Families: Secrets and lives - Features - Health & Families - The Independent

Families: Secrets and lives

It can be tough discovering that the person you thought was your birth parent is no relation at all – but it need not destroy the relationship, says Alice-Azania Jarvis

In fiction, it is a recurring theme: From the mysterious parentage of Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest, to Kat Slater's revelation – in one dramatic, much-watched episode of EastEnders – that her "sister" Zoe was, in fact, her daughter, the notion of a secret parent has proven a pre-occupying cultural plot.

It is little surprise, then, that Justin Webb's recent revelations have passed such muster. His case, of course, is rather different: not only is it decidedly non-fiction, but, as the host of Radio 4's Today programme has revealed, he did, in fact, know his father's identity – Peter Woods, newsreader and host of the flagship Nine O'Clock News – and his father knew his. But both chose not to acknowledge it.

Aside from a brief encounter when Webb was just six months old, the pair have had no contact. Webb would see his recognisable parent on the television screen, but he "really did not make much of a connection". "I cannot even remember wanting to tell anyone," he wrote in Radio Times. "It was that deeply buried." Indeed, the only reason that the truth has come to light is because Webb feared its revelation was imminent anyway: "Rather than read about us in a gossip column one morning, or have to respond quickly to something that someone else was writing after trawling Facebook, I decided to write this."

Webb is not alone in having a parent whose identity was closely guarded. In the case of Delilah Seale, the secret was kept even from her. She was 19 when the man she believed to be her father – the journalist Patrick Seale – informed her that, in fact, the job really belonged to the irascible author Martin Amis. Paul Watton, a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Military Police, only learned of his mother, Pauline Prescott's true identity when a tabloid reporter knocked on his door. And Clare Short's son Toby stumbled across her presence only after the birth of his own children prompted him to trace his mother.

The actress Liv Tyler, meanwhile, discovered her father's true identity – the Steven Tyler, frontman of rock band Aerosmith – when, aged nine, she remarked upon her physical resemblance to his other daughter. Her mother, Bebe Buell, had chosen to hide the truth because of Tyler's drug addictions at the time of conception.

Remarkably, in all of these instances, the emotional fallout has been relatively contained. Given the gargantuan shifts that such revelations must cause in Life As One Knows It, that fact is, perhaps, somewhat surprising. Of course, it isn't always thus; when Paula Yates discovered that her father was not Jess Yates, the presenter host of ITV's religious programme Stars On Sunday but was, in fact, the game-show star Hughie Green, she greeted the news with a very public outpouring of anguish.

"The discovery of a hidden truth like this can necessitate all kinds of mixed feelings," notes Beverley Stone, a relationship psychologist and author of the forthcoming book Stay Or Leave. "There are tremendous readjustments – from learning to relate to a new person, to trying to understand why the secret was kept from you."

Crucial to ensuring that the aftermath of a revelation is manageable, says Stone, is that a sense of empathy is shared by all involved. "If the person discovering the truth can understand why their parents kept it from them, it can make a huge difference. Otherwise, there is a risk of resentment."

The same goes for the burden the secret places on its keepers. Quite aside from the challenge posed once the truth is revealed, the sheer existence of a familial secret – particularly one which excludes a single family member – creates certain stresses of its own. "Inevitably, if you are hiding something from someone, it underpins your relationship," says Stone. If, however, there is an understanding for why the secret should be kept (if it is being done with a sense of compassion), the burden becomes considerably more bearable: "It all depends on how convinced those involved are they are doing the right thing. In the case of Liv Tyler's, parents, they clearly felt they were – but when their daughter began to ask questions about the situation, they decided that to hide the truth wouldn't be right anymore."

Happily, in an age when the family is ever less the fixed, 2.4-children entity it once was, the probability of relationships remaining stable once the truth has been revealed is greater than ever. It was this element which Seale credited with allowing him to take over the reigns of fatherhood so deftly. "It did not seem a big deal to accept her as my child," he has said of his relationship with Delilah. "In modern marriages today, lots and lots of people are bringing up other people's children."

Indeed they are, and it's a fact of which Webb will be only too aware.

John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK wedding show jilted
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Senior QA Engineer - Agile, SCRUM

    £35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior QA Engineer (Agil...

    Marketing Executive - West Midlands - £28,000

    £26000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Executive (SEO, PP...

    Retail Business Analyst

    £40000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our retail client ...

    Senior C++ Developer

    £400 - £450 Per Annum possibly more for the right candidate: Clearwater People...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week