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Is It Ever Okay to Divulge Family Secrets to the Public?

My maternal grandparents: Rose Donahue and Charles Haward, a new item around 1913, just 4 years after she shot her first husband as he was beating her.

This description got my attention. It was a Facebook post. I looked at the couple in the old photograph, then continued reading. The Girl Widow gets a new start in life. And we wonder: did Charles know?”

Now I really looked at the picture. The grinning, blurry face of Charles, who— perhaps it’s the center part — bears a faint resemblance to Charlie Sheen. His grin could mean anything. Rose’s face, however, seems to harbor some secret; she has been through something. Her face seems to suggest a look of relief not fully attained, an exhaled breath which did not entirely expunge the memories she had hoped to let go of.

I came across this couple and their suggestive secret by chance; an unplanned zig-zag on Facebook. It took a few minutes to grasp that the paragraph, and the accompanying image, were the inspiration for a book. This discovery alone would justify the post — why else write such details if not to entice a passerby to pause and maybe buy your book, as I did?

I have been wondering about this moment of discovery ever since, perhaps because it was on Facebook, a seemingly innocuous forum for sharing details of family life.

How odd to consider that the whole business model of modern media, including blogs like this, and social media of all stripes, are built around the idea that the wish for disclosure will always trump the reticence.

Bain, an award-winning author of books of history and nonfiction, frames this story about his own grandmother’s secrets as the outgrowth of a session of a “hobby night of genealogy.” He self-published the resulting book, The Girl Widow Unveiled: Unraveling Dark Secrets in an American Family, which I just bought. The Facebook post led me to the book, which justifies it completely, but what if there were no book? What if someone was simply idly sharing this strange, remote scandal, awful and yet tinged with glamour (feisty, resilient Rose!)?

I feel a conspicuous and weird mix of discomfort and excitement these days when a person’s private life finds its way into a public forum, as though privacy is itself a provocation. Is it? Why?

Perhaps I am just sensitive to these issues having worked on a biography of a subject who could not have wished more to have avoided exactly that kind of scrutiny — J.D. Salinger.

Or perhaps it’s just that I am exposed to the personal details of more people than ever — a condition that applies to anyone who browses websites or participates on Facebook. Is this vaguely rubbernecking kind of curiosity a feeling that existed in me before our brave new world of over-sharing? It surely is. Or maybe I should introduce the idea of projection to the impulse — the spectacle of revealed private lives is both a terrible fear for us all, and also a wish.

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