The Secrets My Family Photographs Hid in Plain Sight

Letty Cottin Pogrebin on the shame her family covered up with White-Out and black ink.

Diane Arbus famously said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”

When I was a girl in the 1940s and 50s, I used to browse through the photos in our family album without realizing that I wasn’t really seeing the pictures. They were just there, as familiar as my feet, my mother’s hairbrush, my father’s shaving mug, my big sister Betty’s organdy-skirted dressing table, or the pine paneling in our finished basement in Jamaica, Queens.

Had I been more observant, I might have wondered why there were so many empty rectangles on the album’s pages. I might have asked my parents why the tiny stickered triangles that secured the corners of other photographs merely defined the corners of pictures that weren’t there.

I grew up in a family of secrets—a large Jewish immigrant family filled with people who lived in denial or covered up stuff rather than cause a shanda (Yiddish for shame, disgrace or scandal) in the Jewish community or in the eyes of gentiles. Among other facts, my parents and various relatives hid their impoverished origins, marital mistakes, nontraditional sexuality, failures, physical and mental illnesses, inadequacies and everything else that would have humiliated them. Their main aspiration was to be upstanding Jews and “real” Americans.

Had I inquired about the missing photos, my mother—who arrived in New York City at age 9, and always lived in fear of being outed as a “greenhorn” from the shtetl—might have been forced to admit her biggest shanda: that in the 1920s, years before she met my Dad, she was a divorcee with a child whose existence she hid from her friends.

But had I noticed and asked about why some slots were empty, Mom might have told me how ashamed she was to be divorced in the 1920s when a failed marriage was considered scandalous, especially among Jews, and most especially for a Jewish woman. She might have confessed to excising certain pictures so she wouldn’t be reminded of her abusive first husband, his mistreatment of their toddler, the years when she was a single mother struggling to make ends meet, and lying about her history.

Had I been more alert, I might have noticed that there were no pictures of my parents at their wedding. And none showed my father holding my sister, Betty, as a baby or young child. The only photographs of Dad and Betty were taken when she was a teenager. Maybe, had I asked about those omissions, Dad, reluctant to lie to my face, would have admitted there were no such photographs because Betty was my mother’s child, not his, and he didn’t marry Mom until Betty was 12.

I remember the day when, paging through the album, I stopped at a picture of three flat-chested adolescent girls in sunsuits and brown braids posing together at my grandparents’ tiny farm in Shrub Oak, NY. I knew the girl on the right was Betty, who was 14 years old in June 1939, when I was born, and the girl on the left was my cousin, Judy, who was two years younger. For the first time, I focused on the girl in the middle.

“Who’s Rena?” I asked my mother, pointing at the one in glasses, whose name was scrawled above her head.

“Oh, you won’t remember her,” Mom said, throwing a quick glance at the snapshot. “She visited us when you were a baby. She’s a distant cousin.”

What child would challenge a parent’s identification of a family member? Not I—that is, not until 1951 when another cousin of mine, in a burst of vindictive anger, exposed the truth about my parents’ carefully curated, elaborately fictionalized past. Upset when I beat her at gin rummy, the angry cousin blithely spewed out the news that my mom and dad had each been divorced from other people before they wed one another. That my sister Betty was my mother’s child by her first husband. That my father wasn’t Betty’s father so she wasn’t my “real sister” asI’d always believed; she was my half-sister. To top that off, when I confronted my parents with the angry cousin’s revelation, my father confessed that his first marriage also had produced a daughter. Whom he had abandoned when he married my mom. Which meant I had another half-sister out there in the world, a secret sister I’d never known existed. And her father—my father—had no idea where she was.

Other photos around the house could have alerted me to other lies my parents invented to buttress their fake biographies and conceal the shandas of their past. For instance, they had always claimed they were married on February 12, 1923 when their real wedding date was February 12, 1937. They had back-dated their nuptials so my father could present himself to the world as the father of Betty—who was born in 1925. By creating a public biography of themselves that began with the 1923 marriage date—which they instructed relatives on both sides of the family to memorize and swear by—Mom and Dad were able to relocate themselves, my fourteen-year-old sister and one-year- old me from the West Bronx to Jamaica, Queens, and wipe the slate clean of their shandas.

With the move and their bogus biography, my parents obliterated their divorces, erased my father’s daughter from the picture (literally and figuratively), and established us in a new community where everyone—rabbi, rebbetzin, cantor, Dad’s Men’s Club in the Jamaica Jewish Center, Mom’s sister volunteers in the Queens chapters of Hadassah and NCJW—accepted them as a long-married couple with two daughters (who just happened to have an unusually wide gap in their ages). So successful were they at pulling the wool over people’s eyes— including mine—that in 1948, when they celebrated their “Silver wedding anniversary,” no one guessed that they’d been married for only eleven years.

Mom began censoring the photo albums when we moved to Jamaica, altering some pictures and lying about others to support the backstory she’d created. And I never saw the clues hiding in plain sight.

For example, their “honeymoon picture,” which really is their honeymoon picture but it wasn’t taken in 1923 as claimed. Displayed for years in a chrome frame on the spinet piano in our living room, it shows my parents seated under a lap robe in one of those grand wicker loveseats that couples got wheeled around in on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Had they been married in 1923, my father would have been 23-years-old in that picture; my mother a year or so younger. The couple sitting in the wicker pedicab are clearly at least a decade older. What’s more, their hats are totally out of sync with the styles typical of the early 1920s. Dad is wearing a fedora straight out of a 1930s Bogart movie, and Mom has on a jaunty side-tilted number of similar vintage. Had the photo been taken in the early ’20s, he would have been sporting a bowler, derby, or boater, and she, like every woman in America, would be wearing a cloche.

Those discrepancies escaped my notice when I was kid, but I also missed them when I was old enough to register fashion anachronisms. Not for a moment did I suspect that my parents had lied about their wedding date or honeymoon picture. What child would? And why would grown-ups deceive their own daughter?
Even more obvious was the tip-off staring me in the face in the photograph taken at the wedding of my mother’s brother, Lou. Lined up with my Lou and his bride were his four sisters (my mother and three aunts), and their respective husbands (my father and my three uncles).

Years after our parents were gone, my sister Betty pointed out something odd in that picture: Dad is facing forward while the three uncles are standing at an angle to their wives. More tellingly, surrounding his figure are feathery brush strokes painted in tones intended to blend with the background. Photoshop didn’t exist in those days, but photo studios employed artists adept at enhancing or altering a scene when necessary; for instance, when a woman wanted visual documentation to support a lie.

So assiduous was Mom about expunging evidence of her secret shanda, her marital shame, that she had paid for a studio artist to substitute her new husband’s picture for that of the man who had actually been standing beside her at that wedding. Her first husband had been cut out, and my dad had been pasted in.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a writer, activist, and co-founder of Ms. magazine is the author of twelve books, most recently Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy [Post Hill Press] from which this excerpt has been