I thought I knew all about my birth mother, but learning the truth was traumatic

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun11,2024
From skeletons in the closet to little, white lies, almost all of us have something we conceal. In this episode, Insight explores the costs and gains of mistruths, and whether honesty is the best policy. Watch Secrets and Lies on Tuesday 18 June at 8.30pm on SBS and or live on
Content warning: This article contains references to child abuse.
Rachel always knew she was adopted.
She was told her mother gave her away because she was single and wanted Rachel to be raised by a family.
“I felt really lucky and privileged, and that it made me special,” she told Insight.

Her adoptive parents, on the advice of the adoption agency, read her information from a booklet provided by the agency that gave a few details about her birth mother.

But when Rachel was 13, her adoptive father revealed something that made her question what she’d been told.
“The woman who gave birth to me had paranoid schizophrenia. There was this extra information and that didn’t fit the narrative,” she said.
“I became obsessed with it and wanted to know more.”
When she turned 18 and could finally access information from her state’s Department of Human Services, she uncovered the full truth about her birth mother.
“I discovered that she had not given me away. That she had not agreed for me to be taken.”

Suddenly, Rachel understood the information in the booklet supplied by the agency was full of lies.

An old adoption booklet with a picture of a girl pushing a pram and the words 'My Story'.

Rachel discovered that her adoption booklet, which was supposed to detail where she had come from, was ‘full of lies’. Source: Supplied

While Rachel doesn’t blame her parents for sharing the information and believes they did what they thought was best, she has been deeply affected by the lies.

“I discovered that I had sisters that I hadn’t even met. I felt just utterly betrayed, I felt so angry. And I felt like everyone knew but me.”

“Keeping the secret is what is traumatic.”

When you don’t know you have a secret

Growing up, Paul Hersbach’s family was deeply involved in the Catholic Church.
Their priest, Father Vic Rubeo, bought gifts for the family, paid the deposit for their home, and had a hat made for himself that read “Super Gramps”.
When he was nine, Paul served as an altar boy. It was during this time that Rubeo sexually abused him.
At that time, Paul didn’t understand what had been done to him.
“I thought it was normal. I didn’t think I had anything to tell.”

When Paul was 16, his father revealed that he had also been a childhood victim of Rubeo’s abuse.

A man and a Catholic priest sit on some steps with neutral expressions on their faces.

Paul and his father were a victim of Father Vic Rubeo’s abuse. Source: Supplied

It wasn’t until 10 years later, during The Melbourne Response — the Melbourne Archdiocese’s compensation scheme for victims of clerical abuse in the Catholic Church — that Paul started to fully understand the magnitude of what he went through.

“I learned that I had a secret and it took some time to understand what to do with that.”
Paul wanted to reveal the abuse he suffered in order to help other victims.

However, Rubeo died on the day he was due to stand trial.

While disappointed, this didn’t stop Paul from pursuing justice.
“Understanding what the church and the institutions did to keep their secrets and keep their lies, started to become more widely known around the world and unpalatable.

“I see my abuser as the Catholic Church. Because whilst I was abused as a child, I feel that, through their response, the church has continued to abuse me.”

A man with a bald head and glasses enjoys the sunset while facing the camera with a neutral expression.

Paul hoped that revealing his secret would benefit others. Source: Supplied

, Paul took legal action against the church.

It fought and challenged him at every turn, but he won and eventually received compensation.

“My hope in talking about my story is that others see it and recognise the situation, and that gives them some courage to fight on and seek justice that they need.”

The power of secrets

Michael Slepian, an associate professor at Columbia University in New York, studies the psychology of secrets. He says keeping them is about protection, or hiding an element of ourselves from others.
But holding one can be damaging, he says.
“The moment you decide to keep a secret is the moment you have to live with that secret. And if it’s something that you’re struggling with … it’s so hard to cope with it alone,” he told Insight.

“We can feel isolated, we can feel inauthentic, we can feel ashamed.”

Michael says sharing a secret with someone you trust can be helpful because it can provide emotional support and perspective.
He adds that everybody has secrets, common ones being romantic desire that we hold or lies that we’ve told.

“Most of us have at least one secret that’s significant at this very moment.”

The moment you decide to keep a secret is the moment you have to live with that secret.

Columbia University’s Associate Professor Michael Slepian

A life-changing secret revealed

At 26, Michael himself learned a secret that changed his life.
“I was presenting my new research on secrecy at the time. And I get a call from my dad around midnight and I think ‘oh, no, something really bad must have happened’.

“He said, ‘Are you sitting down? I need to tell you that I’m not able biologically to have children. I’m not your biological father’.”

A man sits with a young boy on his lap. They are both smiling.

Michael says while learning his dad wasn’t his biological father was a huge shock, being told the secret has brought them closer together. Source: Supplied / /

Like Rachel, Michael was more devastated by the secret than the truth.

“For me, the shocking thing wasn’t this big revelation, it was the secret-keeping that bothered me.”

Today, Michael and his father are closer than ever.
“When we reveal a secret, we get to talk about it with other people … We can work through it together.”

He’s learned it’s never too late to share the truth.

A portrait shot of a man in a blue shirt smiling at the camera.

Michael Slepian says most of us hold “significant” secrets. Source: Supplied

Michael’s adoptive grandmother was concerned the true story would make him feel less part of the family.

“I could have told her that learning the secret made that relationship just so much more special,” he said.

“But she had passed away before we could have that conversation.”

When secrets erode trust

Rachel has tried to develop an in-person relationship with her mum but says it’s been “nothing but traumatic”.
“It’s just a constant unravelling of secrets that will never end until she’s not able to keep drip-feeding accidental secrets. It’s awful.”
Having the truth kept from her for so long has eroded her trust in people.

“I’ve become a solo mum by choice … because I can’t be in relationships, because I don’t trust anyone.”

 A mother and her young son smile together in a play centre.

Rachel says she doesn’t want to keep any secrets from her son. Source: Supplied

After all that she’s been through, she refuses to lie to her son.

“I want my son to know everything, except maybe [the truth about] Santa Claus and the tooth fairy,” she says.
Readers seeking support can contact Lifeline crisis support on 13 11 14 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged 5 to 25).

Anyone seeking information or support relating to sexual abuse can contact Bravehearts on 1800 272 831 or Blue Knot on 1300 657 380.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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