances Wilson

"Rigorous and relevant."

Starting with the premiss that a private life and a secret life no longer mean the same thing, Deborah Cohen's rigorous and relevant Family Secrets:  Living with shame from the Victorians to the present day (Viking) explores the shameful history of how we have covered up our shameful histories.  She brings together the families who harboured secrets, the individuals -- illegitimate, mentally handicapped, mixed-race -- who were secrets, and the current rage for uncovering the secrets of our ancestors (one in six people who have explored their heritage on internet sites have apparently discovered something that a previous generation sought to hide).

Review in TLS

Friday, April 26, 2013
The Times Literary Supplement
Pat Thane

"Deborah Cohen opens up the role of the family in bringing about this change, raising new questions and perspectives in this mysterious, important area of history."

English families have long kept socially shaming episodes secret, which makes reconstructing the history of the English family all the harder. Deborah Cohen explores what was kept secret and how, what has changed since the early nineteenth century and why. She focuses on the middle classes, since those "above" and "below" them socially were less successful at, or less concerned with, hiding their transgressions from prying eyes - from eighteenth-century cartoonists to modern tabloids.