Annette Kuhn – Family secrets

Family secrets by Annette Kuhn is partly an autobiography and partly an extended essay on memory and how memory supports out understanding of both our own lives and the historical context that we live in.   Kuhn describes it as a book that has sprung from the genre of ‘revisionist autobiography’ (p.147) and points out that any autobiography is ‘inevitably the outcome of a considerable reworking of the raw materials of an identity and a life story’ (p.149).

I found this book in parts fascinating, in parts heart- breaking and partly terrifying. The later was because it managed to bring back so many memories of my own past. I was born only a few years later than Kuhn and brought up in an upper working-class family (my father owned a butcher’s shop). Unlike Kuhn’s, my mother was very pushy and was desperate for me to go to university. In retrospect I think this was because she had missed out the opportunity of doing so because of the war. My mother was German, living in the USA, and repatriated to Germany during the war and, I think, resented the missed opportunities. My father died when I was young, my mother worked hard to keep the family running, and eventually married my stepfather, who, by coincidence, was a professional photographer.

Mother and me at similar ages!

I took multiple notes, and these led on to other thoughts, and I will attempt to summarise them:

  • ‘Telling stories about the past, our past, is a key moment in the making of ourselves’ (p.2) – but how much do we tell, how much do we hide, and how much do we really remember? All families have secrets, and many are similar to those in other families – mine as much as Kuhn’s.
  • The past is gone forever’ (p.4) – what traces remain. Looking for them in your memory is like archeology, making a story from small fragments. Different readings of the fragments may lead to a different story.
  • The past is not single – the historical context informs your memory, as much as it informs what actually happened. WWII had a major impact on my past. Much of it was hidden as my mother was concerned about the stigma of being German. Much we only learnt from her in the very last months of her life.
  • Memory work can start from a single piece of information, a single photo found at the bottom of a box, or a hidden letter. This evokes emotions, uses the intellect and may become part of the truth – at least your truth. A photograph can be interpreted, it gives information about the person, the place, who took the image, who was missed out and why it was taken. The clothes talk about the social aspects. The event may be recalled – although, if many years ago, one may question the accuracy. If the image has been looked at and discussed many times, each time the story might have changed. There is no single, final story.
  • Family albums tell a more complex story, partly mediated by the order the images are shown in. My album is random – the pictures are not in any historical order – just the one I acquired them in. I also have boxes (multiple) of unsorted and unlabelled photos – the order I sort them into may change the story. Which ones get priority? And why? Looking at these images is like looking at a box of jigsaw pieces, without the picture!
  • This past-in-the-future, nostalgia-in-prospect’ (p.23) – makes you want to produce a ‘good’ story of the ‘ideal family’ – even if it isn’t quite right. Is the truth what you remember or what actually happened? Or what makes you feel good about the time?
  • How does culture effect what you take from images? What about the films you have watched as a child? How do you reconcile what you felt then with what you see when analysing them as an adult? What about the books you have read? Your reaction as a child may have been (probably was) mainly emotional – does this have validity in a critical response to a film or book as an adult concerned with theory? Will it make for a wider understanding – or does it cloud the issue?
  • Any given photo will hold multiple meanings, for different people, at different times and in different social contexts. It may be specific to a family – but also generic to the culture – the hyper-cute baby photo, smiling up at you, it’s your baby, it’s you as a child, it’s the picture that advertises the photographer’s studio, its something to embarrass your son with to his girlfriend. It’s a memory of a time that will never be repeated.
  • Are the main images in your library just of the child, just of the adults or groups? And why? What does this say about family relationships? I have very few of me with my parents but several of mum with her family. Why? Was I not there? Were photos saved for the ‘special occasions’ – family visiting from abroad. A very different situation from the multiple images taken nowadays – but will they still be around in 50 years from now?
  • Photos were often taken in best clothes, dressed-up, in uniform – to show pride? A credit to the mother ‘an end in itself’ (p.62). Or in a cute setting, an important place – “look where we have been”. Does the clothing and the dressing-up tell more about the dresser (usually the mother) then the person? What does it say about the family relationships?
  • Photos may be taken to mark a special occasion – the image then brings back memories of the occasion – not just the photo, both the local – we were in the pub, Aunty Mary’s house, the garden, – with Sam, Jane, that odd person from down the street – when the Queen was married, the Two Towers blown up or England won the World Cup. Moving from the specific and local to the actual event. Especially relevant when marking global celebrations.
  • The image tells about the relationship between the photographer, the person photographed and the person the image is for. Why does the child look uncomfortable? What was the parent expecting by dressing them like that? How subtle is the rebellion?
  • Popular memory of shared events – can be provoked by images of the time, celebrations, national and local. People’s memory of a major event is often surprising similar – but may focus on the specific – where they were at the time before the actual event is brought into focus.
  • Changing places, homes, schools, countries has an effect on not only where you are but who you are and how you interact with others. it’s a way of changing your social background – but you may never fit in totally. Not everyone can be a chameleon! Roots are important and abandoning them can/does lead to feelings of insecurity. You can ‘For survivals sake you can….learn to keep quiet about what really matters to you……but you risk forgetting the value of those ‘resources of generations gone before’ that might still be there inside you, your resilience , your courage’ (p.116).
  • School has an impact on what you do – not only then but much later on. Like Kuhn I was streamed into the ‘academic’ side, in my case science. I remember being told ‘It’s no point you doing art, you’re too clever, and anyway you can’t draw” – the latter comment was possibly true, but there was no consideration that other forms of art might exist, or that I might benefit from engaging with them. In spite of taking pictures all my life, it wasn’t until I was much older (in my 50’s) that I started ‘making art’.
  • Why do images from the past, that we are not directly involved with effect us so much? Kuhn gives the example of the St. Pauls’s picture in the London blitz. I can think of ones from the Africa corp in WWII. How does the collective memory that these invoke impact on personal memory? And vice versa?
  • Remembering, looking back, allows for changes. Memory can be sparked by other people’s pictures, paintings, music and writing. Anything can be used as a basis for memory work and allow you to make sense of what you see. Other pieces are very private and particular to you (Barthes’s picture of his mother as a child), an image I have just found of my grandmother who I never knew.
  • All this leads to the question – how much of memory is imagination?
  • Photographs can be used as groundwork – but they may still tell lies, partial truths – but rarely the whole truth. They lead to a ‘constant reworking of memory and identity (p.154). The act/activity (remember it is an ongoing process) is not neutral. There is always ‘secondary revision’. New stories can be told. Things can be healed. Lives can be changed.

This whole book is well worth reading (and re-reading). Maybe it spoke so much to me because I have a similar background – but the lessons learned are valid for everyone.


Kuhn, A. (2002). Family secrets: acts of memory and imagination. London; New York: Verso.

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