Pod People: Silent Waves and family secrets

Silent Waves deals with devastating familial revelations in a surprising and supportive way; we delve into the world of the Australian podcast, and five others which tackle tough family secrets

Feature by Brian Cloughley | 28 Sep 2018

There are two stories told simultaneously in Silent Waves. One is sad and sadly commonplace; the other is altogether more uplifting and rare. On the surface you have an account of familial sexual abuse, told by one of the survivors, Raquel O’Brien. This side of the podcast is decent enough. O’Brien is bold, frank and dignified in discussing her childhood abuse and the psychic damage it caused. It’s the kind of story that should be told and should be heard, no question, but at the same time, it might not have been particularly compelling on its own. It’s the presence of a second story that makes Silent Waves a bit special.

As is often the case, it took years for the truth to emerge. O’Brien and her siblings had to overcome a mountain of unwarranted guilt and shame before they could talk about it, so the podcast, although centred on events that took place over a decade ago, has something more current to report on. This is the second story – the reactions of the O’Brien family as they find out what went on in their family home and they are forced to reconsider some of the relationships that defined them.

This should be difficult, right? Exposing abusers in your family is supposed to cause factionalism, rancour, bitterness, division... but somehow, no. The rest of her family are, without exception, supportive, trusting and kind. What gives? How can they be so reasonable, so friendly, so fair fucking dinkum when they’re talking about death and sexual abuse in their immediate family?

It’s got something to do with communication. When talking to her family about the effect that sexual abuse has had on her, Raquel seems able to do so in a way that’s both open and non-accusatory. Her family are never made to feel defensive. Somehow she consistently manages to find a path where she can describe the psychological impact of her trauma without falling into solipsism. You see this approach again at the end of the series, when she continues to look outwards by trying to understand the motivations of paedophiles and abusers, and thoughtfully considering how to deal with them.

And it’s not just Raquel. The whole of the O’Brien clan seem to have the ability to talk about trauma, and the effects of trauma, in a way that seems straightforward and genuine. What a difference between them and the abusive family members. Not just the abuse itself but everything surrounding it – their lying, manipulation and secrecy contrasts with the openness, compassion and frankness of the rest of the family. Even if you’re the kind of person that gets triggered by the word trigger, you’ll be hard pushed not to find them worth listening to.

Five More Podcasts About Family Secrets

Secrets – Short pieces about people with huge secrets, some absolute whoppers. It’s structured around the tale of a dodgy, lying patriarch, and presented by a whispering host for that extra conspiratorial edge.

Family Ghosts – Sometimes family secrets can span generations, and this programme does of a fine job of demonstrating the trouble they cause.

The Secret Room – Anonymous contributors tell their secrets, some of them fun some of them horrible. It’s often hard to know which way these confessionals will go which adds to the excitement.

Modern Love – Readers of the New York Times write in with the stories of their love-lives, then famous actors read them out. Pretty good, having a third party recite the stories sacrifices some of their intimacy.

This is Love – Phoebe Judge of the tremendous Criminal podcast turns her hand to something altogether sweeter, rooting out some cute family tales.