‘Violent secret that tore me apart’
"I'VE just figured out the most scandalous family secret," breathed my friend down the phone the other day.
"My mum was actually pregnant with me when she walked down the aisle! I figured it out from their wedding video!"
Scandal. Affairs. Shotgun weddings.
This is usually the kind of juicy intel that you think of when you imagine the unearthing of a family secret.
When journalist Nina Young stumbled upon one of her own, however, it was far more traumatic than any of these things.
Eight years ago, while searching out her father's name online, Nina discovered that before she was born, he had murdered a woman.
When her father, Allan, was just 19 years old, he wrapped his hands around a woman's throat, strangling her to death. He buried her in a shallow grave in bushland outside of a small town in the WA outback.
Nina discovered all of this in a court document online.
"At first, I just felt numb," she recalls.
"Then I thought - 'oh my god - I'm going to have to tell my mum about this. How will she react?"
Nina's mother had met Allan a few years after he committed the crime, while he was serving a life sentence for it in Fremantle Prison.
She had been volunteering to help prisoners with literacy, and while she'd always been honest about where and how they'd met, she'd never gone into the details of the crime, apart from vague mentions of a pub fight gone wrong.
"I didn't know how I was going to break it to Mum, that the man she had been in a relationship with was actually a murderer," Nina explained.
"Within a few moments of the phone call, however, it became clear that none of it was news to Mum. She'd known - she just never knew how to tell me."
By this stage, Allan was back in prison and Nina's mother had long since split from him. Nina hadn't had any contact with him since she was a child.
Now, as well as having to come to terms with the fact that her father was a murderer, she also had to reconcile the fact that her mother had known about his crime - and chosen not to tell her.
Psychologist Dan Auerbach explains that in terms of mental health, the discovery of having been lied to is almost as traumatic as the discovery itself.
"Part of establishing psychological safety with others is knowing that they'll be honest with us and that they'll share important information with us, he says.
"When we find out that we don't have the full picture, it feels like our important assumptions are no longer true. Naturally it shakes up our sense of safety. We can no longer count on what we know and it may cause us to go on mistrusting our experience.
"For some people it can set up a response similar to what we see after a trauma. We may start to question all aspects of our relationship with the person who lied to us and become hyper-vigilant, constantly thinking about the betrayal. It's like our brain is saying: 'there's danger, you didn't see it the first time and you may miss it again if you don't pay attention'."
For Nina, this trauma was the beginning of a journey that would eventually bring her closer to the crime and its ripples of grief than she ever wanted to be.
Having had this violent, dark family secret hidden from her for so long, the need to know on her own terms led her down the path to becoming a journalist and taking her family history into her own hands.
"The best way to turn your kid into a journalist is to keep secrets from them," Nina jokes - although there is a lot of truth in what she says.
"From the moment I found out about the crime I knew I had to find out more about the story. The crime my father committed indirectly led to him meeting my mother in Fremantle Prison.
"The woman he murdered lost her life and it led to me being born. That's a lot to unpack - and it's a story I needed to understand."
"I have documented this journey of understanding in a podcast, and honestly, the most healing part of the entire experience was that I finally got to have an open and honest conversation with my mum about it.
"I know now why she kept it from me. Whether or not it was the right decision is impossible to say; what I can say is that I think my mother is one of the strongest, bravest women I know. And hearing about what she sacrificed to keep me safe just solidified that for me."
- To read more visit myfatherthemurderer.com.au. If you have any further information about this podcast or a story to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.