Skeletons in the Closet: Unraveling Family Secrets

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October 24, 2014

History is full of bright spots and blemishes alike. For every Declaration of Independence there is a Tiananmen Square. For every Nelson Mandela, a Joseph Stalin. And for every moon landing, a Chernobyl. Family history is no different.


“In the course of exploring the past, it’s almost inevitable that some less-than-savory stories are going to come up,” says Karen McNeill, Director of Family History for Ascent Private Capital Management. “Every family has its skeletons. The question is: Are they worth pursuing? Or should they stay in the closet?”


Although some skeletons are best left alone, others have extremely interesting and valuable stories to tell.


“We shouldn’t be scared of our skeletons,” McNeillsays.“They aren’t inherently bad. In some cases, they’re a fascinating tool to open up conversations about family communications, dynamics and values.”

Philosopher George Santayana’s famous observation comes to mind: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”


Like the societies in which they live, families that wish to unearth their skeletons can turn secrets into opportunities and scandals into lessons learned.

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October 24, 2014

Bones of Contention


Family skeletons are stories and circumstances that may initially instill feelings of shame, embarrassment, pain, sadness, anger or other negative emotions, McNeill says. In many families, they are the salacious soap-opera plots of yore, such as infidelity, illegitimacy, suicide, addiction, mental illness or murder. Sometimes, they’re historical in nature — a distant relative who worked in the slave trade, for instance, or lived in Nazi Germany. Often, however, skeletons are much more ambiguous.


“The definition that’s used by sociologists Aysan Sev’er and Jan Trost is ‘family conflict that is not publicly divulged,’” McNeill says. “That conflict might not be the affair or the illegitimate child. It might be some other trauma.”


Consider, for example, the sudden death of a mother with a teenage daughter. “In the context of the time, perhaps men really didn’t have empathetic family skills, and with only the father around there was a culture of not talking about feelings. That could impact a 13-year-old girl who’s heading into the depths of puberty, and it could cause her to make some bad decisions that fragment the family,” McNeill says. “In that case, the skeleton isn’t really a skeleton; it’s a tragic event that couldn’t be avoided, which ultimately led to conflict.”


Cleaning Out the Closet

Whatever the skeleton is, there often is value in bringing it to light. Telling hitherto taboo tales could help families heal rifts, understand dysfunctions, overcome differences and establish new connections with each other, all of which could improve the family dynamic in ways that benefit family members’ health and wealth alike.


“An event that occurs can trigger a domino effect, and that domino effect can last for a really long time,” McNeill says. “Talking about it can help you understand the origin of your family’s values, how they’ve evolved over time, what traditions have kept the family together and how individual family members have developed their identities. All of that can help a family sustain its wealth in all its forms moving forward.”


A common skeleton, for example, is alcoholism. 


“Even though they recognize that it’s a disease, families often put all the blame on the alcoholic,” McNeill says. “By letting the family’s skeletons out of the closet, we might see a pattern of alcoholism going back many generations, which can relieve the family from feeling like it’s something to be ashamed of. If they can understand that it’s an issue that’s defined the family for a really long time, perhaps they can decide that now is the time to address it and manage it.”

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October 24, 2014

In addition to healing, skeletons can give families purpose. “The most common skeleton I’ve come across is domestic violence,” McNeill says. “That kind of scenario could explain a lot about Grandma and Grandpa. And because it’s an issue that’s still very prevalent today, it could make the family decide it’s an area they want to focus on with their family foundation.”


Not all skeletons are worth sharing, though. To decide which ones are, consider your motives. “If I just want to push my cousin’s buttons, then maybe the skeleton doesn’t need to come out,” McNeill says. “But if I want to have a serious discussion about the implications of this skeleton on our wealth, and on our past, and on our future, then it’s worth thinking about.”


Truth and Consequences

Simple genealogy can help you unearth your family’s skeletons.


“Start by filling out your family tree,” says McNeill, who recommends using a website like “Once you know names, places and dates, you can use the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America project, or your state’s historic newspaper project, to search for your relatives in the newspapers.”

Of course, discovering the truth is only half the battle. The other half, if you choose to continue the journey, is sharing it — and dealing with the consequences when you do.


A psychologist or wealth advisor can help the family think analytically about the skeletons you find, extracting lessons that can assist either with explaining the present or planning the future. However, the rest is up to you.


“Keep in mind that everyone will react differently,” McNeill says. “Some skeletons might be fun to talk about — like the random ancestor who ran away to the circus — but other issues might be more difficult to discuss. You have to be sensitive. Tread lightly.”


For more information, read “Skeletons in the Closet: Let Them Out and Watch Them Dance,” a whitepaper from U.S. Bank’s Ascent Private Capital Management. 


Karen McNeill, Ph.D., is the Director of Family History for Ascent Private Capital Management. Dr. McNeill works with individuals and families to research and present family and business histories as part of a comprehensive wealth-planning platform. These services are not psychological or counseling services. Ascent does not engage in the practice of psychology.

The information presented is for illustrative and educational purposes only and does not necessarily reflect actual client histories.

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