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.

News
The two faces revealed by the ultraviolet light
newsScholars left shaken after shining ultraviolet light on 500-year-old Welsh manuscript
News
Rosamund Pike played Bond girld Miranda Frost, who died in Die Another Day (PA)
news
Arts and Entertainment
books
News
newsHow do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? With people like this
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

    Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

    £24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

    Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat