Secret offspring, especially of celebrities, face complex challenges

May 25 2011 - 2:51pm

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Essie Mae Washington-Williams, shown here in 2006, waited until after U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond’s death to let the world know he was her father. (SHNS photo by Andy Alfaro / The Sacramento Bee)
Essie Mae Washington-Williams, shown here in 2006, waited until after U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond’s death to let the world know he was her father. (SHNS photo by Andy Alfaro / The Sacramento Bee)

By many accounts, Essie Mae Washington had one overwhelming emotion when her mother took the 15-year-old to meet a circuit court judge and told her this unexpected truth: The judge -- Strom Thurmond, who went on to become governor of South Carolina and a U.S. senator -- was her father.

"Now that was a shock to the system," said Washington's daughter Wanda Terry, who lives in Columbia, S.C. "She felt it opened up a whole other life for her that she had to try and deal with."

Washington, who became Washington-Williams after marriage, is 85 and experiencing the early stages of dementia, according to her daughter. She didn't publicly claim Thurmond's paternity until after his death in 2003.

The revelation last week that former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reportedly has a 14-year-old son with a housekeeper once again puts the spotlight on infidelity, hidden children and what the effects of secrecy are on those involved.

Most studies suggest infidelity occurs in 20 percent to 30 percent of marriages, said Paul Hastings, an associate psychology professor at the University of California, Davis.

"As for how many of those produce children, I really don't know. I'm not sure there are good statistics on that," Hastings said. "But I suspect it's not uncommon."

The most applicable research on how children in these situations fare would be to look at studies on adopted children and those who were conceived through donor insemination, Hastings said.

If the children know the truth of their pasts, it is not likely to cause issues until they are in their early 20s, when a curiosity develops to explore their biological origins, he said. "It probably has to do with the early life stage as they move more into becoming parents themselves."

Facing this situation at 14 -- when there already are the complex issues of adolescence -- can be especially difficult since that age is ruled by emotions and not logic, said Paul Hokemeyer, a New York-based marriage and family therapist.

"The whole framework of his life has been threatened," Hokemeyer said about Schwarzenegger's recently disclosed son. "He must be feeling incredibly insecure, lost and vulnerable."

The key to acceptance and healing is the adult support networks the boy has and honest dialogue about what happened, he said.

"All kids need to learn that their authenticity is not defined by the labels the world puts on them, but who they are and how they see themselves and how they live their lives," Hokemeyer said.

The recent revelation also puts intense pressure on the four children from Schwarzenegger's 25-year marriage to Maria Shriver.

"When there's this profound breach, they can lose their capacity to trust, and it's a real price that families pay here," he said.

The best thing parents can do for their children in these situations is to simply listen, said Steve DeBenedetti-Emanuel, a marriage and family therapist in Sacramento.

"It's generally not your job to make the kid feel better," he said. "If you try to reassure them -- 'Oh, it'll be OK, you'll feel better' -- it won't help."

Washington, although at times upset she couldn't openly display her relationship with Thurmond, wasn't bitter or disappointed, said her daughter.

Thurmond was 22 and unmarried when Washington was born. Her mother, a household servant in the Thurmond home, was 16.

Washington believed that her biological parents loved each other but that their races -- he was white and she was African-American -- complicated the situation, said Jack Bass, co-author of two Thurmond biographies.

"She understood that even if he wanted to marry her, it would have been illegal in South Carolina at that time," Bass said. "You have to understand that environment in which it occurred."

Stoic and even-keeled, Washington took the information in stride and continued with her life -- marriage, four children and longtime work as a schoolteacher in Los Angeles.

She regularly exchanged cards and visits with Thurmond, who paid for her studies at South Carolina State College, a black university.

"She really didn't sit down and analyze it to the third degree -- that's not my mother," her daughter said. "She didn't get into the rhymes and reasons of it. She said, 'So be it,' and moved on."

(Contact The Sacramento Bee's Gina Kim at gkim@sacbee.com.

Staff writer Sam McManis contributed to this report.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

 

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