Ask Amy: Family secret is hard to keep

FresnoFebruary 8, 2014 

Dear Amy: Our nephew "Jeremy" has been in jail for a little over a month of a three-month sentence for a road rage incident.

He's basically a good kid with anger-management issues. His mother (my sister-in-law) has told everyone in the extended family about this situation, except for her mother-in-law, "Mary."

We're not sure why, but my sister-in-law says she "has her reasons" for not telling Mary, and that she would appreciate it if we would stay out of it.

This is very uncomfortable for all of us, and we feel terrible being part of this conspiracy of silence. We know that at some time the truth will come out (we all take an annual vacation together and otherwise communicate regularly during the year), and that we will all be held to blame.

If Mary asks us if we know how Jeremy is doing, should we tell her the truth?

We think it's wrong to keep this from her but are trying to be loyal to my sister-on-law. What should we do?

— Conflicted

Dear Conflicted: Every day I hear from readers about long-held family secrets — about babies adopted, crimes committed, infidelity, etc. I'm talking about huge secrets known by a circle of people who managed not to disclose this knowledge to other people, sometimes for decades.

As you probably know (if you read this column regularly), I believe in truth and disclosure.

However, there are degrees of crimes and limits to the need for disclosure. If a young person's mother asks you not to disclose to an older family member something deeply personal regarding a crime one of her children committed, then you should respect her wish, unless the crime would have a direct impact on the mother-in-law (i.e. she would be at risk).

You should urge your sister-in-law to disclose this news herself, because then she — not another family member — can provide the context.

If you are asked how "Jeremy" is doing, it is very easy to answer. You say, "I haven't seen him lately, but you should ask his mom. I know she's been in touch with him."

If this news comes out, and "Mary" blames you for keeping silent, you can say, "This was not my news to tell." Which happens to be the truth.


You can contact Amy Dickinson via email at, follow her on Twitter @askingamy or "like" her on Facebook.

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