The other morning my dad discovered a shocking family secret:  His own father had -- unbeknownst to him, to his sisters, or to their mother -- fathered a child with another woman.  That afternoon, he was still in an unsettled frame of mind, so we went to see a movie.  All we knew about the movie was its title: “City Island.”  Surprisingly, it turned out to be about a family man who had, as a young fellow, fathered a child outside of wedlock, then kept it secret for two decades.  More proof that: a) “everything is connected,” b) men are jerks, and/or c) a lot of us may have more relatives out there than we know about.

Family secrets

Do you have secrets you’ve kept from your family? Would you like to get them off your chest?  And if so, what would be the right time to do it?

The movie City Island was full of secrets, many of the sort that you, or your spouse, may be keeping from one another.  Imagine you did any of the following:

- you occasionally sneak out to light up a Marlboro

- instead of going to your weekly poker game, you’ve enrolled in an acting class

- instead of attending your college classes, you’ve been dancing topless in a strip club

- you have a son you’ve never met

The issue of family secrets might seem deadly serious, and perhaps unpleasant to even contemplate. But Raymond De Felitta, who wrote and directed City Island, has managed to deal with them in a way that is funny, pleasant, and heartwarming.  Indeed, this is one of the most pleasant movies we’ve seen in some time, and one of the unpretentiously psychologically insightful (we’re not surprised to learn that it won the audience award at the Tribeca film festival). 

Things we keep secret

What kinds of things do people keep secret?  In one interesting study, UT’s Anita Vangelisti asked people about three categories of secrets: 1) those you as an individual keep from your other family members (maybe you never told your parents about sneaking out to get hammered with your friends in high school, for example), 2) those that some of the family kept from the other family members (maybe you and mom never told dad about the time little sister came got drunk and threw up in the back of his Volvo), 3) those your family keeps from non-family members (maybe you and your relatives light up a ritual reefer and listen to Bob Marley music on Thanksgiving).

Vangelisti found 3 big clusters of family secrets:  One involved taboos (atypical sexual preferences, extramarital affairs, or physical abuses, for example); Another involved rule violations (cohabitation or drinking and partying, for example); A third set involved more conventional problems (hiding bad grades or not telling the kids that grandma has a heart problem, for example).

Without spoiling any more of the movie’s plot, we’ll say that City Island hit all those bases, in a way that will keep you smiling – at the characters and at yourself.

Why do we keep family secrets?

Vangelisti also examined the reasons people kept secrets within and between family members. Sometimes, for example, we keep secrets because we’re afraid of disapproval, sometimes we want to protect our family members from stress or pain.  Social psychologists Bella DePaulo and Deborah Kashy and colleagues have also done some fascinating research on why people lie -- a topic that overlaps considerably with secret-keeping (keeping a secret is lying by omission as opposed to lying by commission – some of us like to think that the omissions aren’t quite as bad as the full-blown fabrications, but of course, we’re also good at lying to ourselves).

Again, the City Island characters had very different motives for keeping their various secrets – though central among them is a desire to maintain harmony.  The actors do a wonderful job depicting those real-life Italian families my dad grew up around – who somehow manage to communicate their mutual affection and good humor even when they’re screaming at one another.  Andy Garcia and Juliana Margulies turn in award-worthy performances as Vince and Joyce Rizzo: Despite all their secrets, Vince and his lovely wife express their love for one another in a way that is deeply touching --  without any resemblance to a Hallmark card.

Why and when do we reveal secrets?

There is another immense literature on self-disclosure – sharing intimate information about yourself (like those little things you’ve kept secret from your better half).  Self-disclosure actually feels good, and it builds relationships.  Social psychologist Art Aron and his colleagues find that complete strangers can be made to feel like close friends after just a half hour of mutual self-disclosure, and Nancy Collins and her colleagues find that opening up to others is a good way to get them to like you more. 

Not everyone feels equally comfortable with self-disclosure.  Women are better at it than are men, for example. And there may be down sides – Sandra Petronio’s review of the pros and cons of self-disclosure cautions that entrusting another person with a personal secret can open the door to feelings of betrayal, to gossip, and to possible invasions of your privacy. In hindsight, Monica Lewinsky’s choice of Linda Tripp as a confidant was a very bad decision. The treacherous Tripp encouraged Lewinsky to tell all about her affair with President Bill Clinton, all the while taping the conversations in the hopes of making money from an exposé.

In the movie, Vince’s big secret finally comes out, under the most inappropriate of circumstances, leading to a lovely comic moment when his wife asks him why he never told her about his son from a previous relationship.  Vince replies, at what is clearly an inopportune moment, in front of children and neighbors, that: “it never seemed like the right time.”

Our recommendation

Should you see this movie? Most definitely!  We both give it an A.  Just as the actual little fishing village of City Island is a precious and unexpected gem in contrast to the more familiar skyscrapers of New York, so the movie City Island is a precious and unexpected gem of a film in contrast to the typical Hollywood blockbusters.  It deals with an unusual and sensitive set of topics, yet in a way that seems familiar and easy.  It will almost certainly make you laugh, and it may well bring a tear to your eye (even if you hadn’t just learned a well-guarded family secret).

This movie doesn’t pretend to be a grandiose cinema novel like Gone With the Wind.  It isn’t about getting the bad guys, and it isn’t really about getting the girl.  It touches lightly on the theme of getting ahead, in that the main character is a prison guard with a secret dream of being Marlon Brando.  But it’s mainly about getting along, and it does an especially good job of handling the theme of getting along with family members.  Vince Rizzo, despite his secrets, is an exemplary father, even, in the end, for the son he left behind as a younger man. 

Should you see it with your spouse, and use it as a segue to getting some secret off your chest?  Well, that’s your decision, but you might want to start with the one about how you’re taking an acting class instead of playing poker on Friday nights, and see how that goes over.  

(coauthored by Douglas T. Kenrick - his website is: Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life)

References (continued on next page)

Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 363–377.

City Island website: Click for more information about this movie. 

Collins, N. L., & Miller, L. C. (1994). Selfdisclosure and liking: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 457–475.

DePaulo, B. M., & Kashy, D. A. (1998). Everyday lies in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 63–79.

DePaulo, B. M., Kashy, D. A., Kirkendol, S. E., Wyer, M. M., & Epstein, J. A. (1996). Lying in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 979–995.

Derlega, V. J., Metts, S., Petronio, S., & Margulis, S. J. (1993). Self-disclosure. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Petronio, S. (2002). Boundaries of privacy:Dialectics of disclosure. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Vangelisti, A. (1994). Family secrets: Forms, functions, and correlates. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 11, 113-135. 

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