Storytelling: Family Secrets

Check out this post by Kate Farrell author of Story Power

Today’s Guest Blogger, Kate Farrell, author of Story Power, with her unique experience as a storyteller, shares methods to unlock family secrets,

There’s nothing louder than a family secret—it pesters and pokes until someone speaks up. Secrets have a way of hiding in plain sight. There are always the whispered rumors, missing pieces of a puzzle, stories that keep changing. But just as shared family folklore can develop strength and identity, keeping family secrets can destroy trust. Secrets that persist, unspoken and misunderstood, can erode the very foundation of a family. Family members who are perceptive, who sense hidden truths, may become fearful or internalize guilt and shame. At the very least, family secrets isolate—family members from one another and the entire family from their community.

Some family secrets are more harmful to keep than others. Those that were traumatic, that violated some taboo, or were life-changing are vital to expose. Some of these important secrets can only be shared privately, within the family, and only with members old enough to understand. Certainly, by the time most children reach adulthood, they ought to know most of the essential family secrets that were kept from them, yet influenced their lives in ways both known and unknown.

When considering the sensitive nature of family secrets, a storyteller should proceed with care. There will be those in the family who will never accept the truth, once exposed. And there will be those members who will feel relieved or validated by newly discovered stories that make sense of a puzzle. It can be a powerful healing process for many. Of course, there will also be relatives who find family secrets fascinating and telling them juicy entertainment. As a family member and storyteller, it’s often a challenge to share family secrets in a responsible, but enduring way.

As you ponder what secrets you’ve learned about your family, either from relatives or from research, choose the ones whose revealed truth meant the most to you. Which ones contributed most to your identity, and resolved issues that had once confused you. Select the ones with the most personal impact to shape into stories and tell, to store in notebooks or to record. As you share these, other family members might be encouraged to share theirs.

Exercises & Prompts: Family Secrets & Shadows

Prompts: Shadows

  1. Think of a family member in the past who was shunned or forgotten
  2. Remember someone who brought shame to the family
  3. Recall a family member in past generations who committed a wrong
  4. Remember someone who was wrongly accused
  5. Think of a family member who was judged by an outdated taboo
  6. Remember a relative who was flawed or found lacking
  7. Think of a time when you were judged or the family thought less of: what happened?

Prompts: Secrets

  1. What are the worst family secrets?
  2. Which ones were committed three or four generations back?
  3. What secrets were kept by your grandparents’ generation?
  4. What secrets were kept by your parents’ generation?
  5. What secrets were yours or your siblings?
  6. Are there secrets still hidden by your family today?
  7. What secrets of yours do you want to share with your family?

Let all these memories and stories play in your mind’s eye as you search for one story to tell. Select one that has a clear structure with a beginning, middle, and end. Choose one that has a conflict, a problem, suspense, tension, or an adventure.


Freewrites, or stream of consciousness writing, might reveal new thoughts and perhaps uncover information and present answers that haven’t been previously discovered.  With freewrites, personal experiences emerge for your writing. Writing prompts can be used to inspire writing. Prompts can be a word, a phrase, a picture, a sound, a smell, a line from a book or a poem. Set a timer for fifteen minutes to corral your writing time. Choose a prompt and start writing.

Freewrite Example: Family Secrets

Marlene Cullen employs the practice of free writing or “freewrites” with great success and has shared it with many writers over the years. It is also called timed writing and the results are unpredictable, creative, and at times, surprising. It’s one sure way to reach into the shadows to a family member whose status in the family was diminished, as Marlene does with her father. By letting her mind probe a theme without judgement, she reveals her own feelings, ones she’s kept under wraps for a lifetime. Start, as Marlene does, with a prompt about family secrets and see where your free writing takes you. Use a freewrite to explore the secrets and shadows within your own family.

“Meeting My Father”

Marlene Cullen

I have always had a hard time describing how my father didn’t fit into our family. He was a merchant seaman, away from home for months. He brought home exotic toys, and clothes for me and my sisters, always too small.

“I have the perfect family. A daddy, a mommy, and two little girls.” I knew I wasn’t telling the truth to my second grade playmates, but if I pretended hard enough, maybe it would come true.

When my father was home, it meant he was out of work, and could be found at one neighborhood bar or another. I have a child’s handful of memories about my father—none of them are good. The best I could say was that he was a “Third Street Bum.” He died when he was thirty-seven of alcohol related diseases. I was sixteen.

When I was fifty-four, through a series of serendipitous happenings, I met my father’s high school best friends. They painted a picture of him as a happy-go-lucky kid. They said Bill was a quiet guy, a gentleman, a prankster, and very sensitive. Seeing my father through the eyes of his teenage friends introduced me to the person I never knew.

Sloshing my way through freewrites, I realized my father was more than a person with an alcohol problem. He was a husband and a father, a loving son, and a loyal friend, struggling to navigate the challenges of life.

Several free writes about my father evolved into a story revealing my epiphany about him, published in The Write Spot: Memories. My insight concludes: “He is a part of me, imperfections as well as the good parts. He is part of my granddaughter who shares his hazel-colored eyes.” Without freewrites, my father would have remained a “lesser” person in my mind.

Kate Farrell, storyteller, author, librarian, founded the Word Weaving Storytelling Project and published numerous educational materials on storytelling.

She has contributed to and edited award-winning anthologies of personal narrative.

Farrell recently completed a how-to guide on the art of storytelling for adults, Story Power: Secrets to Creating, Crafting, and Telling Memorial Storiesreleased by Mango Publishing.

She is past president of Women’s National Book Association, San Francisco Chapter.

Kate blogs at Storytelling For Everyone.

Story Power by Kate Farrell

Story power

Secrets to Creating, Crafting, and Telling Memorable Stories

Stories are everywhere. The art of storytelling has been around as long as humans have. And in today’s noisy, techy, automated world, storytelling is not only prevalent—it’s vital. Whether you’re interested in enlivening conversation, building your business brand, sharing family wisdom, or performing on stage, Story Power will show you how to make use of a good story.

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