The secret of their mother’s suicide appears to have unconsciously harmed the lives of Jane and Peter Fonda.
They were 13 and 10 when their mother, Frances Fonda, killed herself. Henry Fonda told the children she’d died of a heart attack. He attended a private funeral service for her and went back on stage that very night.
Later, Peter shot himself in the stomach when his father married his third wife. When Jane Fonda accidentally discovered the truth about her mother’s death, she developed an eating disorder called bulimia.
Author John Bradshaw believes family secrets like the Fondas’ can reverberate through the generations like dark stones cast into a well. Bradshaw says these secrets can cause an emotion he calls “toxic shame” which continues to damage family members for years to come.
In his new book, “Family Secrets” (Bantam), Bradshaw writes, “… Families are paradoxical. The dark secrets that are so carefully guarded get revealed and uncovered because the children act them out - if not in this generation, then in the next, or the next.”
Bradshaw’s book makes a distinction between good secrets, areas of privacy such as a couple’s sex life or an individual’s spirituality, and bad secrets, such as those concerning mental illness, abuse and sexual addiction.
Good secrets strengthen the family, while bad secrets prevent family members from achieving a healthy separation from one another, damage trust in the family, and become the core of obsessive and compulsive behavior.
Bradshaw points to the suicides connected with the Fonda family as an example of secrets which recur in succeeding generations.
As a young adult, Peter Fonda fell in love with Bridget Hayward, the daughter of Leland Hayward and Margaret Sullavan, Henry Fonda’s first wife who had also committed suicide.
During her relationship with Peter Fonda, Bridget Hayward also killed herself.
Bradshaw’s examples also include a woman who came to therapy because her husband was having multiple affairs, only to discover her seemingly upstanding father had had numerous affairs.
The secrets don’t have to be duplicated identically from one generation to the next.
He writes of a 7-year-old girl who began running away from school. She appeared to be the problem, until it was learned that she was merely reacting to her parents’ marital estrangement. During that time, her paternal grandfather was dying of cancer and her father had never resolved his conflicts with him.
“If you can deal with the fundamental problem in the (family) system, the child will stop acting it out,” Bradshaw said.
Bradshaw recently conducted a conference telephone interview about his new book, fielding questions from reporters from across the country.
“I’ve tried to show the impact of dark secrets - the various ways that they can impact a person’s life, how they can shut down communication in a family, isolate people, keep people loyal to the secret like in alcoholism, or be acted out,” he said.
While not all family secrets must be told, Bradshaw believes people often find healing and reconciliation occur once the family’s secrets have been uncovered.
Bradshaw’s book addresses the importance of privacy, sensitivity and caution in dealing with this buried information.
He advises readers to examine their own lives before they begin asking questions.
If they’re presently dealing with alcoholism or sexual affairs, they might want to ask a few careful questions about those issues in the lives of their parents and grandparents.
He describes a method for drawing a family tree, called a genogram, which can chart family difficulties through generations.
“Let’s say I’ve had a lot of affairs,” he said. “Then that’s where I might want to look at the system to see if this is a pattern that’s been going on for several generations… But I probably wouldn’t even think of that question unless I had some reason to ask it.”
And if a parent says, “That’s none of your business,” that’s your answer, Bradshaw said.
“I think that we have to respect each other’s privacy, and I think that there’s a certain amount of information you can get and there’s a certain amount you can’t get,” he said.
Bradshaw warned against airing family secrets publicly. He looks askance at television talk show hosts who wring true confessions from their guests.
“To just bandy all this, you know, in some kind of voyeuristic forum, actually is a kind of re-victimization of people who don’t have any boundaries or they wouldn’t come on there in the first place,” Bradshaw said.
But Bradshaw believes once you’ve begun to understand the secrets that run through your family, you may find it easier to heal your own problems.
He writes of the importance of developing a stronger sense of self and staying connected to your family.
With a stronger sense of self, Bradshaw writes, you can: Express disagreement with your father and stay calm.
Refuse to go to church services with your mother just to make her feel good.
Set a limit that you won’t talk to your mother when she’s been drinking.
He also gives examples of ways to stay connected: Send your father a subscription to his favorite magazine, even though he has condemned you for leaving the family religion.
Buy your mom a new prayer book as a special Easter gift.
Call your mother and tell her you love her when you know she hasn’t been drinking.
And if you only have memories of a happy childhood, and no problems pointing to dark family secrets? Don’t try to convince yourself otherwise.
“If your own life seems to be going pretty well, and you’re reasonably happy, then I would think that that’s what happened: You had a happy childhood,” Bradshaw said. “Like I tell people, don’t fix it if it isn’t broken.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: One Color Photo; One Staff illustration by Charles Waltmire
MEMO: John Bradshaw will present a workshop at Spokane Community College from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 4. The cost will be $95. For more information, call 533-3156.