In a time when falling in love with a married man or – shock! – someone of the same sex was taboo, many chose to live a lie rather than risk the shame it would unleash. So for these women, uncovering long buried truths was devastating
‘Mum wrote, “I don’t understand why I’m different”’
Helen Garlick, 62, is a former divorce mediator from West Sussex
Growing up in 1960s Yorkshire, I always thought my parents looked like the ideal couple. Their 59 years together showed how well suited they were, sharing the same aims and values and relishing their role as staunch pillars of the community. It was a conventional postwar childhood: my father Geoffrey would work hard in his own legal practice to provide for us, while my mother Monica ran the home with flair as well as volunteering in the community.
When my beloved father died aged 83 in 2014, I was devastated; then when my mother died suddenly three years later, I was in shock. But nothing could have prepared me for what happened next. Because in my mother’s belongings was an envelope containing a secret she’d carried with her for her entire married life – a secret that had me questioning whether my seemingly happy childhood had been anything but a lie.
In the letter she had left me, she’d written: ‘I am and will always not be the same but different – not the norm. I don’t understand why I’m different. I wonder how other lesbians cope.’
I remember the deep shock I felt spreading through my body as I read on. ‘I’ve had my share of others who were likewise afflicted,’ she’d continued, before naming some of the women with whom she’d had affairs – women I knew.
I can hardly describe the mix of emotions I felt; I could barely comprehend that my mother was a lesbian. And I was angry at the tone of the letter – that she was blaming others for not having told me before she died at 86. But I, too, stayed silent at first, unwilling to let her secret overshadow her funeral, although I spent the day fearing others must have known and were laughing at me for having no idea. However, I was eventually to discover it wasn’t common knowledge by any means.
The whole story tumbled out when I spoke to one of the women mentioned on her list. Gwen was a close family friend and she told me she’d had a four-year relationship with my mother before she married. They’d even shared a flat in London.
But my grandmother had tracked Mum down and told her she had to stop ‘these dirty deeds’ and get married. I felt for my mother as it must have been so hard, but I wasn’t surprised she did as she was told and returned home – she wanted children and the status of married life.
Gwen, who was openly gay, and Mum remained close friends even after she married Dad. It turned out Gwen had introduced Mum to other women she’d had relationships with. One, Margaret, used to come and stay with us, and Gwen described her as the only other person my mother had ever loved.
There had been many other women over the years, Gwen revealed. ‘But I don’t somehow feel they were serious, or she would have told me,’ she said. I was stunned. Women I’d viewed as my mother’s best friends were in fact her lovers, and I was left wondering whether she was the one who sought women out or vice versa. Was she making moves on women under our roof, behind Dad’s back? It seemed at odds with their image as respectable members of Yorkshire society.
But a lot of other things fell into place. How Mum found it hard to touch Dad – even to cut his nails or comb his hair. My parents were never tactile – there were no kisses or hugs on the sofa unless there was a camera.
The other question was, did Dad know? Gwen thought he may have. He once took her to see a play about a married man who finds out his wife is having an affair with a woman. It was all hints – but I believe he did, although I’ll never know for sure.
I think he accepted her for who she was. After all, they had a good marriage and my mother loved her life with him. But I feel sad she couldn’t live openly and disappointed that she didn’t tell me. I wish she had. Our lives could have been changed – our relationship would have been freer and more open.
Helen’s book No Place To Lie: Secrets Unlocked, A Promise Kept is published by Whitefox, price £9.99, and is also available on Audible
‘I discovered my dad had another daughter’
Carole Railton, 70, is a body-language expert from North London
Stopping off at a grocery store in Kent on a work trip one day, I was surprised when a woman I didn’t know came up to me and said: ‘Daphne, hello. I haven’t seen you for a while. You’re looking so well!’
I laughed and explained I wasn’t Daphne, but her surprise and doubt when I insisted I wasn’t struck me as odd. She eventually accepted she’d made a mistake, but it stayed with me – she’d seemed so sure.
It’s why I mentioned it to my mother a few hours later, just as a curious oddity. Little did I expect it to unleash a family secret that ended up ripping us apart.
Because when I told my mum Anne, who was nearing the end with breast cancer, about being mistaken for a woman called Daphne in Kent, she didn’t react as I expected. Instead she told me my father Charles had been married before and had a daughter – clearly the Daphne I’d been mistaken for. ‘I’m sorry we didn’t tell you,’ she said. ‘We made an agreement.’
Until then, my younger sister Pamela and I had thought Dad, a decade older than Mum, had no relations.
They’d met during the Second World War when they were both posted to Egypt, working for the Army. Dad was a linguist, and taught Arabic to my mother, who was a telephonist. I suspect they fell in love while he was still married to his first wife, who was then back in England with their daughter.
I know no more than that because, in the aftermath of learning about my father’s betrayal, I couldn’t deal with it. My mother was so close to death – in fact she died two days later aged 50 on New Year’s Eve in 1973 – that I had to put it to one side.
There was no internet so I had no one else to ask but my father and he was in a mess.
It wasn’t the moment to confront him. So I focused on organising the funeral with this revelation nagging at the back of my mind.
Then one day, shortly before her cremation, it suddenly came out and I asked him if it was true.
‘Yes, we didn’t want to complicate things,’ he said. I asked if he’d seen his daughter at all and he said no. There was no emotional scene – he was buttoned-up and dealt with my questions matter-of-factly. I felt even more betrayed. The thing that hurt me most was that he didn’t even have a photograph of her.
I let things lie for a few years, but towards the end of the 1970s, I tracked Daphne down using official records. By then she’d died, leaving four children. While I was sad, there was a certain amount of relief rather than regret at having left it too late. To have met her would have meant confronting complex emotions. There was guilt I’d had our father in my life but she hadn’t, and I was worried I would be intruding on her life.
I decided not to make contact with her children. I felt they might be angry, or think that I was tainted, because my dad had abandoned their mum.
And in the end, I distanced myself from my dad – I found myself questioning the kind of family we were, and why we were brought up in lies. I wondered how my mum could have supported it knowing what Daphne’s mum was going through.
Only when my father’s health began failing around 20 years ago did I go to visit him and tell him I’d forgiven him. As I’d got older and wiser, I’d realised my parents’ silence on the subject was partially due to their feelings of guilt or even shame.
It was a cathartic moment. I didn’t want to carry my anger around for the rest of my life. Even though he was unconscious, I felt by saying it out loud that I could finally let it go.
Follow Carole on Twitter @CaroleRailton
‘My great-aunt didn’t deserve to be disowned’
Alison Alden, 62, is from Great Yarmouth and used to work in mental health
Looking through some old family photos with my mother many years ago, I came across a picture I’d never seen before of a strikingly beautiful woman. She was clearly the eldest of my great-grandmother’s children, but I knew nothing about her, not even her name. So I asked my mother who she was.
‘That’s your grandad’s sister Millie,’ she said sharply. ‘We don’t talk about her.’ And they didn’t – Mum refused to utter another word on the subject.
But that day nearly 40 years ago sparked my interest in this black sheep of the family.
I wondered just what she had done that was so terrible she’d been cast out, never to be spoken of again.
Now I was determined to find out what had happened to make our family ashamed of her, so I asked my father Ashley for an explanation. ‘She ran away with a married man,’ he said. ‘But who could blame the chap? He’d got a wife who was barking mad in an institution.’ That’s all he would say about it.
I could do no more as I had no one else to ask, but over the next few years I felt Millie’s story eating away at me, just waiting to be discovered. I was burning with the injustice of what had happened to her, desperately wanting it to be put right.
A few years ago – with my three children grown up – I decided to find out more. I felt strongly that she was as much a part of our family history as anyone else and should be recognised as such.
Having lost Dad in the early 2000s, I’d intended to ask Mum about Millie again, but we always got sidetracked. Then, last year when she was dying of cancer, I asked her – and she told me she believed Millie’s story should be told.
She started to tell me, and I was going to find out more from her the following day – but tragically, she was too weak to talk to me when I saw her next and died later that day, which was devastating. But it only strengthened my resolve to discover what had happened to Millie. Only then, I felt, could I finally put this piece of family history to rest and right a past wrong.
So I began to piece together the story from public records, using what Mum and other relations told me. It seems my grandfather’s mother Susannah was a matriarch who ruled the family with a rod of iron – an aunt who remembers her says that there was no love in the house.
Millie was the eldest child – around 18 years older than my grandfather – and at the end of the First World War she fell in love with a local policeman called George. But George was already married to a woman who had mental health problems and was in an institution. Susannah told Millie, ‘If you continue to see George, you’ll bring shame on the family and we will disown you.’
In desperation, the couple ran away to London where they’d be more readily accepted as an unmarried couple. Some members of the family were so terrified of Susannah that they never saw Millie again. But others continued to in secret, including my great-aunt Lizzie, who was married to one of my grandfather’s elder brothers. They stayed with her whenever they returned so George could check on his wife at the asylum.
George and Millie had a child, Tommy, in the mid-1920s, and when he was three, George’s wife died. The couple had a church wedding in London, but sadly not a single member of our family was there.
Tragically, there was no happy ending for them. George and Millie both died shortly after one another in the 1950s and Tommy himself died young without having children.
I feel strongly that Millie’s story needs to be told: she wasn’t a bad person and she wasn’t doing anything wrong by loving George, a man who was married in name only. Her behaviour shouldn’t be a source of shame – and it’s time it wasn’t a secret any more.
Is your family reeling after uncovering a ‘shameful’ family secret that’s been hidden for years? We’d love to hear from you. Contact us at email@example.com
Interviews by Lebby Eyres