How To Be Honest About Scary Things, with Dani Shapiro
Dani Shapiro puts deep-rooted family secrets under a microscope in both her New York Times bestselling memoir, Inheritance, and her podcast, Family Secrets. In today’s episode, Dani provides some insight for parents into striking a delicate balance between “the sky is falling” and “we got this.” She also discusses how toxic it can be for families to keep secrets (even those with the best of intentions) and how it’s ultimately better to address tough or painful topics head-on.
[01:03] Hi, I’m Dani Shapiro. I’m a writer, a memoirist, novelist and author of 10 books. And host of the podcast Family Secrets. And this is Good Kids.
[01:20] Yeah. The first moment that it really fully registered for me, a friend of mine who was supposed to come to our writers’ conference in Italy texted me and she said, we have to talk about what’s going on in Italy. And I wrote back what are you talking about? And she started sending me texts of news articles. And it was all of these early days in Italy. Articles about what was happening in the Lombardy region in the north. And I thought she was totally overreacting. Was kind of annoyed, actually. It’s was like, you know, felt like she was being Chicken Little. The sky is falling. The sky is falling.
[02:03] And then in very rapid succession over the next couple of days, the news started becoming grimmer and more real. And the numbers started growing. And, you know, I think as is true for many of us, it is sort of like a frog in boiling water that doesn’t know that it’s boiling. The warning lights started really flashing, and the alarms started ringing very faintly. And then it just started getting louder and louder until, of course, now it’s here. You know, as parents, we so want to protect our children. That doesn’t stop whether they’re little kids or they’re grown kids. You know, last year my husband was sick. He’s thankfully completely cured now, but he was diagnosed with cancer and he was very sick. And our son was 19. And I remember one of the first thoughts I had was, oh, I wish he didn’t have to know this. I wish he didn’t have to go through this. I wish that he was not about to have the experience as a young person of having a parent be terribly ill. But I also imagined what it would be if he were six or four or two? What would that — you know, it was something that he could deal with.
[03:37] I think that there can certainly be times in a child’s life where the capacity to metabolize something, or to make meaning out of it, or to understand it is just not yet possible. You know, in my own story, my parents kept a huge secret from me when I was growing up. And I didn’t find it out until just a few years ago. And I was the secret. My dad was not my biological father, and I never knew that. And my life in many ways was formed around having had such a profound secret that has to do at its core with my own identity having been kept from me. And yet when people have asked me, well, when do you think you should have known? Like, how do you think things would have been different if you had known this as a child or as a teenager? And I came to the realization that I think it would have destroyed me to have known this at a young age for a whole lot of reasons. Partly because I was so identified with my father and not so much with my mother.
[04:56] And also because it was a world of secrets. It was a world in which people didn’t tell the truth about that kind of thing. Whereas I think today that’s not true at all. But back then, when I was a child in the 1960s and 1970s, it would have been impossible for me to metabolize it or get help around it, have a support system. Know other people who were in similar circumstances. Ultimately, I really believe that secrets are toxic. Carl Jung called secrets psychic poison. Just because something isn’t spoken doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And you know, I think we know today — it’s psychologically understood kind of wisdom that what we don’t know can hurt us. I have been thinking so much about my friends with young kids and people who have young kids at home and how complex that is on so many different levels. One thought I’m having is that — well, it’s kind of a contradictory thought, but anxiety is contagious, I think. Whatever we can do to make ourselves feel as safe and solid and grounded as possible is what is going to help our kids.
[06:19] It’s that old adage about putting on your oxygen mask before you put on anybody else’s. Children pick up on their parents’ anxiety. They study adults for how scared to be. The part that is a little bit of a contradiction, though, is that we are scared. We are anxious. It’s really hard to be grounded. And it’s hard to feel safe. And I think we don’t want to overly hide that or lie to our kids either. So that question of how to strike the balance between mommy’s got this or, you know, daddy’s got this, we’re OK. We’re here, we’re together, we’re safe. What’s happening in the world is scary. We’re scared, too, but we’re safe here together. And, you know, like some version of not pretending — we can’t pull the shades down on this thing. It’s actually something that isn’t possible to completely protect our children from. It starts with us, I think.
[07:31] Where does fear go when you push it away? I think it probably turns into some sort of boomerang and comes back as like a bigger monster. We can’t deny it. And I think our children know when we are. And I think it’s a very delicate balance between too little and too much. But it’s a really profound moment that we’re in because there is no pretending. You know, there are many other kinds of crises where if we chose to, we actually could simply hide them from our children. We are in a moment in history. We’re living through it. We’re living through a time that is going to go down in the history books as a very powerful and life-changing period. You don’t get to choose which moment in history you were born into and which moment in history your children are born into.
[10:34] I think that kids know. Kids are like little, big-eyed, big-eared witnesses to their parents’ lives and to their family’s life. And when something isn’t spoken, isn’t said, is kept hidden or secret, whether it’s out of protection or timing or shame — so often it’s shame — a kid will pick up on that, but not know what she’s picking up on. And when they would find out the thing, whatever the thing might have been, the secret, there is inevitably a feeling of like, oh, that makes so much sense. That’s why I felt the way that I felt. That’s why things didn’t add up. That’s why dad was so mad that year. Or that’s why mom, you know, closed her door every day at three o’clock. Or that’s why my parents fought. Or that’s why they treated me the way that they did. It’s like putting on the right prescription glasses for the first time. And while I do think it really matters, the when really matters, ultimately the feeling of knowing is liberating. No matter how hard it might be or initially painful it might be.
[12:05] But yeah, I do think that there are — not just age-appropriate, but child-appropriate. Like I keep on thinking about a friend of mine who I met shortly after 9/11. We lived in the city during the time of 9/11 and so did this friend and her family. And then they moved up to their house in the country in Connecticut. And my family and I, we decided to leave and we moved to rural Connecticut. And I remember this conversation with her where she told me that her son and she, they lived downtown, and she had picked him up at school and they were fleeing downtown. And it was just before the towers fell. And the first tower started to fall behind them. And I mean, they were at a safe distance, but they could see. And she told her son, turn around and look. I want you to see this. This is happening. I don’t know that I would have made that choice. I might have felt like I wanted to shield my child’s eyes, and maybe different children have different capacities for being able to bear witness to something. I think it so much to do with knowing your child. Knowing what’s something that they can or should know or experience.
[13:38] I, in the last couple of days, have taken a step back from being completely focused on the news all day long, all night long. You know, being on Twitter, being on the Internet, refreshing my newsfeed because I think there’s a certain point at which that ceases to be useful. And it becomes very activating or traumatizing, really, to be constantly re-activated, you know, sort of gasoline being poured on our anxiety ceaselessly. I mean, I wondered in the beginning, you know, we are creatures of this 24-hour news cycle that constantly needs to feed itself. And in the beginning, I no longer think this, but I wondered whether other epidemics and other crises of this kind of nature would have blown up the way Covid-19 has blown up if the Internet and social media and the news cycle was what it was at those different times. Unfortunately, I wish that were true. I think we’re just really dealing with something that’s bigger than anything that we can really get our heads around.
[14:51] And so, yeah, we’re indoors a lot. I just answered an email right before our conversation where somebody said, I hope you were outside enjoying this beautiful day. I’m in my basement. I record podcasts in my basement. There’s not even any natural light coming in here. And, you know, that’s not good for the body or soul. It’s not good for us psychologically. And yet, on top of that, there being this relentlessness of the facts and figures. What do they mean? We’re looking at these enormous numbers and they’re enormous, but we don’t even know how to interpret them. It’s important to me to feel prepared, to feel like I know what I need to know. And of course, to do that, you do have to synthesize and sift through the news. Finding a few reliable sources and focusing on those sources and not on the cacophony. I don’t want to be taken by surprise, but I also feel like there’s a certain point at which too much information actually has a negative impact. I’m not very good at this, but I’m trying to learn to be gentler with myself.
[16:16] But like, really understanding, you know, if I feel paralyzed right now, or if I can’t write, or if it takes me five times longer to compose an email than it typically would, or if I’m not sleeping well, or I’m not eating exactly right, or I’m not exercising as much as I would be, or whatever it is, it’s like, OK. A friend of mine who’s a Buddhist mindfulness teacher who’s in her 80s, the great, great teacher named Sylvia Boorstein, she talks about speaking to herself the way she would speak to a beloved person. “Sweetheart, it’s OK. You know. It’s all right, honey. You got this. You can just take a moment. OK. It’s a bad day. Tomorrow will be a better one. Or it’s a bad hour. You can always start your day over again.” Which actually is one of my favorite pieces of parenting advice ever, I’ve been saying that to my son since he was very small, is you can always start your day over again. You can start your day over again, even if you’re about to go to bed at night. You can still start your day over again. And I think we may have to do that dozens, if not hundreds of times a day right now.
[17:38] So if you want to learn more about me and my work, you can follow me on Instagram, that’s my favorite social media platform. And on Instagram, I’m @DaniWriter. And my website is a really good place to go to read up on all of my books. And that is DaniShapiro.com. And my most recent book, which is about being the family secret, is called Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love. And you can read about that on my website as well. My podcast, Family’s Secrets, is just about completing its third season, so definitely ready for a binge listen. You can find family secrets wherever you get your podcasts.
[18:31] Good Kids is a Lemonada Media original. Andrew Steven is our producer, and the show is executive produced by Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Music is by Dan Molad. Westwood One is our ad sales and distribution partner. Like us, give us a five-star rating, and recommend us to a friend. If you want to submit a show idea, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.