Beyond the shock factor

Trigger warning: Incest, abusive and dysfuntional families.

So, you may have seen a few articles lately about Valerie Spruill, the woman who found out after being widowed that her deceased husband was her also her biological father. I’ve seen several in the past week, most of them with breathless headlines along the lines of “Woman unknowingly married father OMGWTF ICK!”

I exaggerate slightly.

I think Spruill’s story is important to discuss both on its own terms and for its broader implications. But the coverage, especially a lot of the headlines and ledes I’ve seen, has occasionally been off-putting and kind of disturbing. Many articles emphasize the sensational aspects of the case over Spruill’s own experience and her purpose in coming forward with the story.

Why would anyone volunteer this kind of information?

Because Valerie Spruill wants to be an example. The 60-year-old Doylestown woman wants to show other folks born into miserable situations that they can still lead good, productive, fulfilling lives….

“I know there’s a reason why I’m still living,” she says. “And it’s to tell this story.

“It needs to be told, because children need to know where they come from. And I know it hurts, because I have been devastated by this.” [Bob Dyer, Akron Beacon-Journal]

Spruill says the truth about her marriage almost destroyed her, until she sought therapy, where she came to realize that she’d done nothing wrong.

The aftermath of the secret was devastating emotionally — and physically, Spruill suffered two strokes and was diagnosed with diabetes.

All of it, she believes was brought on by learning the family secret.

“Pain and stress will kill, and I had to release my stress,” Spruill said. “I’m just telling the story to release my pain.”  [CNN]

Spruill’s story has since gone viral, and a lot of the detail  – of what she wanted to say, why it was important to her to go public, and what she went through – seems to have been lost in the subsequent reporting. And the “woman marries father” angle has dominated the story, while the dysfunctional family environment that enabled the abuse Spruill endured has only been touched on superficially.

Spruill was born to a teen mom, and was sent to be raised by her grandparents at 3 months old:

[Spruill] found out at the age of 9 that the man she thought was her father was actually her grandfather, and that a person who had been identified as a “family friend” was actually her mother. Spruill didn’t learn until later that her mom also was one of three “night ladies,” as she terms it, who testified in the infamous 1980 corruption trial of Summit County Probate Judge James Barbuto.

The truth about her marriage, too, was a “longtime family secret”:

For years, [Spruill] overheard odd whispers she couldn’t figure out. She finally learned the truth from an uncle not long after her husband/father’s death.

The thing is, this isn’t just a story about a woman who “unknowingly married her father.” It’s a story of a family so dysfunctional that they surrounded one of their own, someone they were meant to protect, with secrets and lies literally from infancy. I see a family that knew for years that Spruill’s “husband” was really her father, but didn’t have the moral integrity or basic decency to tell her until her abuser was dead and gone (and even then they waited another six years!). They protected her abuser, his comfort, and theirs over her well-being.

And I see a story of a man who probably knew exactly what he was doing to his daughter and either married or stayed married to her under false pretenses, that is, without her real consent. I find it very difficult to believe that he didn’t know. But if he didn’t, if anything that makes it worse; it means there were two unwitting victims of the family culture of secrecy.

There are more families like this than we care to admit. Homes where the air is thick with falsehoods and truths that can never be spoken. I would love to see honest coverage of these kinds of families – the micro cultures that produce and enable people like Spruill’s father, the deep family silences that allow people like Jerry Sandusky to harm with impunity. This is what happens when families are so deeply invested in avoiding shame or preserving their respectability and power. The truth gets buried, ignored, and anyone who dares to say what’s really happening pays a price.

As Andrea Smith and others have noted, dysfunctional and abusive families are themselves a mirror of dysfunctional cultures. On a societal level we’re often invested in denying the harm we do, or that we’re complicit in. American culture has evolved sophisticated methods of perpetually dancing around any issue invoking power, violence, and shame – for never really talking about race, for denying the reality of misogyny, for finding a way to believe a victim is lying or was asking for it or the abuse couldn’t really be helped. Anything to avoid acknowledging that oppression is real and deadly.

We pretend there’s some kind of profit in naming oppression for what it is. We call it playing the “race card,” making “false” accusations to “bring someone down.” The truth is that in a culture invested in an illusion of equality, challenging this myth by speaking out is incredibly costly.

Maybe this is part of why we don’t get coverage of a story like this that really asks how something like this could happen – how a family could be like this. “Woman unknowingly married father” doesn’t even begin to capture this story – not when the context for it is that the family knowingly allowed that father to “marry” his daughter, to do something she would never had consented to had she known the truth. But that doesn’t make for as good a headline, and looking too closely at that part might prove uncomfortable.

One of the six brothers [Spruill] is aware of advised her not to go public, saying, “Val, that might bring up a whole lot of skeletons in the closet.”

She replied, “Well, I’m not a skeleton, and I’m hurt.”

I’m struck again by the resistance survivors of family abuse in particular face when they decide to share their stories publicly. Spruill’s family kept silent when they could have stopped the harm her father was doing. Now they want her to keep silent for the family’s sake.

Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long boney white finger would emerge from a cloud and point at you, while a chilling voice thundered, “We told you not to tell.” But that was then. [Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird]

Again, this is reflective of broader cultural silences around issues of family violence:

Initial response to her story has been mixed: “More positive than negative,” she says.

In recent days, she has been in contact with a couple who found out after they were married that they were brother and sister.

They told her, she said, that her story is helping them deal with their own experience.

“They are trying to be friends now,” Spruill said.

Others, though, have been less kind.

“They’ve said things like ‘Some secrets should stay secrets,'” she said. “I can’t do anything about what they think. I just know what I think. God is always mighty, and he teaches you to tell the truth no matter what.” [CNN]

Spruill is speaking out in the face of incredible pressure on all levels to not share her story. She’s done it for her own healing, something survivors are strongly discouraged from prioritizing (note how survivors who aren’t ready to or don’t want to talk about what has happened to them are shamed for not “coming forward”). And she’s helping people – again, probably a lot more people than we care to acknowledge.

There’s also a religious aspect to Spruill’s story that hasn’t been commented on much – both her belief that she survived all that happened to her so that she could help others, and her conviction that she needs to forgive her father:

[Spruill] fights the natural inclination to hate him, because people who hate don’t get into heaven, she says. And if you don’t make it into heaven when the time comes, she notes, you can’t hit the rewind button and try again.

This made me so sad for Spruill. I’m sure she gets a lot of strength and fulfillment out of her faith. I don’t want to disparage that at all. But it’s heartbreaking that the support she gets from her belief in God comes at the cost of fearing eternal damnation unless she forces herself to feel a certain way about the man who abused her.


  1. I’m concentrating on the last part of the post where you report:

    “[Spruill] fights the natural inclination to hate him, because people who hate don’t get into heaven, she says. And if you don’t make it into heaven when the time comes, she notes, you can’t hit the rewind button and try again.”

    This is a hallmark of churches and pastors that still hold on to the shepherding movement. Not allowing the victim to feel like a victim, that she has to search herself for her sinfulness, when she didn’t do anything sinful. Her anger and hatred towards her husband/father is forgiven, just like all sins can be forgiven in the eyes of God. I hope for her faith that she changes her church to one that does understand that victims are victims and survivors, that they are allowed to express their anger, hatred, and pain without fear of being told how they will go to Hell for having those emotions.

  2. I’m reassured to find out from the CNN story that her three children were from a previous marriage. If that hadn’t been the case, I wouldn’t consider it morally OK for her to have come forward unless she first got the consent of all her children and grandchildren.

    I wonder why she has such high regard for her grandparents and mother. Did they die before she married her father, or did they just not tell her?