Care and Feeding

I Just Discovered an Explosive Family Secret

I want to try to heal things, but my mom is standing in the way.

A man looks curiously at his phone in front of an illustration of a family tree.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Evgenii_Bobrov/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Kerkez/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I just found out—literally a few hours ago—that I have two uncles (and so possibly cousins!) out there in the world somewhere. My mother found out when my grandfather died, 20 years ago. She and my aunt, when going through my grandfather’s things, found letters and photographs. But they kept it a secret … until my mother apparently let it slip to my sister earlier this year, who then finally told me about it tonight. I am not a furtive person, so I immediately called my mother to ask 1) why on earth she’d never told me, and 2) who these uncles are and where they are and why they’ve never been contacted! She said that my aunt secretly took and hid their contact information, and that she either wouldn’t or couldn’t share it with Mom, but that she (Mom) didn’t want it anyway, because she didn’t want to contact them, because the whole thing was just “so horrible.”

Aside from the glaringly obvious dysfunction at the heart of my family, I’m completely gobsmacked, as well as heartbroken, that I have gone almost half my life without knowing these family members! All I’ve had is the one secret-keeping aunt and one cousin, on mom’s side. I’ve always lamented having such a small family. Obviously, my grandfather was an asshat—but how can finding new family members not be an opportunity for healing and enriching one another’s lives? I want to reach out to them but don’t know who they are or where they are or how to go about finding them, given that my best guess is that my maniacal aunt burned their contact info 20 years ago. Is it wrong to try to find these people when my mother still “isn’t ready”? (And how would I do that, anyway?)

— Breaking the Cone of Silence

Dear Breaking the Cone,

It isn’t wrong. You wouldn’t be forcing her to meet these newly discovered relatives. But unless you hire a private investigator, the only way I know of that you might be able to find these people (with no information to go on) is to submit your DNA to 23andme and Ancestry.com. That will work only if at least one of them has done so too and has granted the service permission to allow genetic matches to make contact through the site. But an awful lot of people have, and I know many people who’ve found hitherto unknown relatives in this way. It’s worth a try if it matters this much to you. I wish you luck: Both with finding your cousins and with your mother, who may hit the roof when—if—she finds out that you did.

Michelle

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