Toronto
2 min

The destruction of secrets

A harrowing tale of survival

BETRAYAL. The W series Family Secrets profiles the Jehovah's Witness family of Donald D'Haene; he and his siblings were sexually abused by their father for years. Credit: Xtra files

Many childhood homes have closets that hold skeletons. The W Network’s documentary series Family Secrets opens those doors and broadcasts the unmentionables in prime-time television.



Donald D’Haene is a gay author, actor and survivor of sex abuse. The episode entitled When Nobody’s Looking (which airs Mon, Apr 12 at 10:30pm) tells the story of the D’Haene household in Alymer, Ontario, where his father sexually abused him and his siblings for years.



Canadian filmmaker Maureen Judge uses a combination of interviews, archival footage and footage of siblings revisiting their past to tell this story of a family buried under the burden of their secret.



D’Haene, who also wrote a memoir of his experiences, A Father’s Touch, recalls with disturbing detail how the abuse started when he was only four years old, when his father introduced him to “the game” which involved him rubbing his father’s penis up and down.



In When Nobody’s Looking, Donald and his brother Ronnie return together to their childhood home for the first time in decades; memories flood back. One painful memory that surfaces is of “the bunny massacre” when their father slaughtered the family pets as punishment for not playing the game, and “Do you want a new bunny?” became incentive for playing the game.



The show also examines how such horrors are kept secret. As devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, the members of the family lived under strict control of their father, and even after the children disclosed the abuse to their church elders, they were sent back home and told to be obedient.



The lasting effects of abuse can be seen in Donald’s sister’s testimony that sometimes she just breaks down or brother Ronnie’s assertion that, “I never dreamed that a person could be happy,” as well as the rifts that existed between the siblings because they reminded each other of the abuse.



Judge’s camera follows Donald as he revisits his old church and school, conquering some of his fears triggered by his abuse memories. The dissection of their painful past is set against the present day, alluding to how famlies move on, survive and try to heal.



Donald seems to be coming to terms with the past, mother D’Haene is away from the father (who only received two years in jail), brother Ronnie has a family. A get together for an upcoming wedding brings a new generation into the story and we see the sweet smiling face of a niece and are warmed that this little girl can be loved and happy and come from a family so devastated.



What is noticeably lacking in this profile of the D’Haene family is mention of the fact that Donald is gay. The only references to his sexuality is a rainbow mug in one of the shots and D’Haene reading from his memoir to a gay group at his local library – but that is it. This reticence feels out of place given the documentary’s intimacy and honesty. Donald’s story of survival is one that needs to be told to prevent others from having to keep their secrets of abuse, and also one that can inspire healing and finding happiness.



FAMILY SECRETS: WHEN NOBODY’S LOOKING.

10:30pm. Mon, Apr 12.

W.