Silence doesn’t always mean secrecy

I have often pondered the secrecy that seemed to surround the existence of my Uncle Melrose, who had a profound intellectual disability. No one in my family ever talked about him – not my Dad or my other aunt and uncles or my grandfather.

As I have learned in the past few years, my family was not unique. The same veil of silence seemed to affect many other families who had a member with a disability in the early to mid-20th century.

Surely, I thought, a certain amount of shame was behind the attitude of my father and his relatives. And that was understandable, given that Uncle Melrose was born in an era when people like him were considered a menace to society. It was generally accepted that people with intellectual limitations were born of bad stock and would either be a societal leach, a criminal or a prostitute.

Out of sight, out of mind

It was widely believed that people with intellectual disabilities were a danger to society and vice versa. Steps must be taken to protect one group from the other. That’s why institutions were built in remote areas – to remove the disabled from the mainstream.

To keep the population of the “feebleminded” under control, there was widespread support for the eugenics movement. Sterilization laws were passed in many states and tens of thousands of people – most of them in institutions – were rendered incapable of reproducing.

Many people – including the highly educated – believed that if a person was born with an intellectual disability, it was retribution for some sin by the parents.  Perhaps the father was a womanizer or the mother had taken to drink.

No other options

When I consider these things, I think it’s a miracle that Dad’s family kept Uncle Melrose at home until he was 15 years old. It was only when the family couldn’t handle my uncle’s explosive outbursts of frustration any longer that they placed him in a state school in Texas.

That must have been unbelievably painful for all of them, including Melrose. I know it was for my dad, who expressed outrage to his parents for their decision.

Help from Pearl Buck

Pearl Buck

When you look at the whole story, it is easy to see why my uncle seemed to be a family secret. But there is one other factor that I had overlooked until I read The Child Who Never Grew, by Pearl Buck. When the book was published in 1950, Buck revealed that she had a daughter with an intellectual disability.

Her daughter Carol was someone she had not been able to acknowledge even though she had raised her for several years before placing her in an institution. When Buck’s  award-winning novel The Good Earth was published, the public was naturally curious about the author. But Mrs. Buck could not talk about Carol. The reason, she said, was “not shame at all but something private and sacred, as sorrow must be. I am sore to the touch there and I cannot endure even the touch of sympathy.

“Silence is best and far the easiest for me. I suppose this is because I am not resigned and never can be. I endure it because I must, but I am not resigned.”

Perhaps it was the same for my father.  Thoughts of his brother made him sore to the touch. He knew he must endure the pain, but he could never resign himself to his brother’s condition or to his institutionalization. And so, as it was for Pearl Buck, silence was the easiest thing for him.


  1. I appreciate your highlighting another reason for secrecy besides shame. Yes, profound sorrow may make words all but impossible. But irregardless of the cause, I believe silence has a universal effect of creating an experience of secrecy for those of us on the receiving end of the silence.

    My father’s silence about his WWII service, like the silence of countless other WWII veterans, resulted from what I came to refer to as gated grief. Trauma, whether over losing a child or losing one’s spirit, results in the sorrow Pearl Buck spoke of. But our culture has been slow to make a place, to acknowledge and honor such pain. I think it became a deeply private affair as a matter of necessity.

    Though we have made great strides in recognizing our vulnerability to trauma, we have not developed much more comfort with grief than my father or Buck knew sixty to seventy years ago. We have so few models of what it means to grieve that the process all too often becomes truncated, gets pushed underground.

    And the silence that ensues takes on a life of its own, especially for children who live among it. Children know when parents are withholding information. They blame themselves and fill in the blanks with scary possibilities. And so the silence disfigures their spirits, diminishes their vitality.

    • Leila, you are so right. Our society doesn’t readily accept grief and the long process it is to work through it. My dad had no models for how to deal with pain other than to buck up and bear it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.