In Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours, the Stafford family is widely known for their political prowess, dedication to public service, fabulous wealth, and moral uprightness. However, a scandal involving the abuse and neglect of elderly people in nursing homes that some of Senator Wells Stafford’s friends have ties to threatens the Staffords’ otherwise pristine reputation. With this scandal looming over her family, Avery Stafford (Well Stafford’s youngest daughter) begins to question her long-held belief that her family’s conduct has always been beyond reproach when she finds evidence indicating that her grandmother, Judy Stafford, may have had something to do with the infamous criminal Georgia Tann. The truth, however, is much more tragic than what Avery believes; Judy did not help Georgia Tann get away with running a child trafficking ring—she was one of the thousands of children Tann kidnapped and sold to wealthy and powerful members of America’s upper classes. Avery is even more surprised to learn that Judy has not only known the truth of her birth for decades but has kept in regular contact with her surviving sisters: Rill (renamed May), Fern (renamed Beth), and Lark (renamed Bonnie). Judy kept the knowledge of her history and relationship with her sisters a secret for decades to protect the Stafford family reputation. Through Judy Stafford, Wingate explores the emotional burden of carrying family secrets and illustrates how sharing those secrets can be liberating for the whole family.
Avery begins to wonder about Judy’s past after finding a picture of a woman who looks exactly like a younger Judy in May Crandall’s nursing home room. After investigating further, Avery discovers that Judy was secretly trying to learn more about Georgia Tann, which makes Avery wonder if her family was somehow involved in Tann’s crimes. When Avery first reads about how Tann abused and sold children after learning of Judy’s secretive interest in it, Avery struggles to reconcile her view of her family’s conduct with the possibility that they weren’t always so upright. She wonders what it would mean if “all these years, I’ve been wrong,” highlighting how simply knowing a family member has a secret is enough to shake one’s faith in the family as a whole. This is particularly devastating for Avery, who has long been proud of “the stalwart stronghold of the Stafford name.” This means that she’s always felt safe in her family, but this safety is perhaps contingent on knowing the truth about them. Right now, she’s not sure what the truth is, making it difficult to see her family as a safe “stronghold.” More importantly, Avery wonders what Judy’s possible involvement with Tann would mean for her own life. She wonders, “Do we carry the guilt from the sins of past generations?” Avery’s concern is that whatever her grandmother’s secret is, Avery herself will be in some way responsible for righting past wrongs.
Still, Avery holds out hope that the truth is not as dark as she believes, and that Judy and the rest of the family are innocent of wrongdoing. This is primarily because, “In the world [she] know[s], a polished exterior and an unblemished reputation are paramount.” This means that if the public discovers her potentially devastating family secret, it would mean total social ruin for her family—they would no longer feel pride in their family name, but shame. Because of this, Avery asserts that she “want[s] the truth to be innocent.” This highlights the fact that she is holding out hope that Judy’s potential involvement with Tann did not extend to being complicit in her crimes. Still, Avery knows that “The truth always comes out sooner or later.” Because this, she desperately wants to learn the truth for herself, before it falls into the vindictive hands of a political opponent.
When Avery discovers that Judy is actually one of Tann’s victims, not an accomplice, she is horrified by the realization of all that Judy must have gone through to keep her secret. When Avery finds out that Judy not only knew the truth of her past but was secretly meeting with her sisters, Avery also realizes that “For all these years since [Judy’s] sisters found her, there have been two people inside the body of Judy Stafford.” This highlights how keeping secrets fragments one’s identity, thus making it doubly difficult to achieve happiness as a whole person. However, Avery sympathizes with rather than blames Judy and Judy’s three secret sisters. This is shown by Avery’s realization that “the barriers that created their need for hidden lives and secret meetings seem almost as cruel as those of brokered adoptions, altered paperwork, and forced separations.”
Ultimately, because Avery discovered the truth of the family secret, she is able to reunite Judy and her sister May (Rill), giving them a chance to bond even more over the last few years of their lives. Even though Judy suffers from dementia, her sister’s presence brings some degree of peace to her declining years. Furthermore, learning about the sacrifices Judy made to protect the Stafford name helps Avery realize the importance of being honest with herself—she doesn’t want to be handed a seat in the US Senate just for being a Stafford, she wants to work for it from the bottom up. To that end, Avery takes a position as a lawyer for a senior rights PAC that gives her a sense of fulfillment and purpose.
Family Secrets ThemeTracker
Family Secrets Quotes in Before We Were Yours
I’m wearing one of her favorite pieces of jewelry this morning. I’m dimly aware of it on my wrist as I slide out the limo door. I pretend I’ve selected the dragonfly bracelet in her honor, but really it’s there as a silent reminder that Stafford women do what must be done, even when they don’t want to.
I scroll to the photo, look into the face of the young woman who reminds me even more of my grandmother now that I’m right across the table from her. “She had this picture. Do you know the person in it?” Maybe these are woodpile relatives? People my grandmother doesn’t want to acknowledge as part of the family tree? Every clan must have a few of those. Perhaps there was a cousin who ran off with the wrong sort of man and got pregnant?
I come from a world where we would never openly admit to such things, certainly not to someone who’s practically a stranger. In the world I know, a polished exterior and an unblemished reputation are paramount. Trent makes me wonder if I’ve become too accustomed to the constraints that go with upholding public appearances.
“The truth always comes out sooner or later. I’m of the belief that you’re better off knowing about it first.” But even as I say it, I wonder. My entire life, I’ve been so certain that we were above reproach. That our family was an open book. Maybe that was naïve of me. What if, after all these years, I’ve been wrong?
[…] Do we carry the guilt from the sins of past generations? If so, can we bear the weight of that burden?
I crave a simple answer to all of this. One I can live with. I don’t want to find out that my grandmother was somehow paying penance for our family’s involvement with the Tennessee Children’s Home Society—that my grandfathers were among the many politicians who protected Georgia Tann and her network, who turned a blind eye to atrocities because powerful families did not want her crimes revealed or their own adoptions nullified.
So this was my grandmother’s destination. It’s easy to imagine that she enjoyed coming here. This would’ve been a place where she could leave behind her obligations, her cares, her duties, the family reputation, the public eye—everything that filled those carefully managed appointment books.
“I only took it fo’ safekeepin’,” the woman says. She hands me the tin piece and the papers separately. “That cross been Queenie’s, long time ago. Miss Judy write the other. It’s her story, but she never write the rest. They decide they all gon’ carry it to they graves, I guess. But I figure somebody might come askin’ one day. Secrets ain’t a healthy thang. Secrets ain’t a healthy thang, no matter how old they is. Sometimes the oldest secrets is the worst of all. You take yo’ grandmother to see Miss May. The heart still knows. It still know who it loves.”
I think of the way May explained their choices: We were young women with lives and husbands and children by the time we were brought together again. We chose not to interfere with one another. It was enough for each of us to know that the others were well…
But the truth is, it wasn’t enough. Even the ramparts of reputation, and ambition, and social position couldn’t erase the love of sisters, their bond with one another. Suddenly, the barriers that created their need for hidden lives and secret meeting places seem almost as cruel as those of brokered adoptions, altered paperwork, and forced separations.
The trees lean close after we turn, and I take one look back. I let the river wash away something inside of me.
It washes away the last of Rill Foss.
Rill Foss is princess of Kingdom Arcadia. The king is gone, and so is the kingdom.
Rill Foss has to die with it.
I’m May Weathers now.
My father moves tentatively to a chair, looks at his mother as if he’s never seen her before. In a way, he hasn’t. The woman he remembers was an actress playing a role, at least partially. For all the years since her sisters found her, there have been two people inside the body of Judy Stafford. One of them is a senator’s wife. The other carries the blood of river gypsies.