The families who are described in Fragmented Families are alive and real. The relationships and family process are depicted accurately, as family members described them to me. To ensure confidentiality, all of the stories have been modified and the names, places, and other details have been altered. If you recognize certain family patterns, you are probably correct, since many of the elements are universal and familiar. If you think you can identify an individual person or a specific family, you are probably wrong. It's all made up, except for the parts that are true.


Fragmented Families: Patterns of Estrangement and Reconciliation

Stories of Real Families
Family Story #3     Family Story #2     Family Story #1

A long-kept secret explodes at a family wedding.

The family: the bride, her mother and "father," and Ovadia, a guest at the wedding. The story was told to me by Sophie, a friend of the bride.

A wedding ceremony is about to begin. The guests have assembled in the small synagogue. The bride, resplendent in a white satin gown, slowly approaches the chuppah, the wedding canopy, which is supported by two of her friends and two cousins of the groom. She holds tightly to her father's arm. Her mother is clutching her other arm, teary, a bit tense, touched by the significance of the moment, She's also wondering if all the preparations have been handled properly, if the wedding meal will be appropriate for the guests, some of whom have special dietary requirements. There is one guest whom she is particularly uneasy about, a distant cousin who was invited because his wife is related to the groom's family. This cousin, Ovadia, is part of the branch that has been out of touch with the bride's family for many years.

The rabbi begins to intone the ritual before the reciting of the marriage vows and the reading of the "ketubbah," the marriage contract. Suddenly, there is a voice from the last row of guests. A man, cousin Ovadia, stands up, his face contorted in righteous anger. He hollers "Stop! This wedding cannot go on! The bride's father is an imposter. He's really her step-father; her true father died before she was born! The rabbi should not allow this man to stand under the chuppah!"

There was stunned silence in the room. The secret had exploded into the family like a bolt of lightening. The mother of the bride had never told her daughter that the man she knew as her father was actually her step-father. Her "real" father had died before she was born. The bride crumpled to the floor; one of the young men dropped the chuppah pole and the canopy collapsed. Cousin Ovadia left the scene. The mother of the bride looked as if she were about to faint. With the help of her husband, she managed to walk to the door. The guests turned to each other in confusion, wondering what to do. Eventually, there was a brief announcement: due to unforeseen circumstances, the ceremony would be postponed.

Three months later, the wedding took place in the rabbi's study with only the immediate family attending. What had happened during the interim? For two weeks following the aborted ceremony, the bride was hospitalized with a "nervous breakdown." After she recovered, she demanded the full story from her mother and began to learn about her biological father. Struggling to process the secret and understand their new perception of "family," mother, step-father, and daughter consulted a therapist who could help them realign their relationships. The bride's mother wrote an angry letter to Ovadia, the man who had revealed the secret. In the letter, she expressed her outrage and vowed never to speak to him again. This event occurred nearly twenty years ago and since then, there has been no contact between those two branches of the family.


Secrets in the family often signify a zone of vulnerability for the potential outbreak of conflict. When a piece of potent information first becomes the property of a few, hidden from others, no one knows how long it will be kept. In some families, it crouches in the background for years before coming to the light, as in the story above. Sometimes it loses its potency and evaporates. In other situations it expands and sets off a ripple effect, eventually impacting on relationships between persons inside as well as outside of the family. A secret is likely to be activated by a crisis such as a business failure, imprisonment, sexual abuse, or suicide, an event that dramatically alters the family's natural path and causes shame or guilt. Family gatherings or a major event in the life cycle -- a wedding, birth or funeral -- are vulnerable moments when a secret may be revealed. Secrets change the way individuals perceive themselves and others. The trajectory of a family secret is unpredictable and its outcome is always uncertain. Typically, keeping something hidden will provoke tensions and conflicts between those who know and those who do not know. The effort to sustain a secret that is potentially dangerous, such as a criminal act, is likely to generate unnatural alliances and bitter animosities that persist for a long time. In some situations, a secret leaves an emotional burden that is carried from one generation to the next.

In the family described by Sophie, the secret had a profound effect on all the participants. Sophie does not know why Ovadia accepted the invitation to the wedding and caused such a commotion. Perhaps it was a long-standing conflict in his own past, a remembered insult, an accumulation of resentment, or a figment of his imagination. When such an upheaval occurs in a family, we often do not know the root or the trajectory. We do know that family secrets are likely to pop up at unexpected moments, with startling repercussions. The course of family life will ultimately be more stable and predictable if disruptive events can be acknowledged, shared, re-interpreted, and eventually put to rest.

Fragmented Families: Patterns of Estrangement and Reconciliation by Ellen B. Sucov, PhD