The best books on the power of family secrets

Leslie Larson Author Of Breaking Out of Bedlam
By Leslie Larson

Who am I?

As I child I wanted to know the information that was withheld from me. What were the adults whispering about? What were they hiding? Secrets, things that are hidden, have a way of shaping the lives around them, a dark space that exerts a presence, even though it isn’t seen. I thought if I found out the secret, maybe my family, and the world, would make sense. Breaking Out of Bedlam is my version of my grandmother’s story, based on the whispers I heard and a few faint clues—a newspaper clipping, a Bible, and a baby’s sock. More than that, it’s an explanation for the silence in my family, for my grandmother’s bitterness, her drug abuse, and depression.


I wrote...

Breaking Out of Bedlam

By Leslie Larson,

Book cover of Breaking Out of Bedlam

What is my book about?

Cora Sledge is horrified when her children, who doubt her ability to take care of herself, force her into The Palisades, an assisted living facility. Deciding that truth is the best revenge, Cora writes a tell-all journal that reveals once and for all the secret she has guarded since she was a young woman. She chronicles her childhood in rural Missouri, her shotgun wedding, and the terrible event that changed the course of her life—all intermingled with an account of the day-to-day dramas at The Palisades.

Breaking Out of Bedlam captures the loneliness and secrets that lurk within families, the hardscrabble reality facing women with limited resources, and the resilience of a woman who survives, despite all the odds, through an unlikely combination of passion, humor, and faith.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Annabel

By Kathleen Winter,

Book cover of Annabel

Why this book?

This haunting novel has stuck with me so vividly and in so many ways. Set in 1968, in a tiny village on the Labrador coast, it is the story of a baby born with both male and female genitalia to a hardscrabble couple barely eking out a living. They decide to raise the child as a boy, whom they name Wayne. Wayne’s parents keep the secret, even from him, and as he struggles to adopt the manly attributes expected of him, he can’t suppress his other self, a girl he calls Annabel, who insistently speaks from his innermost self. His journey to discovering who he truly is, and finding a way to express that self in a harsh and narrow environment is both painful and liberating.


Caramelo

By Sandra Cisneros,

Book cover of Caramelo

Why this book?

Caramelo explores the places where lies end and stories begin, how family histories are built and shaped by each generation that adds its own versions of the “truth” to family lore. Lala, the narrator, is consumed by rumors of the daughter her father had with a washerwoman, a half-sister whom she imagines and seeks, a truth which she struggles to extract from a family known for its storytelling, its “healthy lies,” as her grandmother calls them. “You’re not supposed to ask about such things. There are stories no one is willing to tell you,” Cisneros writes. I love Cisneros’s amazing symphony of details—colors, smells, noises—the way she weaves so many stories together, her hilarious eye for human quirks, and her sparkling prose.


You Remind Me of Me

By Dan Chaon,

Book cover of You Remind Me of Me

Why this book?

One of the many things I like about this novel is the way the writing itself mimics the confusion of the protagonist, Jonah—the way Chaon allows us to completely inhabit his mind, down to the most telling details, his doubts, and precise but uncertain perceptions. We too search for the person whom Jonah intuits but doesn’t know, we grasp for the shape whose presence shadows his life. I was dazzled by the patchy way that Chaon builds the narrative, the intriguing overlaps, and surprising connections as he moves between past and present, allowing the secret at the heart of the story to float closer to the surface. I felt deep compassion for the pain and bewilderment of the characters, for the way they struggled forward, for the complexity of their feelings for each other. 


Fun Home

By Alison Bechdel,

Book cover of Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Why this book?

Talk about the elephant in the room. The secret hiding in plain view in this amazing graphic memoir is that both Alison Bechdel and her father Bruce are gay, and their negotiations around what they know about each other and themselves, the things they say and do and the things they don’t, make this a fascinating read that drops deeper and deeper into questions of identity and family relations. Bechdel spent seven years creating the striking panels, which unfold slowly as the story progresses, deepening the text, complicating the relationships, asking compelling questions. Funny and painful, rich with literary allusion, this gigantic achievement takes the graphic narrative to a new level and can be revisited again and again.


You Don't Have to Say You Love Me

By Sherman Alexie,

Book cover of You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir

Why this book?

Sherman Alexie gives it everything he’s got in this sprawling, messy, brilliant memoir. Using his mother’s funeral as a jumping-off point, he investigates her chaotic life in an effort to understand the enigma of her personality and the nature of his complicated relationship with her. The contradictions he uncovers, the bits and pieces of information he’s able to glean, and the incongruities in the stories he discovers are stitched together in a narrative he likens to a patchwork quilt: disparate parts brought together that somehow make a whole.

I love the rawness of this memoir, the humor, the mixed genres, and especially the way that Alexie doesn’t spare himself in his examination of how things turned out as they did. He emerges as a not altogether likable player in the vast tragic comedy of his family. In unraveling his relationship with his mother, he uncovers his own demons, the secrets he has kept hidden from himself.


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