Historian to probe ‘family secrets’ at annual W. Bruce Lincoln lecture

Deborah Cohen
Deborah Cohen

Award-winning historian Deborah Cohen, whose latest book offers a sweeping and often surprising account of how shame has changed over the last two centuries in Britain, will visit campus this month to deliver the 11th annual installment of the W. Bruce Lincoln Endowed Lecture Series.

Cohen, who serves as the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Humanities at Northwestern University, will begin her talk at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 29, in the Altgeld Hall Auditorium. Her presentation is titled, “Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Britain” and will draw from her widely acclaimed book, “Family Secrets: The Things We Tried to Hide.

“Deborah Cohen’s talk on the history of shame peers into a fundamental human emotion,” says James Schmidt, chair of NIU’s Department of History. “Her research, grounded in Victorian Britain, delves into how British society defined and dealt with the boundaries of socially acceptable behavior. We live in a time where people still struggle with this issue, and her lecture will give us a powerful historical perspective.”

Published in 2013, “Family Secrets” was named a “Book of the Year” by several publications, including “The Sunday Times” in London, which hailed Cohen for prying open “the most astounding archives to uncover what our recent ancestors tried to hide.”

“Drawing on years of research in previously sealed records – volumes of diaries that gay men hid in bank vaults or in trunks under their beds, records of homes for unwed mothers and of institutions where children with learning  disabilities were put away for a lifetime – I tell an intimate history of why social mores changed,” Cohen says.

The lecture will make a surprising argument, she says: Secrets laid the cornerstone for legitimate claims to privacy. “No one today wants to believe that their right to privacy depends on keeping secrets,” she says.

Book cover of “Family Secrets” by Deborah Cohen“Privacy is exalted, while secrecy is scorned,” Cohen says. “And yet, for the Victorians, secrecy and privacy were fundamentally intertwined. Between prying neighbors and a legal system that insisted upon transparency, privacy necessarily hinged on secret-keeping. Well into the 20th century, secrets forged the bonds of familial trust. How secrets have served as the unlikely bulwark of privacy – and how secrecy and privacy eventually came apart – is the history that I’ll recount.”

Educated at Harvard (B.A.) and Berkeley (Ph.D.), Cohen specializes in modern European history, with a focus on Britain.

Her two previous books – “The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914-1939” and “Household Gods: The British and their Possessions” – also received critical praise, as well as multiple book awards. She has held fellowships from the Mellon Foundation, the National Humanities Center, the American Council of Learned Societies and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Sponsored by the NIU history department and the W. Bruce Lincoln Endowment, the Lincoln Lecture Series is free and open to the public. For more than a decade, it has brought distinguished scholars to campus to speak on topics of interest to the academic community and general public. The lectures engage key issues and are often interdisciplinary, in the spirit of Professor Lincoln’s research, writing and teaching.

Lincoln taught Russian history at NIU from 1967 to 1999, while earning recognition as one of America’s leading experts on Russia. The recipient of many national grants and awards, he published 12 widely acclaimed books on Russia, several of them skillfully crafted for general readers.

For more information, call (815) 753-0131 or email history@niu.edu.

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