Mental Health, Judaism and a Tragedy

secrets they keptI recently discovered a book on GoodReads that I wanted to tell you about. The book is called The Secrets They Kept: The True Story of a Mercy Killing that Shocked a Town and Shamed a Family. The author, Suzanne Handler, always sensed something was “off” with her family. Her mother had always been emotional distant and Suzanne sensed she was hiding something.
It turns out there was a secret. Suzanne’s grandfather, an Orthodox Jew, murdered his teenage daughter instead of having her committed to a mental institution. The teenage girl’s name was Sally and would have been Suzanne’s aunt.
Sally showed signs of what we now understand as schizophrenia. In the 1930’s there was no treatment for the mentally ill. There was no recovery or hope of one day being released to rejoin her family. Suzanne told me that these old mental asylums use to have graveyards out back. That should tell you enough.
This is a very quick read and it’s an important story for the following reason. Everyone knows someone who is affected by mental illness. Even if it’s not you personally, trust me, it hits much closer to home than you may think. In the Jewish community we assume those things don’t happen to us and therefore we don’t talk about it. This is a huge mistake. I think Jews, especially, take on the feelings of shame and guilt when we’re forced to keep secrets about loved ones and issues of mental health. That shame and guilt can eat away at you and make your quality of life miserable.
Suzanne found that the act of writing her family’s tragic story was therapeutic. She actually felt better after writing this sad story even though she couldn’t go back in time and alter anything about it. I spoke to Suzanne about what she would like to get out of this book and she said, “I hope that, after reading The Secrets They Kept, others will be inspired to look for, and hopefully acknowledge, those individuals who, through no fault of their own, have been abandoned by their families and erased from memory.”
This book forces the reader to think about secrets that we might be keeping. Talking about secrets can reduce the shame and anxiety we feel and immediately improve our quality of life. The book certainty leaves you with more questions than answers and I think it raises some important questions that will leave you thinking for days.
In case you need any more persuasion to pick up this book, here’s an excerpt:

“At that moment, my worst suspicions were confirmed. There was a lot more to this story than I would probably ever know or comprehend. It was clear my mother and her siblings had forged an unwritten agreement to never tell their own children, including me, that there had been another sibling in the family, and that our much-admired grandfather had ended her young life under circumstances so bizarre as to completely baffle the mind.”