Months and months ago, my friend Britt got a copy of Deborah Cohen’s Family Secrets: Shame & Privacy in Modern Britain for review. She read it, found it utterly fascinating, and got our library system to purchase a copy (have I mentioned lately that they’re awesome?). When the copy came in, she put it on hold on my library card–she said it was that good.
I believed her, and I’ve actually been excited to read it for months; on the other hand, three children don’t leave you a lot of concentration for non-fiction, so it took me a while to commit to it. When I finally did, however, I found that I really couldn’t put it down–it legitimately was that fascinating. I learned crazy things about the history of the divorce court, marriage counseling, and adoption in Britain, not to mention familial attitudes towards mental disabilities and homosexuality. (And for the record, I owe the Victorians an apology. As much as they had problems recognizing women as, you know, actual intelligent beings, they treated the mentally disabled far better than their Edwardian children. You’d think things would have gotten better and better as time went on; you’d be wrong.) My least favorite thing about the book was thinking, about every third page–was it like this in America? How can I find out all of this stuff about MY country? (Sadly, I don’t know that Cohen has plans for a similar look at the US.)
As for a basic summary of the book, well–it explores the history of familial secrecy and privacy, and how the two concepts have developed and interacted in Britain from the Victorian age until now. I hadn’t ever thought about the fundamental differences between secrecy and privacy until reading this book, but considering the current legal debates about the invasion of privacy, it was past time to start. On the next-to-last page, Cohen posits that “in the twenty-first century, privacy is not the ability to hide but the right to tell without cost.” Consider that, if you will.
Anyway. I realize that not everyone is going to find this book irresistibly fascinating (although part of me feels that everyone really should.) If, however, you enjoy non-fiction and/or cultural history, please give it a try. I’ll bet it hooks you as well.
And my fellow English Major geeks will appreciate the tidy paraphrasing of Hamlet in the very last line.