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Keeping Family Secrets in the 1950s

What do family secrets show us about the times we live in, and how do they impact the people who safeguard them? These are questions that sociologist Margaret K. Nelson explores in her most recent book, Keeping Family Secrets, a study of more than 150 memoirs involving families hiding something of consequence during the 1950s. In this episode of Book Dreams, we talk to Margaret about a host of fascinating topics, everything from how misguided—and even damaging—prevailing expert advice can be; to the complicated costs of concealing true genetic ancestry; to the complex relationship—highlighted in recent years by the availability of DNA testing—between biology and cultural identity.

Margaret K. Nelson is the A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Sociology Emerita at Middlebury College, where she taught for more than 40 years. In her latest book, Keeping Family Secrets: Shame and Silence in Memoirs from the 1950s, she focuses on six categories of secrets revealed time and time again in memoirs from that era, including the institutionalization of a child, unwanted pregnancy of a daughter, and the Jewish ancestry of one or more family members. Margaret has written a number of other nonfiction books as well, including Like Family: Narratives of Fictive Kinship and Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times.

Keeping Family Secrets: Shame and Silence in Memoirs from the 1950s

"This is an outstanding book. Nelson is a terrific writer, she highlights the difficult and painful processes entailed in keeping different kinds of family secrets....this book will make a big splash." ― Jennifer L. Pierce, co-author of Telling Stories: The Use of Personal Narratives in the Social Sciences and History

"This highly original book uses memoirs as a window into the ways that families are both constructed and disassembled. Nelson traffics in contradictions, which makes her analysis all the more complex and interesting." ― Karen V. Hansen, author of Encounter on the Great Plains: Scandinavian Settlers and the Dispossession of Dakota Indians, 1890-1930

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