The Author of A Fifty-Year Silence on Silence and Secrets

In 1948, after surviving World War II by escaping Nazi-occupied France for refugee camps in Switzerland, Miranda Richmond Mouillot’s grandparents, Anna and Armand, bought an old stone house in a remote, picturesque village in the South of France. Five years later, Anna packed her bags and walked out on Armand, taking the typewriter and their children. Aside from one brief encounter, the two never saw or spoke to each other again, never remarried, and never revealed what had divided them forever.

A Fifty-Year Silence is the deeply involving account of Miranda Richmond Mouillot’s journey to find out what happened between her grandmother, a physician, and her grandfather, an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials, who refused to utter his wife’s name aloud after she left him.

Telling and Not Telling: On Silence and Secrets
By Miranda Richmond Mouillot

Recently, in a tone so angry I wondered what secrets her family must be hiding, a stranger asked me how I could have the temerity to disclose my grandparents’ secrets to the entire world. Specifically, she was angry I would write a book that describes the suffering they had undergone during and after the war and reveals it as the cause of their cracked marriage – to her, that was a secret, something I had no right to share.

Is suffering secret? Should it be?

That’s one of the questions my book explores – in a way, I hope, that allows the reader to decide for himself, because I suspect the answer varies from person to person. In the case of my grandparents, I am quite certain that the fifty-year silence to which the title refers was the loudest possible protest against suffering by two people who had lived through unspeakable experiences. My grandparents knew I was writing a book about them, and both were glad, if grudgingly at first, that their story would be told.

The line between silence and secret can be a very thin one, however, and I worked hard not to cross it as I wrote. I was very close to both my grandparents, and not everything they told me was intended for the pages of A Fifty-Year Silence. They didn’t always think to mention which information was private, and in the case of my grandfather, probably never believed I had it in me to produce an entire book, let alone one that might be published.

So how did I decide what to include and what to keep quiet?

In my part of France, we have a saying, “a secret is something you tell one person at a time.” It’s meant to be funny, but I think it’s also very deep: some of the stories we tell are only meant to be shared with the person to whom we’re speaking directly, who we’ve chosen, who’ll stick around for further explanations, who can compare it to the other things we’ve said over the years.

I’m very grateful to both my grandparents, but particularly my grandmother, for trusting me to distinguish between their secrets and the silence that cloaked so much of their past. Indeed, you may notice the dedication in A Fifty-Year Silence is written in the form of a sentence, but is missing a period at the end. That’s not an omission, and it’s not a convention: it’s because the ending has been hidden.

Originally, I wanted it to say, “This book is for Anna, whose real secrets are safe with me.” I promise those secrets don’t contain any information crucial to understanding what happened.

But now, if you read (and I hope you will!), you’ll know my secret. To me, that dedication is a reminder that everyone’s life is composed of silences and of secrets. The former are shadows on which we may be called to cast light, while the latter are parts of ourselves that can only be shared in intimate settings.

And if you’re trying to figure out how to tell the story of your own family’s silences, I have just one piece of advice, for the secret to respecting others’ secrets in these cases is no secret at all: it takes love.
 

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