A family secret

In a new book, Molly Bruce Jacobs remembers a sister who spent a lifetime in the shadows, away from home


Growing up in a Green Spring Valley home ruled by order, discretion and cocktail hour, Molly Bruce Jacobs was not aware that someone was missing from her family.

But when Jacobs was 13, her parents told her about Anne, her younger sister's twin. Anne was born with hydrocephalus -- excess fluid within the brain -- but had defied doctors' predictions of an early death. At that point, she had lived in a nursing home for infants and then at Rosewood State Hospital in Owings Mills.

In Secret Girl (St. Martin's Press, $22.95), a memoir published this month, Jacobs says she was 38 when she met Anne for the first time. The book is an excruciating account of a sibling with mental retardation who languished in an institution not far from the Jacobs residence until she moved, in her early 20s, to a North Baltimore group home.

From records, interviews and her own extrapolations, Jacobs pieces together the life of a girl who justified the long intervals between her parents' visits by claiming they were on vacation. Even after years had elapsed, she'd exclaim guilelessly to family members who came by: "I missed you, buddy!"

The "book gives voice to the story Anne couldn't tell herself," Jacobs says as she speaks from her Rehoboth, Del., home about her sister, who died of liver failure in 2002. In spite of "years of institutionalization and the fact that she had been a family secret, and that all the odds were against her all her life, her spirit survived. More than that, it blossomed."

Family secrets abound. Accounts of exposing and making lasting peace with family secrets do not. In that regard, Jacobs has her work cut out for her.

Drug addiction, children born out of wedlock, second wives and families, institutionalized children, concealed suicides: Hidden truths frequently disrupt a proud family history and cause relatives, even generations later, to shudder with shame.

When a secret does burble up into public view, it is often as a response to someone else's public lie. In her 2005 book, How to Cook Your Daughter, for example, actress Jessica Hendra exposed her father, comic Tony Hendra, who had written a memoir that neglected to mention that he had molested his daughter. (The elder Hendra denied the allegation.)

Even with a therapist's help, navigating a resolution under those terms is a challenge. Writing one's way to a resolution -- and resisting the urge to mask retribution in the language of reconciliation -- is perhaps more daunting. Still, in countless chronicles of family secrets that conclude in tragedy or bitterness, the search for redemption remains an underlying constant.

"To the extent that learning a family secret shakes a person up and causes him or her to suffer in some way, the effort to make sense of the secret in more positive ways over time is a quest for redemption," says Dan P. McAdams, author of The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (Oxford, $35).

Affects relationships

Finding redemption can be particularly difficult, both for those family members who have kept secrets and for those from whom secrets were withheld. Either way, the weight of a family secret can be crippling, says Evan Imber-Black, director of program development at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York City.

While Secret Girl doesn't tease out every nuance of her family's difficulties, Jacobs indicates that the secret of Anne has had an impact on her own struggle with alcoholism and her complicated relationships with her mother, for whom she was named, and her father, the late Bradford Jacobs, editorial page editor of the Evening Sun in the 1970s.

"It's as if there had been a shadow hanging over the family," Jacobs says. "Having such a huge secret that everybody knows about and nobody talks about can be very unhealthy, almost toxic. Having a secret is a bond between people, but a very negative bond."

Anne McElderry Jacobs was born in 1957, when institutionalization was not an unusual option for children born with disabilities. As she researched and wrote Secret Girl, the author, known as "Brucie," both condemned and forgave her parents' decision. "I was very angry with them. The more that I learned about ... Rosewood and what it had been like for Anne, sometimes it was very hard for me to believe they left her there," Jacobs says.

"Then, again, I was angry at a lot of people, society, the doctors. And I think that before I wrote the book and as I was writing it, I put the anger behind me," she says. "I now feel more regret and sadness about the decision not to bring her home and I understand more about the dilemma. The doctors told [my mother] she would die, to forget about her. And I think there was very little community help or day-care programs like we have now. In a way, my parents were faced with a very difficult decision."

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