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All families are secret societies. Realms of intrigue and internal warfare, governed by their own rules, regulations, boundaries, frontiers. Rules which often make no sense to those outside its borders. We prize the family more than any other communal unit because it is the essential cornerstone of social order. When the external world turns harsh and unforgiving – when outsiders who have intersected with our lives disappoint and even maim us – the family is supposed to be the shelter toward which we are magnetically pulled. The repository of comfort and joy.

Given how we venerate this essential primitive construct, idealize its potentiality, crave it to be the one place to which we can turn for the possibility of unconditional love, is it any surprise that the actual reality of ‘family’ is usually such a destabilizing one? All the flaws in the glass of the human condition are refracted one-hundred-fold within our next of kin. Because family is the place where all our grievances with the world begin. Because family is often internecine. Because family frequently becomes a source of confinement and ever-magnifying resentments. To grow up in a family is to discover that everyone has a talent for the surreptitious; that, for all the talk about being among the people who know you best, and who will always watch your back, you are all harbouring secrets.

I reread that paragraph twice over, the words ricocheting around my psyche like some out of control pinball, a ding-dong cascade of distressing truths. I lit up another cigarette – my eighth of the day so far, and it was only 3.20 p.m. I crumpled the now-empty packet on my desk, buzzed my assistant Cheryl and asked her to run downstairs to the machine in the lobby and pick me up another pack of Viceroys, as I’d be working late on this manuscript tonight. Last night had been a particularly excessive one on the nicotine front, owing to my distress that we’d re-elected our B-movie actor president for a second term. Staggering in late from a party I’d been invited to in some Gilded Age townhouse off Gramercy Park, I discovered, among the many messages on my answering machine, one from C.C. Fowler. He’s the chairman of the publishing house where I ply my trade. And he sounded like he’d had four cocktails too many as he informed me:

Hello, Alice. A quick thought: we need a fast book on Reagan as political game-changer – because he is now about to become, for better or worse, the most influential president since FDR. Can we discuss this over lunch Thursday?

C.C. always did have his eye on the marketplace. But I couldn’t help but think: who would want to buy a book on a president whom we’d voted back into power with such a thundering second mandate? He won forty-nine of the fifty states last night, letting it be known: his brand of patriotic sentimentality and making money is everything spiel plays big time in mid-eighties America. I hit the button on my phone that put me in immediate contact with Cheryl, telling her to phone C.C.’s assistant and suggest lunch this Friday – ‘as you know I will be leaving early Thursday’.

Cheryl – being someone I could totally trust (and believe me, in a publishing house, someone who keeps a secret is as rare as a happy alcoholic) – already knew why I had to duck out of work at 1 p.m. tomorrow: I was visiting my brother in prison. The fact that he was locked up in a federal facility an hour north of Manhattan was hardly a state secret. His arrest and trial had been major news everywhere.

I’d been paying him weekly visits ever since his incarceration a month or so ago. I got a letter a few days before the election, asking if I might be able to get up to the prison this week as ‘I really need to see you and talk something through’. He was vague about what topic this ‘something’ happened to be, alluding to the fact that he’d been thinking through so much. ‘Soul assessing’ was the curious term he used. His recent letters to me were now peppered with the redemptive language of the newly converted. Maybe I’m being too harsh here. Maybe I am still getting my head around the idea of My Brother the Felon. Maybe his newfound conscience since being sent up the river smacked of convenience . . . especially since finding God in the joint strikes me as one of those de rigueur outcomes of felonious American life.

Still, he is my brother. And though our world views are seismically disparate ones – how can a family produce, when it comes to basic sense and sensibility, such radically different children? – my stubborn streak of loyalty has made me stick by him. Especially as familial fealty usually comes with a big subtext of guilt.

I called the prison and put my name down on the visitors’ list for Thursday at 4.30 p.m. As before, the official I was speaking to reminded me to bring some form of photo ID and warned me that I could, at the discretion of the prison, be body-searched – and he read me, as before, the list of proscribed items (guns, knives, prescription and illegal drugs, pornography, and that dangerous substance known as chewing gum). When asked by the official if I understood what was not permitted I told him:

‘It’s my fifth visit, sir. I always play by the rules.’

‘I don’t care if it’s your twenty-fifth visit. We always have to read you this list. Are we clear about that?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘See you Thursday, Miss Burns.’

On the train north through the suburban somnolence of New Jersey I continued work on the manuscript I’d just bought from a Harvard Med School professor and psychoanalyst on Families and Guilt. It’s a subject which just about everyone sentient can relate to; a book that might just break wide on the bestseller lists if I can curb Dr Gordon Gilchrist’s tendencies to veer into hyper-shrink vocabulary. Transference is something we can relate to – especially when it comes to all the fun stuff bequeathed to us by dear old Mom and Dad. But start hitting the reader over the head with cathexis/decathexis, or Signorelli parapraxis, or the wonderfully labyrinthine realm of counterphobic attitude, and you have them feeling intellectually cowed and overwhelmed by terminology that can only be understood with an Oxford English Dictionary to hand. I’ve spoken to Gordon about this – and how, if he can scale back his cerebral gymnastics, he has a good shot at being next season’s must-read So You Think You’ve Got Problems? tome. But even though my red pen was boxing out big chunks of far-too-technical text, I felt a sharp stab of objective identification when I happened upon the paragraph that started:

All families are secret societies. Realms of intrigue and internal warfare, governed by their own rules, regulations, boundaries, frontiers. Rules which often make no sense to those outside its borders.

Was my brother now musing on the secrets that had so underscored our family life and helped create the culture of secrecy that eventually landed him in jail? We are not just the sum total of everything that has happened to us, but also a testament to the way we have interpreted all that has crossed our path. The music of chance intersecting with the maddening complexities of choice – and how, in the wake of bad judgment and self-sabotage, we so often rewrite the scenario to create one that we can live with.

‘Prisoner’s name and number?’

The distended voice crackling through a small speaker mounted in Plexiglas at the entrance to the federal correctional institution in Otisville, New York. A brick gate, lightly barbed-wired. Concrete walls. A hint of low-lying dormitory buildings within. Beyond these features – and the sign informing you that, verily, this was a prison – there was little very oppressive about the look of the place. Bar the fact that you were incarcerated there for as long as the criminal justice system had decreed you deserved to serve your debt to society.

I spoke his name. I also had a little notebook open and ready in my left hand, and read out the number he’d been assigned when first processed through here: ‘5007943NYS34.’

‘Relation to the prisoner?’ the voice crackled back.


Moments later there was a percussive, telltale click and the heavily reinforced door opened. I entered and walked down a short openair corridor: no roof, the gray November sky above clearly visible, two seven-foot-high breeze-block walls keeping you on the straight and narrow route toward a second security checkpoint. Here I had to show identification, and wait as all the contents of my bags were emptied out and inspected. I also had to submit to a pat-down by a woman officer. Once it was determined that I wasn’t armed and dangerous, that the two bags of Oreos my brother had asked me to bring were, indeed, those honest, humble schoolroom favorites, and there were no hidden razor blades in the jars of peanut butter also accompanying me, I was directed into a waiting room. A bleak place, painted state-hospital green, with gray plastic chairs, fluorescent tube lighting, cracked ceiling tiles, scuffed linoleum. Even though this was one of many recent pilgrimages up here I still found the place unsettling. A prison is a prison – even if your brother has been offered the opportunity of piano or Spanish lessons as part of the rehabilitative process.

‘Alice Burns?’

My name was being called – by a compact Hispanic gentleman in a blue prison officer uniform just a tad too large for him. I stood up. Another further inspection of my bags, then I was ushered into a small room, fitted with a desk and two upright steel chairs. How I wanted a cigarette right now. How two or so Viceroys during the fifty minutes I’d be allotted with my brother would make the agony of it all a little more manageable.

I sat down in one of the hard chairs, awaiting the arrival of Prisoner Number 5007943NYS34, my eyes slammed shut for a moment’s respite from such institutional creepiness.

‘Hey there, sis.’

My eyes snapped open. My brother was in front of me, looking around three pounds lighter than when I’d seen him last week. I stood up. We exchanged an awkward hug, as I couldn’t match the enthusiasm with which he gathered me up in his arms, and embraced me as if he was passing on some spiritual life force.

‘That’s quite some hug,’ I said.

‘Pastor Willie told me I’m the biggest hugger he’s ever encountered.’

‘And I’m sure Pastor Willie knows a thing or two about forgiving hugs.’

‘You going ironic on me, sis?’

‘Seems that way. How’d you lose the weight?’

‘Exercise. Better diet. Prayer.’

‘Prayer can make you shed pounds?’

‘If you start looking on high-calorie stuff as the Devil’s temptation . . .’

I hoisted the bag of goodies that I had brought him.

‘Then why did you request all this highly un-nutritious junk food?’

‘A little treat every day is no bad thing.’

‘Whereas eating ten Oreos in a row is the work of Satan?’

‘You’re getting that tone again.’

‘Didn’t sleep much last night – and I find this all rather stressful.’

‘As you should – given how badly I behaved. I ruined many lives. I brought shame down on us all.’

I held up my hand, like a cop directing traffic.

‘You’ve apologized enough to me.’

‘Pastor Willie says you can never apologize enough for past sins; that the only way you can redeem yourself is by walking the walk of righteousness and atoning for the past.’

‘A lengthy prison stretch strikes me as plenty of atonement. Did you vote on Tuesday?’

‘Can’t. One of the many downsides of being a prisoner: you lose the right to vote. You lose the right to do just about everything.’

He started pacing up and down this narrow room – that old anxious habit of his which he repressed for years until he was marched away in handcuffs and forced to do the perp walk in front of the assembled media. Seeing him now I understood a painful truth: despite all this born-again talk of newly acquired inner harmony and redemption, despite putting a brave face on the sentence imposed on him, despite being assured by his lawyer that he would be out in three years, my poor brother was still coming asunder inside these low-security walls. Putting myself in his path I took hold of his two hands and led him back to his chair as he intoned:

‘I’m so sorry, so sorry, so . . . ’

That was another side effect of his out-of-body stress: his need to repeat, over and over, the same phrase. I gripped his hands tightly.

‘Stop apologizing. What’s done is done. And I am glad to hear you angry.’

‘But Pastor Willie tells me anger is toxic. And until I practice forgiveness . . . ’

‘Pastor Willie has not lost everything. Pastor Willie is not locked up in a prison. Pastor Willie wasn’t made a public example of by a district attorney on the political make. What the fuck does that evangelical know about your anger?’

‘Pastor Willie told me last week, during our private prayer session, that you are a shining example of “sisterly solidarity”.’

‘I would appreciate it if you didn’t mention the unfortunately named Pastor Willie again. It’s natural that I’m here for you.’

‘Would that my brother had been so charitable.’

His brother. My other brother. Now in hiding, a morass of guilt and stubborn moral superiority. Incommunicado to us.

‘He’s not a happy guy about all of this,’ I said.

‘Bless you for sticking by me, and not writing me off as scum as he did.’

‘You’re hardly scum,’ I said.

‘Mom said the same thing to me last week. You guys still not talking?’

‘I haven’t slammed the door, but she is still blaming me . . . ’

‘I’ve told her to stop doing that. It wasn’t your fault.’

‘In her eyes it’s always my fault. I was always the daughter she never wanted, as she told me on three too-many occasions.’

‘We all need a great deal of healing.’

‘Oh please . . . ’

‘I know you think this is all touchy-feely. It’s time we start becoming honest with each other.’

‘That must have gone down well with Mom. Imagine if you’d said that to Dad . . . ’

A long silence ensued after my comment. My brother stared at the floor, his distress evident. Eventually he reached over for a bag of Oreos, tore open the top, and grabbed three of the cookies, wolfing them down quickly.

‘I’ve wanted to talk about Dad with you for a while,’ he said.

‘I’m sorry I brought him up.’

‘Never be sorry about bringing up Dad. But . . . ’

He hesitated for a moment before saying:

‘I now need to discuss with you some truth I’ve never told you before.’

‘I’m not sure I want any truth this afternoon.’

‘But this is something that needs to come out.’

‘Why now?’

‘I have to share it.’

‘I hear the voice of Pastor Willie behind this need to share . . .

‘He did tell me that until I confessed this transgression –’

‘ “Transgression” is a big, loaded word.’

‘Will you hear me out, please ?’

Silence. A very long silence. My brother kept his back to me, his gaze fixed on the wall. Finally he started to speak. And when, almost a half-hour later, he finished recounting his tale I found myself in vertiginous territory; the ground beneath my feet brittle, about to give way.

‘So . . . fifteen years after this event . . . you decide to lay it all on me,’ I said. ‘In doing so you’re insisting that I share your secret – and keep it just that: a secret.’

‘You can tell the world if you want.’

‘I’m telling no one. You’ve brought enough trouble down upon yourself over the past few years. But I have to ask you: who, besides Pastor Willie, knows about this?’

‘No one.’

My eyes scanned all four corners of this grim little room, checking to see if there were any cameras or microphones in sight. None on view. But I still dropped my voice down to a choked whisper as I said:

‘Keep it that way. Don’t listen to that evangelist about sharing this story with anyone. Do you think Pastor Willie can keep quiet?’

‘He’s always telling me that everything we talk about is confidential; that he is a great keeper of “eternal secrets”.’

And I bet, like so many men of hyper-piety, he has more than a few dark secrets of his own.

‘Well, your secrets are profoundly temporal. From this point on . . . I am going to forget that I heard this story.’

‘You’re sounding like Dad now,’ Adam said.

‘I am anything but our father.’

‘Then why are you conspiring with me, the way he did all those years ago?’

‘Because, alas, we are family. And one of the truths accompanying that statement is the fact that I am going to have to live with the knowledge of what you just told me.’

 ‘Even though, a moment ago, you said you were going to forget

that you ever heard it.’

‘That was me being far too facile. I’m never going to forget that story. I’m also never going to talk about it again. And I now truly regret you telling me.’

‘You had to know. Because it’s so about us. Because it’s what we are.’

But then, after casting his eyes up toward the cracked ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights above us, his gaze turned back to me, eyeing me like a sniper who’d just found his target.

‘And now you’re implicated,’ he said.

Days after that blindsiding prison visit the gravity of what my brother did – and my father’s immediate complicity in it all – was underscored by something that continued to haunt me: my acceptance of the secret he’d just dropped in my lap.

My brother was right: by telling him to shut up about it all – to keep this terrible crime permanently concealed, to insist that he take an oath of silence, of omertà – I had colluded with him.

All families are secret societies.

And a secret uttered is no longer a secret.

When that secret is shared with a parent, a sibling, it can become a cabal, a conspiracy. If, that is, you engage with the secret.

You had to know. Because it’s so about us. Because it’s what we are.

Us. The Burns. Two parents born in a time of 1920s abundance that quickly collapsed into hardship and national despondency.

Three children latterly arriving amidst all that mid-century peace and plenty. A quintet of Americans from the upper reaches of the middle class. And a testament – in our own disparate, tortured ways – to the mess we make of life.

My mother, repetitive to the core and always reaching for a bromide with which to band-aid the pain, did say something recently that showed a flash of hidden wisdom:

‘Family is everything . . . which is why it hurts so much.’

I consider all this from an uneasy perch – peering over the insouciant precipice of youth into my fourth decade, the personal douglas kennedy landscape around me littered with much inherited and selfgenerated debris. Making me wonder: when did the sadness start?

When did we all opt for it?

I stared down at the manuscript again, reaching for my still glowing cigarette. I took another steadying drag, then picked up my pen.

All families are secret societies.

To which, had it been my book, my words, I would have added the following lines:

And if there is one thing that the past two decades has taught me it is this salient truth: ‘unhappiness is a choice’.

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