Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

From self-induced amnesia to DIY dystopia: 8 tips for keeping a strange family secret


Does your family have a dark, bizarre, or possibly ridiculous secret that needs keeping? Worry no more, because The A.V. Club has dug high and low, across daytime soap opera and Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas, to find you eight surefire, completely feasible solutions for any and all issues of consanguineal confidentiality. (Provided, of course, that your pesky neighbors never check the trunk of your car.)

Readers beware: This Inventory contains spoilers for Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother, Park Chan-Wook’s original Oldboy, Joe Dante’s The ’Burbs, and for Sam Shepard’s play Buried Child.

1. Just forget about it

Some secrets are so awful, you have to hide them from everybody—even yourself. The protagonists of Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy and Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother have two very different, very awful family mysteries they need to hide—an accidental incident of incest in one case, cold-blooded murder in the other—but they both resort to the same self-directed panacea to scour the knowledge from the Earth. Whether through hypnosis, or a well-placed bit of acupuncture, the offending information is wiped from the characters’ minds, restoring the blissful ignorance they once labored within. Or not, depending on your interpretation of the two films’ deliberately ambiguous endings, which hint that some knowledge can never truly be erased. (If you’re operating under the impression that this sort of self-ablation is somehow unique to Korean film, meanwhile, look no further than Christopher Nolan’s Memento, where the amnesiac Leonard manipulates his own condition to hide a guilty family secret from himself.) [William Hughes]

2. Come up with a really boring cover story

By night, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys), the main characters of FX’s terrific Cold War espionage series The Americans, are deep-cover spies for the Soviet Union—a job that requires hunting down defectors and gathering intel on the country where they’ve lived for decades. By day, however, Elizabeth and Philip are just travel agents, working 9 to 5 from a dinky, nondescript office in suburban Virginia. The discrepancy here, between lives and double lives, is crucial: One of the reasons no one ever suspects the two of foul play is that they’ve cultivated a cover story so mundane, so boring, that it would take an enormous leap of imagination to picture them doing anything remotely dangerous, exciting, or unsavory. Their camouflage is their straight-laced ordinariness, and it’s a good enough disguise to throw the Fed living across the street and the children sleeping down the hall—for a time, anyway. [A.A. Dowd]


3. Literally bury it

Sam Shepard crafted his play Buried Child as a metaphor for the failed American dream. The Midwestern family members depicted each portray different parts of how the classic nuclear family gets twisted: The all-American hero son dies offscreen in a sordid shootout, the middle son loses a limb trying to work the family farm, the impotent patriarch can’t make anything grow in the fields, and worst of all, eldest son Tilden has sex with his mother Halie. Shepard creates a structure that’s rotting from the inside, and all the various failures and corruption result in the complete collapse of the family, even as Tilden’s son Vince arrives, and Vince’s girlfriend Shelly is determined to find out what’s really wrong in this decrepit house. But Shelly gets more than she bargained for when the family’s absolute worst secret—the baby that resulted from the mother-son affair—gets literally dug up from the field, where its horror has not only destroyed the farmland but the family itself. Buried Child won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for drama, but is so disturbing, it has still never been put to film. [Gwen Ihnat]


4. Create an elaborate, dystopian fantasy

There are family secrets, and then there’s convincing your adult children—none of whom have ever set foot beyond the tall fence surrounding their home—that the outside world is completely inhospitable. That’s the giant lie conceived and perpetuated by the insane isolationist parents of Dogtooth, who have indoctrinated their three stunted offspring into a life of perpetual captivity. Maintaining the illusion involves more than just sheltering the “kids” from any outside influences. It also requires constant misinformation: Airplanes flying overhead are said to be just toys, lest anyone start wondering about who they could be carrying and where they could be going, while a series of false definitions —“telephone” is another word for salt shaker, “the sea” is how you describe an armchair—prevent too many inconvenient questions. And when necessary, Dad can dust off a scare tactic, as when he tells his unnamed brood that a stray cat from the other side killed the older brother they’ve never met. The more elaborate this fantasy of the dangerous realm beyond, the more believable it will seem. Still, no amount of backward socializing can entirely quell the curiosity of a maturing mind. [A.A. Dowd]


5. Keep a lie up for as long as possible…

This whole Inventory could be filled with examples from the heyday of soap operas, as they all relied on long-buried and slowly unfolding family secrets to propel storylines across months or even years. But one of these secrets stands out because it transformed its daytime serial and created a new focus that lasted until the demise of the show: The 1987 reveal of Lily as a Snyder on As The World Turns. When Douglas Marland first introduced the humble Snyders, who knew that Iva and her five siblings, along with the farm and the pond, would soon take over all of Oakdale? Iva, of course, had a secret: She was the birth mother of Lily, adopted daughter of Oakdale grand dame Lucinda. Although Iva wanted to be close to her daughter, the traumatic circumstances of Lily’s conception (Iva was raped by a cousin) prevented her from telling the young girl the truth. Iva lurking around after Lily was bad enough, but then Lily developed a crush on her stable boy, Iva’s brother Holden, in a romance right out of the opening scenes of The Princess Bride. Holden overhears that Iva is Lily’s mother, and realizes that he’s got the hots for his niece: Cue lots of tortured facial expressions and anguished silences. The secret of Lily’s maternity went on for seemingly ever, until clan matriarch Emma Snyder happily revealed that Iva was adopted (and so was the rapist cousin), making Holden and Lily fortunately non-related. Iva, Holden, and the rest of the Snyders proceeded to dominate As The World Turns until the show’s final demise in 2010. [Gwen Ihnat]


6. … or just spin a whole web of them

In an early episode of Raising Hope, Jimmy (Lucas Neff) discovers that his parents Virginia (Martha Plimpton) and Burt (Garret Dillahunt) have been lying to him for years. Some are little lies—he’s not really allergic to fruit—but some are bigger violations of trust. Most damningly, Virginia’s been lying about her own mother Louise, who isn’t in fact a missionary in Africa but died in an embarrassing fashion involving a plastic bag, beehive, and a stone duck. However, that turns out to be a story her grandmother (Cloris Leachman) appropriated for Reader’s Digest, and she’s been telling lies about lies. And the eventual truth—Louise abandoned her daughter and is now living the elderly swingers life, with no desire to ever speak to her family again—makes Jimmy realize that it’s better to live in the “private hell” of telling lies rather than breaking everyone’s hearts. And he continues the chain of lies himself, editing a video for his daughter that conceals just how crazy his daughter’s serial killer mom was, adding yet another myth that will evolve into family history as the years go on. [Les Chappell]


7. Keep it in the car

How many times have terrible family secrets been exposed just because some dummy couldn’t help keeping a memento of whatever dark matter is being kept under wraps? You don’t want your skeletons in the closet to literally be a skeleton hiding in your closet—which is why more families should look to the Klopeks, the mysterious neighbors in Joe Dante’s 1989 comedy The ’Burbs. The Tom Hanks-starring film details the efforts of some nosy neighbors to discover the truth about the new people who just moved in next door to Hanks’ bored staycation dad, Ray. When Ray and his buddies begin to suspect the Klopeks might be killers, they set out to get some proof. Fortunately, the Klopeks are too smart to make the rookie mistake of leaving evidence in the house—even an attempt to dig up their basement ends in failure. Take note, fellow secret keepers, and borrow a page from this family’s book: Keep the bones of your murdered victims in the trunk of your car, not your house. Of course, you’ll also want to make sure that nosy Corey Feldman isn’t around to ruin everything by looking in your trunk. That is kind of rule number one. [Alex McCown]


8. Make sure it’s a secret no one would believe anyway

In Richard Curtis’ oddball science-fiction indie About Time, Tim (Ex Machina and Frank star Domhnall Gleeson) finds out his family has an unusual secret: the men in his bloodline, and just the men, can time travel, if they hide in a closet and squint their eyes real hard. In theory, his family keeps the secret by only passing it down to from father to son, once the son comes of age, in a parody of the media-traditional awkward father/son sex talk. But that really doesn’t keep the time travelers from blathering about it to other people, especially if they’re as awkward and immature as Tim. Mostly, it seems like the secret stays under wraps because it’s pretty unbelievable, especially when the film starts piling on—then breaking—a bunch of elaborate rules about how time travel works. Any family secret that starts off, “Here, I can prove it, just step into this closet with me and close your eyes” is going to be an easy secret to keep. [Tasha Robinson]


Share This Story