Everything I Never Told You

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Themes and Colors
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Everything I Never Told You, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon

After Lydia’s disappearance, her family realizes that they know much less about her life than they thought they did, and that Lydia had been lying to them and not expressing her true thoughts and desires for many years. This realization raises the question of how possible it is to truly know other people. Not only does the Lee family not realize that Lydia was being dishonest until after her death, but each of them projected their own ideas about her life onto her. Marilyn thought her daughter was an enthusiastic budding scientist, James thought she had a close group of girlfriends, and Nath thought she had a sexual relationship with Jack—all of which turn out to be untrue. Yet was Lydia’s secrecy and dishonesty the root cause of these misunderstandings, or was the problem actually the strength with which her family members believed in their own convictions?

Lydia’s secrecy, dishonesty, and silence are hardly unique in the book. Each character withholds and distorts the truth in different ways, and, to some extent, this is presented as being an inevitable part of family life. However, Lydia’s death (along with other events, such as Marilyn’s disappearance and James’ affair) show that lack of honesty can have a devastating impact on family life. The title of the book evokes the feeling of regret that arises when the desire to be honest comes too late. The “I” and “you” in the phrase “everything I never told you” could describe several different combinations of characters; Doris and Marilyn, Jack and Nath, Lydia and her family. In each case, characters chose to withhold or misrepresent their true feelings in a way that ultimately drove them apart.

Each of the Lee children is particularly inclined to conceal the truth; this seems to be due to the combination of the intense expectations their parents place upon them and the general sense of alienation they have from the town in which they live. Marilyn gives Lydia a series of diaries in which to write her secrets. However, after Lydia’s death Marilyn opens the diaries and finds them blank, a fact that suggests that Lydia might have anticipated this violation of her privacy. The blank pages of Lydia’s diary mirror the silence of her younger sister, Hannah. Hannah is an exceptionally quiet child who mostly watches others rather than participating in conversation. (Indeed, she is so silent that sometimes her family forgets that she exists.) Meanwhile, even Nath, who—at least in comparison to his sisters—is fairly confident and vocal, has difficulty expressing his feelings. He and Lydia never discuss the time when Lydia almost drowned in the lake because it is “too big to talk about.” When telling his guidance counsellor that he wants to study outer space, Nath “whispered, as if telling her a dirty secret.” Overall, the children are suffocated by their inability to honestly communicate with others. After James and Marilyn discuss his affair and James drives away, the narrator notes that “silence settles over the house like ash.” Silence is thus associated with destruction, ruin, and death.

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Secrets, Lies, and Silence ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Secrets, Lies, and Silence appears in each Chapter of Everything I Never Told You. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Secrets, Lies, and Silence Quotes in Everything I Never Told You

Below you will find the important quotes in Everything I Never Told You related to the theme of Secrets, Lies, and Silence.
Chapter 2 Quotes

Newcomers to the school district assumed Mrs. Walker was a widow. Her mother herself never mentioned it. She still powdered her nose after cooking and before eating she still put on lipstick before coming downstairs to make breakfast. So they called it keeping house for a reason, Marilyn thought. Sometimes it did run away.

Related Characters: Marilyn Lee, Doris Walker
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, the narrator describes Marilyn’s mother Doris, who is a total contrast to her daughter. Whereas Marilyn wants to take shop instead of home economics and dreams of becoming a doctor, Doris is the school’s home economics teacher and a proud housewife. In her classroom, Doris teaches girls how to “keep house,” a phrase Marilyn finds odd. However, Marilyn’s father left the family when she was three, and in this passage Marilyn observes that perhaps “keeping house” is a more apt phrase than it first appears. This observation emphasizes the theme of appearances versus disappearances—Doris works ardently to make it appear as though everything in her family is normal, but she cannot change the truth that her husband left her. This raises the question of whom Doris’ performance is intended to serve—Marilyn? Doris herself? The absent figure of Doris’ husband? This passage also shows that, early on in Marilyn’s life, she saw home as an unstable and even oppressive place. These associations with home will haunt Marilyn’s future and inform some of her more irrational-seeming actions.

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Chapter 3 Quotes

Marilyn, unaware that her youngest is listening so closely, so longingly, blots her eyes and replaces the diaries on the shelf and makes herself a promise. She will figure out what happened to Lydia. She will find out who is responsible. She will find out what went wrong.

Related Characters: Lydia Lee, Marilyn Lee, Hannah Lee
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

In an attempt to understand what happened to Lydia, Marilyn has searched through Lydia’s bedroom and opened the series of diaries that Marilyn has been giving Lydia since she was five years old. However, Marilyn was surprised to find all of them blank. The blank diaries have a double significance. First, the fact that Marilyn has consistently given Lydia a gift that Lydia hasn’t ever used underscores the discrepancy between Marilyn’s desires for Lydia’s life and Lydia’s own ideas about herself (the blank diaries also suggest that Lydia might not know herself well enough to reflect on who she is, perhaps a result of Marilyn’s overbearing influence). Second, the fact that the diaries (which should reveal Lydia’s innermost thoughts) are blank shows that Lydia is going to remain a mystery to Marilyn, a mystery that Marilyn is determined to resolve. Yet this passage indicates that Marilyn may be less adept at understanding the world around her than she’d hoped. Marilyn assumes that there is someone who is “responsible” for Lydia’s death, but there is no evidence that an external party was to blame. Meanwhile, as Marilyn sits in Lydia’s bedroom, she doesn’t notice Hannah “listening so closely,” a detail that highlights the way in which Marilyn is blind to things that are immediately in front of her.

Chapter 4 Quotes

When Nath had been born, then Lydia, Marilyn had not informed her mother, had not even sent a photograph. What was there to say? She and James had never discussed what her mother had said about their marriage that last day: it's not right. She had not ever wanted to think of it again. So when James came home that night, she said simply, "My mother died." Then she turned back to the stove and added, "And the lawn needs mowing," and he understood: they would not talk about it.

Related Characters: Lydia Lee, Marilyn Lee, James Lee, Nath Lee, Doris Walker
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

After Doris’ disapproving comments at Marilyn and James’ wedding, Marilyn never talks to her mother again, and when Nath and Lydia are young children, she gets a call informing her that Doris has died of a stroke. This passage describes Marilyn’s reaction to her mother’s death, revealing Marilyn’s profound and sustained anger at Doris. It also illustrates the extent to which Marilyn shuts out the memory of her mother. Not only does she never speak to Doris again, but she also refuses to mention Doris to James and the children. Marilyn enters a state of denial about her mother, making Doris “disappear” from her life even before she is actually dead.

Early in their relationship, Marilyn and James establish a pact not to discuss the past, and this mutual understanding brings them closer together. However, the novel calls into question how sustainable such a pact could be, since it involves such extreme suppression. Not only does Marilyn cut off Doris completely, she also prohibits any opportunity for her children to know their own grandmother. Although this specific instance arguably prevents the children from the possibility of experiencing racism at the hands of their own grandmother, Marilyn’s repression and silence are part of a behavioral pattern that ultimately comes to have a damaging impact on the Lee family.

So part of him wanted to tell Nath that he knew: what it was like to be teased, what it was like to never fit in. The other part of him wanted to shake his son, to slap him. To shape him into something different. Later, when Nath was too slight for the football team, too short for the basketball team, too clumsy for the baseball team, when he seemed to prefer reading and poring over his atlas and peering through his telescope to making friends, James would think back to this day in the swimming pool, this first disappointment in his son, this first

and most painful puncture in his fatherly dreams.

Related Characters: James Lee, Nath Lee
Related Symbols: Water/Swimming/the Lake
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

James has taken Nath to the Y to encourage his reluctant son to swim with the other kids. However, once Nath is in the pool the other children deliberately desert him in the middle of a game of Marco Polo before taunting him with racist insults. Upon realizing what has happened, Nath furiously rushes to the locker room, refusing to say anything to his father. This passage describes James’ conflicting feelings as a result of the incident at the Y. James feels sympathetic to Nath, particularly as James himself has experienced a lifetime of prejudice, bullying, and exclusion. However, it is this very parallel that discourages James from comforting Nath and instead makes him want to react with violence.

The anger that James feels is arguably not truly directed at Nath, but instead at himself. James is frustrated and disappointed in his own inability to become “normal” and popular, yet he takes these feelings out on his son. This illustrates one of the dangers of parents attempting to live out their own ambitions through their children—it can lead them to blame their children for things that are not their fault.

Chapter 5 Quotes

The story––as it emerges from the teachers and the kids at school––is so

obvious. Lydia's quietness, her lack of friends. Her recent sinking grades. And, in truth, the strangeness of her family. A family with no friends, a family of misfits. All this shines so brightly that, in the eyes of the police, Jack falls into shadow. A girl like that and a boy like him, who can have––does have––any girl he wants? It is impossible for them to imagine what Nath knows to be true, let alone what he himself imagines.

Related Characters: Lydia Lee, Nath Lee, Jack Wolff
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

The police have told the Lee family that, although they are still investigating, there is no evidence that anyone else was involved with Lydia’s death. James thanks them, but both Marilyn and Nath are dissatisfied. Marilyn insists that a “psycho” must have killed Lydia, whereas Nath is convinced that Jack Wolff is to blame. Unlike his parents, Nath has a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of Lydia’s life, including other people’s perceptions of her. He thus understands why the police believe that Lydia committed suicide, even as he disagrees with this interpretation. Nath’s commitment to his own theory about Lydia’s death shows the extent to which people tend to cling to their own interpretations of the world, even when it conflicts with the views of everyone else.

This passage also highlights how the Lee’s racial difference alienates them from the Middlewood community. The phrase “family of misfits” suggests that people see the Lee family as internally mismatched and that this, in turn, makes them at odds with the world around them.

Chapter 6 Quotes

The summer Lydia fell in the lake, the summer Marilyn went missing: all of them had tried to forget it. They did not talk about it; they never mentioned it. But it lingered, like a bad smell. It had suffused them so deeply it could never

wash out.

Related Characters: Lydia Lee, Marilyn Lee
Related Symbols: Water/Swimming/the Lake
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the opening passage to Chapter 6. At the end of the previous chapter, Nath told Hannah that Lydia fell in the lake once before and when Hannah said she couldn’t remember that happening, Nath explained that it was before Hannah was born. In this passage, the narrator makes an explicit connection between two disappearances: Marilyn’s flight to Toledo and Lydia’s far briefer “disappearance” into the water. Although the details of these events have yet to be revealed, it is clear that they are traumatic memories that the Lees have attempted to suppress in order to maintain the appearance of happiness and normalcy.

However, as the narrator’s words suggest, the attempt to suppress these memories is inherently doomed. Even though the Lee family does not talk about Marilyn and Lydia’s disappearances, these events have become a part of them. Denying the fact that they happened thus becomes a way of denying who they really are as a family.

It was a sign, Marilyn decided. For her it was too late. But it wasn't too late for Lydia. Marilyn would not be like her own mother, shunting her daughter toward husband and house, a life spent safely behind a deadbolt. She would help Lydia do everything she was capable of. She would spend the rest of her years guiding Lydia, sheltering her, the way you tended a prize rose: helping it grow, propping it with stakes, arching each stem toward perfection… She buried her nose in Lydia's hair and made silent promises. Never to tell her to sit up straight, to find a husband, to keep a house. Never to suggest that there were jobs or lives or worlds not meant for her; never to let her hear doctor and think only man. To encourage her, for the rest of her life, to do more than her mother had.

Related Symbols: The Betty Crocker Cookbook, Doctors
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

After realizing that she is pregnant with Hannah, Marilyn decides to return home. When she first arrives back at the house, Lydia confesses that she “lost” the Betty Crocker cookbook (although this is a lie; Lydia actually hid it in her room). Rather than being angry, Marilyn interprets this as a “sign” that Lydia can grow up to have the science career that now seems permanently out of Marilyn’s reach. She decides to encourage Lydia toward “perfection” in a way that she believes Doris never did for her. However, Marilyn’s words highlight her hypocrisy. She promises not to “be like her own mother,” but by projecting her own ambitions onto Lydia, she is guilty of the exact same parenting style as Doris—just with a different goal in mind.

This passage is useful in demonstrating the way in which the harmful burden Marilyn places on Lydia originates with good intentions. Clearly, Marilyn loves Lydia, and wants her to have a happy and successful life. At the same time, Marilyn herself is also reeling from her return from Toledo and the death of her personal ambitions of becoming a doctor. It seems that the only way Marilyn can console herself is by silently promising to “encourage” Lydia to live out the dreams that Marilyn cannot. By making this promise, however, she treats her daughter as more of a project or an object than a person in her own right, as illustrated by the comparison of Lydia to “a prize rose.”

Chapter 8 Quotes

It happened so quickly that if she were a different person, Hannah might have wondered if she'd imagined it. No one else saw. Nath was still turned away; Lydia had her eyes shut now against the sun. But the moment flashed lightning-bright to Hannah. Years of yearning had made her sensitive, the way a starving dog twitches its nostrils at the faintest scent of food. She could not mistake it. She recognized it at once: love, one-way deep adoration that bounced off and did not bounce back; careful, quiet love that didn't care and went on anyway. It was too familiar to be surprising. Something deep inside her stretched out and curled around Jack like a shawl, but he didn't notice.

Related Characters: Lydia Lee, Nath Lee, Hannah Lee, Jack Wolff
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

Nath, Lydia, and Hannah are at the lake. Nath has been swimming, and Hannah has been sitting with Lydia on the shore while Lydia sunbathes. Jack comes to sit with Lydia, at which point Nath walks over and sits between them, behaving rudely to Jack and telling Lydia that she’s burning. Meanwhile, a small droplet of water falls from Nath’s hair into Jack’s hand, and—although no one else notices—Hannah sees him tenderly kiss it. The fact that Hannah has been excluded and forgotten throughout her life has made her perceptive, especially to other people’s feelings of unrequited desire for love.

This sets Hannah apart from the other characters; whereas their experience of marginalization makes them take out their own insecurities and disappointment on others, Hannah’s isolation makes her feel closer and more sympathetic to those around her. In addition, while the other members of her family often misunderstand and misread other people’s feelings, Hannah is able to recognize Jack’s love for Nath with startling accuracy. On the other hand, her shyness prevents her from expressing this knowledge, and thus her sympathy with Jack remains confined to her own mind.

Chapter 10 Quotes

"I am disappointed." Marilyn's head snaps up. "l thought you were different." What she means is: I thought you were better than other men. I thought you wanted better than that. But James, still thinking of Marilyn's mother, hears something else.

"You got tired of different, didn't you?" he says. "I'm too different. Your mother knew it right away. You think it's such a good thing, standing out. But look at you. Just look at you."

Related Characters: Marilyn Lee (speaker), James Lee (speaker), Doris Walker
Page Number: 242
Explanation and Analysis:

Marilyn has discovered James’ affair, and has been spitefully questioning him about Louisa. She even suggests that Louisa would make a “nice little wife” and says that Doris spent her life trying to make Marilyn into the kind of woman that Louisa is. The mention of Doris infuriates James, who points out how much of a “disappointment” he was to Marilyn’s mother. In this passage, both James and Marilyn speak about disappointment, but mean two completely different things. Crucially, Marilyn does not fully explain her reasons for feeling disappointed in James, instead silently thinking “I thought you were better than other men.” This allows James to convince himself that Marilyn’s disappointment is not rooted in his affair, but in his race.

James also assumes that because Marilyn is white, she does not really know what it means to stand out, and thus cannot be said to have truly desired it. To some extent, James’ words suggest that he preemptively pushed Marilyn away on account of his belief that she would eventually grow tried of him. In reality, Marilyn has not grown tired of being marked as “different” due to her interracial marriage, but rather she is demoralized by playing the role of housewife and learning that James has cheated on her regardless of her sacrifices for their family. To Marilyn, the fact that she and James have collapsed into gender stereotypes is the greatest disappointment of all.

You loved so hard and hoped so much and then you ended up with nothing. Children who no longer needed you. A husband who no longer wanted you. Nothing left but you, alone, and empty space.

Related Characters: Marilyn Lee, James Lee, Doris Walker
Page Number: 246
Explanation and Analysis:

Marilyn and James’ argument has come to a dramatic conclusion and Marilyn has ordered James to leave the house. After he goes, Marilyn sits and thinks about all the years Doris spent alone before her death. Suddenly, Marilyn feels a strong sense of identification with her mother’s isolation. Despite all the years of love, care, and work that both women put into their family life, both end up alienated from those closest to them.

Marilyn arguably exaggerates her own status as an innocent victim of her family’s desertion here; it was, after all, she who abandoned her family before her family abandoned her. On the other hand, Marilyn’s point about isolation speaks to more fundamental truths than just her own particular situation. Throughout the book, family life is shown to be more fragile than is commonly assumed, and Lydia’s death (and its consequences) highlight how easily family ties can be broken, cutting members of a family off from one another.