Secret, long-lost family members are a staple in soap operas and thrillers. But in real-life, family secrets are shocking, maybe devastating. People trust that their parents would reveal important information, so uncovering their secrets later in life can shatter a person’s sense of reality. Sarah Leibov, a writer and Feldenkrais practitioner, had her world shaken when she learned about an older sister her father had never mentioned. But soon followed another plot twist. This time, it was the secret of her deceased grandfather.
The Long-Kept Family Secret
The year was 2000. Sarah Leibov was 24 years old and shopping with her fiance for their new apartment. Her mother phoned her and said something that changed Leibov’s life. “I’m not sure how to say this. Your dad has been keeping something from you.”
In her post on HuffPost, Leibov explained that her parents had gotten divorced almost 20 years ago and didn’t have much to do with each other since then. So she was surprised when her mother revealed her father’s long-kept secret: Leibov’s sister. “She was placed for adoption after your dad impregnated his girlfriend, long before he met me,” her mother said. “She is moving to New York and planning to stop here in Chicago in a few days. Your brother and I thought you might like to meet her.” 
Her brother had found out about the sister seven years ago when he came across letters from her in their father’s briefcase. He never told his father about his discovery but he began to correspond with the sister behind his back. One day, his mother noticed an email from the sister on the brother’s computer and he made her promise not to tell anyone about the family secret. But now that she was visiting Chicago, Leibov’s mother wanted to give her daughter the opportunity to meet her secret half-sister.
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
Leibov didn’t say yes right away. “I was in shock, but another part of me was relieved. Intuitively, I’d always felt that my father was hiding something from me. Hearing the news validated the fear I’d buried inside for years.” However, she couldn’t understand why he had kept this secret. She was no stranger to blended family dynamics. She had her brother, a stepsister from her mother’s second marriage, and three half siblings after her father remarried. Leibov also felt betrayed that her brother had never told her. And why hadn’t he confronted their father about this?
Suddenly, she was no longer her father’s first born child. “Despite an unstable childhood split between two different households, I thought I knew my place,” she wrote. “Now I didn’t know anything at all. I didn’t want to meet my father’s hidden daughter behind his back, or hide it from him, as he had from me.”
So she told her brother to confront their father about his family secret, or she would. The three met at a deli the next day. Despite the public setting, Leibov couldn’t help but cry as she asked her father why he’d never said anything. “Because I knew you would react like this,” he responded. Her brother agreed, which made Leibov furious. “Perhaps if he had told me earlier, I wouldn’t have reacted like this.”
Her father explained that when his girlfriend became pregnant, she planned to put up the infant for adoption. The girlfriend moved to another state, had the baby, but 20 years later, the daughter obtained access to her adoption papers and contacted her birth parents. Leibov’s father kept in touch with her and they even met in person several times. But he admitted that he never planned to tell Leibov and her brother about their sister.
A New Sister, and a New Secret
Leibov couldn’t decide if she wanted to meet her newly-discovered sister, until a friend who was an only child convinced her that a new sibling was a gift. Plus, Leibov’s little sister had died eleven years ago from a rare genetic disease. “How could I turn down the opportunity to meet someone who shared the same connection to me?” she wrote.
So she and her fiance met her new sister at a restaurant the next day. “My father was right ― she was lovely, kind and unassuming. I noticed that we both had inherited my father’s dark eyes and curly hair. She seemed a bit nervous and just as intent on making a good impression as I was.” In the years since then, the two sisters bonded over similar interests over the phone and in person, and Leibov grew to admire and care for the sister she never knew she had.
But Leibov’s family had another secret. It’s reveal began, once again, with a phone call from Leibov’s mother, who discovered a new family member after Ancestry.com said she was a close genetic match to a woman she had never seen before. However, the two looked very alike. Geneticists later confirmed that they are half-sisters.
Her mother’s grandparents were deceased so they couldn’t provide any explanations. But the story soon came to light. Leibov’s grandfather had an affair while married to her grandmother. He was a traveling salesman and his infidelity led to the birth of Leibov’s mother and her sister on opposite sides of the U.S. only a few months apart.
No More Family Secrets
Leibov was understandably upset after hearing this. “I had always adored my grandfather, a World War II veteran who devoted himself to volunteer work. Though I knew his marriage to my grandmother was troubled, I didn’t know the extent of it… I was angry at my grandfather for deceiving my mother, as I had been at my father for withholding a sister from me…” However, she forgave him when she saw her mother’s joy at finding a new sibling. “I came to understand that his past, similar to my father’s, had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t their actions that were reprehensible, but their decisions to hide what happened, that had caused my pain.”
So after two major family secrets and painful reveals, Leibov and her husband work to avoid repeating this for their children. They are open about their personal history; after all, it’s better their kids hear it from them than from someone else. This honesty has made them closer. And although Leibov still thinks her father was wrong to hide her sister from her, she’s grateful for their relationship now. Likewise, her mother and her sister bonded, and Leibov plans to strengthen her relationship with her newly-found aunt as well. “Enough time has been stolen from me and now it’s my responsibility to recover what has been lost,” she concluded. She is currently working on her memoir.
- “My Dad Hid My Sister From Me For Decades. Then I Learned That Wasn’t Our Only Family Secret.” HuffPost. Sarah Leibov. August 26, 2022