Truth and Consequences

Today’s post comes from Renee in North Dakota.

There has been lots of discussion in the media lately about truth-the truth behind Donald’s tax returns, the truth in Hilary’s emails. Truth can vary depending on your viewpoint and your experience. I have my own struggle with truth, and I hope the Baboons can offer me some advice.

I have written before about a terrible conflict between my maternal grandmother and her only sister.  I heard the “truth” from my grandmother’s perspective. I never heard the conflict described from my great aunt’s perspective, and I am worried that time is running out for me to hear that side of the story.

My great aunt’s youngest daughter was my mom’s favorite cousin, and they kept in touch through all the years of their mothers’ conflict. The cousin is still alive, and since my mom’s death, she and I have maintained a cordial relationship. She is the last one from my great aunt’s family who knows what happened to cause the conflict, and she is the last one for me to ask. In telling me the other side of the story, she would have to divulge some pretty painful secrets concerning her parents and siblings, secrets we have some inkling about but don’t know about for certain. Her side of the family has a tendency to cut themselves off from family members who offend them. I risk losing her friendship if I ask. I risk not knowing about something that has been a puzzle to me since I was a child.

I like to know how people and families function. I like making sense out of behavior. Husband tells me that this is one of those times when I need to keep my mouth shut and accept that I can’t find out the “truth” as it relates to this situation. What do you think, dear Baboons? How far should I go to find out the truth?

39 thoughts on “Truth and Consequences”

  1. Oh dear! This could be tricky.

    My sense is that the person who needs to make a decision is your great aunt. You can tell her you know a few facts about the controversy, but you have heard only one side of a story you suspect has more than one side. Tell your great aunt that you have no special reason to be making this inquiry. You are simply interested in knowing the truth. You should be prepared to promise to be discrete, perhaps keeping family secrets if that is what your great aunt believes is appropriate. She has the right to set terms on how you use information she supplies.

    No matter how careful you are, raising this issue will present some threats to your great aunt. You need to be careful. Ask her for the truth, but ask in such a way that she has a graceful path available to keep her secrets, if that is her choice.

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  2. You’ll never know unless you ask. Your .mom’s cousin might refuse to tell you, or you could hesitate until she is gone, but in either of those cases the puzzle will go unresolved.
    I get the sense that there is some sort of underlying shame or grudge involved that succeeding generations of the family have been expected to maintain. Somebody has to get that elephant out of the room.
    To sort of borrow from Steve’s advice, you might lead off by telling her the version your grandmother told you. If it’s radically different from the story she’s heard, she may not be able to resist “setting you straight”. Then you’ll know.

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  3. I have no advice to offer, Reneeinnd, having similar issues in my own family, so will follow this conversation with great interest. Now I’m off to a day in Cloquet.

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  4. I ignore it all now. I can never make things better.
    I don’t trust memories. My sister and I have such widely different memories about things with little emotional load (we are not fighting just sharing memories), that I would not trust any traumatic memory. My brother insists on abuse that is based on recall that has to be wrong, such as something our non-English speaking German grandmother said to him two years after she died.

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    1. I’ve had similar experiences in differing memories, with a sister and also with a friend. Nothing particularly emotionally loaded, but I sometimes wonder how I can remember something so differently than they do. Naturally, if we discuss it further, the other person is positive they are right and I am wrong, so I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut most of the time.

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  5. I too would be tempted to approach this cousin, Renee – I also always want to know; it impacts all kinds of family dynamics in ways that people don’t realize. Steve mentioned going to great-aunt – assuming she is still alive, and/or mentally capable of telling you. If this isn’t possible, there is risk in asking the cousin, but I agree that since it is a “cordial” and not a terribly close relationship, it might be worth that risk.

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  6. This is the stuff that many novels are made of, Renee. I don’t know how many book synopses I’ve read that run along the lines of “Person A learns from Family Member B family secrets that upset everything she ever thought was true about her family.” So, who knows, maybe you have a great novel in the making here.

    Personally, I lack the burning curiosity that would lead me to try to find out the truth of something like this. So I’m probably not the best person to advise you. All I can suggest is if you do go ahead and ask the cousin that you make it clear to her that you don’t want to lose her friendship over this.

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  7. I am blessed to have only slight contact with two cousins, who are reasonable people, except the one invites relatives to stay at her expensive Napa Valley B&B and then hands you a bill. My father and his siblings all fought, to the point one ran away. My mother an her siblings grated on each other but we’re in good personal contact. Only two are left. And the relationships extended widely beyond that. I have been thinking a lot lately about how my isolated early childhood has made me stand apart from social circles of most kinds.

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  8. One reason I am so fascinated by the mystery is that my grandfather and his brother married my grandmother and her sister. The two families were so different when you would expect them to be similar.

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    1. I come at such questions from both a personal and professional approach and tend to look at generational emotional dynamics as much of our right/need to know as family medical history. It’s been very helpful for me to understand family legacies because emotional, physical, and familial histories greatly affect what’s passed on to us. I don’t see it as a lot different than adults who were adopted seeking to meet their bio parents. The further back the generations go, the richer and more telling the history and the more the puzzle pieces come together.

      There are still many regrets over not knowing more about my mother’s history – although I don’t know how candid she’d have been with me. The obstacle I see is that old folks have lived out whole lifetimes not dealing with early childhood trauma and have indeed gone out of their way to deny it. Why would they be open to sharing it now? The old saying, “Don’t dwell on the past. You can’t change it anyway” has locked up many a secret in every family. My belief is that until or unless those secrets are brought to light, they maintain a grip on the present generation – and, I might add, our own children.

      Curiosity is a motivator. In your shoes, I’d craft a very carefully written letter explaining how this rift has bothered you your whole life and asking for help to understand it. If she is unwilling to respond, at least you’ve done all that you can.

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  9. Essentially I agree with Bill and Cb on this, Renee, although I have a couple of questions. Do you know for a fact that your mother’s cousin knows what the cause of the rift was from her mother’s perspective? If she does, and is willing to share whatever insight she may have, is it worth the risk of alienating her to know the “truth” ? I’m not so sure there is a “truth” in this matter. Sometimes it may be better to let the mystery be.

    That said, I’ve mentioned on here before that my sister,Randi, some years ago decided to dig into my dad’s family’s history. As you may recall, he was born out of wedlock and put up for adopted a few days later. Dad passed away in 1992 at the age of 72. Ten years or so later, Randi got the brilliant idea that dad may in fact have living siblings. She went to the Danish National Archives and discovered that he did indeed have a half-sister, still living in Copenhagen. At this point, the half-sister, Birgit, was eighty years old.

    Birgit was shocked and in total disbelief when Randi approached her with evidence that we were related. Birgit had considered herself very close to her mother, and refused to believe that she would have kept such a secret from her, but after doing her own research accepted the fact that apparently she had. We can only guess at the depth of her shame and guilt, and who knows what else, may have kept her from sharing such a vital piece of her history.

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    1. It’s so sad when people hold lifelong secrets – always born of and maintaining shame. The night my mother died, my dad blurted out a huge secret of hers. I don’t know why to this day, but it was something which could easily have explained every mental health problem she suffered throughout her life.

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  10. Mom’s cousin is the youngest child in her family and had just left home for college when the rift took place. She would have been the only child at home when things were really bad between her parents. The rift between my grandma and her sister had to do with my great aunt getting angry at my grandma for being angry with my great uncle for treating great aunt so poorly.

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    1. I see. So the whole situation is complicated by the fact that the trouble between your great aunt and her husband created a conflict between the two brothers as well. Families sure can be complicated.

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  11. Hi–

    I’m at ‘work’ work again today. Big MSCSA conference on campus and in Hill Theater this weekend. (Sorry tim; can’t make it).
    MSCSA – Minnesota State College Student Association – mostly student government things.
    A speaker yesterday from the Wellstone Action committee who was very good.

    http://www.wellstone.org/

    MSCSA does a lot for ‘Get Out The Vote’. (The speaker, Naomi, had her cell phone tucked in her left armpit the entire time she spoke. I was kinda fascinated by that! She still gestured and nothing looked un-natural about it. She just didn’t swing her arms around wildly of course. She said she has extra-strong armpits.)

    Reneeinnd, I would want to know. Even knowing as I say that, I said to a friend the other day, ‘You can’t unlearn something you don’t want to know’.
    But I think you want to know. If you’re thinking about it and you’re curious, I think you want to know.
    And it sounds like most of the people involved have passed away. So it’s not like you’d still have to deal with them even if you did find out they did something reprehensible.

    I think all families have stuff in their histories that some people would take offense too. In my family, the trick seems to be getting it out there right away so everyone knows. That way at least we know it’s not a secret. Course the other half of that is we have to face it and not cut ties over it.
    YMMV… 🙂

    Sure is lovely weather outdoors! How about them Twins? Or them Vikings?

    Time to go sit in the booth. I have my iPad and laptop and math homework and a set design to create.
    And I have tea. And snacks.

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  12. I just got up from a full night of sleeping in my bed. That might not sound like much, but the last time I felt this good was over two weeks ago. When you lose them, “little” things like breathing normally assume great importance. Now I’m going to sit here and be thrilled by the joys of breathing: air goes in, air goes out, air goes in . . . . How wonderful!

    Liked by 9 people

  13. renee
    my two cents is that you and your cousin arent that close today and so if you tick her off its no big loss.
    if you offer your half of the story and just tell her that you are curious about the other side of the story maybe she will give you her side of the story,
    maybe you are better off to compare stories if she is interested. if shes is not you have no where to go but if she is its a bit of ill show you mine if you show me yours.
    my dads father was a close lipped son of an alcoholic. the storeis about his brothers and ants and uncles were not passed on much. we hear from the shirtsleeve relatives most o the interestign stuf we have learned. the relative who ran away wiht the money the one who got hung for horsthieving the do good stories of the relatives who farmed at night and played flute on his tractor,

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    1. hey bill. don tanaka who you mentioned you knew died recently. his info for a celebration of life ditty at the lafayette club the end of september is in the paper today i believe
      i thought about him a couple of times since he came up in the blog and i found out he was sending out his vibes as he was moving on. i thought about him on the day he died.
      when i think of japanese americans i know he is always the first i think of and a very good reference for me to access.

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      1. I’ve been thinking about Don as well since you mentioned him. I went on the StarTribune obituary site and didn’t see reference to the Lafayette Club event. Where did you learn of that?
        Thanks, Tim

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    1. i cant imgine anyone suggesting that you not ask because you may find out some information you dont want to hear o that you upset someone.

      its a family story that dies with the passing of the last knowlwdgable folks

      maybe if its horriic stuff you may want to allow the world to go on without having it tag along but otherwise knowledge is king. even if it is horrific knowledge is king

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I have enjoyed reading others’ advice these last couple of days. I come from a frighteningly dull family where we pretty much all get along. There is some family lore about great aunt and why she left her first nursing job (at a “finishing school” for girls…there was, um, some gossip about a not entirely professional friendship with the president or dean…) and there was also a great uncle that we have suspicions about why he never married (though this was more of a “well, that’s just who he is” not a controversial or taboo subject) – but other than that, it’s a long line of farmers, teachers, the occasional musician or engineer who all seemed to like each other enough to not fight or get weird with each other. Pretty loyal, protective bunch really.

    Renee, if it were me, I would ask. It may be that with you and your cousin putting both halves of the story together there can be a bit more understanding about what happened.

    Liked by 2 people

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