Secret Box

Searching for Dad in a Century of Self

Non-Fiction - Memoir
256 Pages
Reviewed on 03/31/2018
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Author Biography

I am a psychologist son who wrote a book convinced that this particular story addressed questions of interest to many of us.

On reaching 60 three years ago, a father thing that had always bugged me turned into an urge to settle it somehow. Helen and I were empty-nesters, taking life slower, when that big birthday made us notice that those who could answer our family questions wouldn’t always be around.

This is when we launched ourselves on a quest as detectives trying to solve this mystery, ostensibly to do with my father...

    Book Review

Reviewed by Jamie Michele for Readers' Favorite

Secret Box: Searching for Dad in a Century of Self by Tony Page is the author's memoir chronicling his own life and that of his deceased father and the family left behind. It starts with Page's earliest memory of abandonment at the age of fourteen, when he and his siblings go out for a swim in the Deben Estuary with their father. Soon after, Page's father and sister swim ahead into the open water and, forced into a vigorous current, Page finds himself alone, in danger, and afraid. However, it is the silence that follows that cloaks the author's life. Many years later when Page's father dies, his father's third wife hands him a box that sits unopened for over a decade. Once opened, Page begins the difficult personal journey of finding out who his father really was, attempting to piece a fragmented life back together for answers.

Secret Box by Tony Page is an interesting read, and one I had to step away from a few times; not because it isn't wholly engrossing (it certainly is) but because it doesn't make for light reading. Intelligently written and surprisingly thoughtful (given what he'd been through), Page details family history, the downfall of a marriage and destruction of his family, and the resulting tailspin that ensued and impacted his life over sixty years. I enjoyed the writing style which felt as if I was being told a story by a friend. A resolution of sorts is ultimately achieved by Page himself, although his father did make a half-hearted non-apology that he self-indulgently referred to as "atonement", and as this is the best that can be mustered by a man of the "silent generation", Page turns inwardly for the healing that all of us in similar situations wish for.

Eric McDowell

A compelling study towards understanding family dynamics and how they got that way.

Tony Page’s Secret Box: Searching for Dad in a Century of Self is an engrossing personal memoir, a respectful analysis that methodically examines the variables that contributed to a family breakdown with an acute focus on the author’s father, who was caught up in what the author terms a “cult of self” via the Human Potential Movement of the 1960s. The memoir is not a blame game; rather, Page exudes compassion on every page as he at first gropes in darkness for the understanding that so eludes him but slowly elicits light and comes into clearer focus as the narrative progresses.

We examine the author’s father through a somewhat smoky glass throughout the read. We never really “see” him; we see only his essence. Such a method is an effective way to suggest the puzzling nature of the father—that is, he is as shadowy a figure to us as he was to his son. With Page’s discovery of a secret box containing his late father’s journals, he is ready to take on the task of analyzing him and how his behavior set into motion what became a fractured family.

One of the memoir’s many highlights takes place in a Viennese café (coming at a bit past the book’s halfway mark) and leads to some surprising revelations. While dining in a booth and using his laptop to write, the author strategically places condiment jars and bottles on the table to represent family members as he examines their behaviors and motivations as a theatre director would do. In this way, with Freud’s work on his mind (Page is also sitting in Freud’s favorite café, a faint suggestion that he is channeling the master in some way), he begins to grapple with the inner workings of the family machine, which ultimately helps him understand his father better. The writing in these scenes is captivating because the author demonstrates how visualization processes help clients “see” the emotional baggage as apart from him or her, a mindset so necessary for healing.

The final section of Secret Box contains an illuminating series of appendices that provide background on psychological theories and treatment practices, as well as the methods that have influenced Page’s own practice. This section is enlightening because the author helps us visualize abstract concepts through workshop exercises. He also discusses the value of writing as a means of therapy. When the therapist works with the client’s stories by making the stories an essential part of his or her counseling practice, the professional relationship becomes a kind of collaboration towards gaining understanding and insight into the client’s issues. The writing in these sections is not at all pedantic or laden with jargon. There is even a rather humorous scene between the respected R. D. Laing and Carl Rogers as they debate in a 1978 co-presentation. Page also describes a mesmerizing scene of “rebirthing,” wherein a patient goes through a symbolic journey of reliving his passage through the birth canal in order to be “reborn” and able to begin life anew.

Because of its wealth of food for the mind, it’s a book to savor slowly for maximum benefit and understanding. Highly recommended.

Ann W Campanella

An absorbing, fascinating read!

Secret Box: Searching for Dad in a Century of Self, is an absorbing, powerful book. Tony Page's memoir reads like a mystery as he takes us on a tour through his past to unravel the enigmatic, perplexing memories of his father. After a lifetime of silence from his parents, Page, a psychologist, discovers a multitude of diaries written by his father. The author recreates the drama of his childhood, illuminating the darker side of his father who was caught up in the self-gratification of the Human Potential Movement in the 1960s.

A fascinating portrait emerges as Page weaves together scenes from his present and past, unveiling in the process how the sharing of stories has the potential to produce understanding and hope.

Mary A Joyce

Rediscovering our fathers and ourselves

An impressive and thoughtful book in which the writer tells the true story of how he came to rediscover his father through a chest of unopened diaries and letters that had lain in the attic for many years. What he uncovers in the dairies forces him to re-evaluate his memory of his father and their family history, and gain a deeper insight into himself and the influences that shaped him, and his father.

Touching and sensitive, funny in places, and extremely enjoyable, this is one of those special pieces of writing where the author skilfully tells a compelling story whilst at the same using his professional knowledge to demonstrate the psychological insight that can help all of us understand more about our own family relationships and dynamics.


Bringing to life that particular period in the Sixties...

A searingly honest book that not only invites us to examine how much we really want to know about our parents but also give us ample reasons for both accepting and rejecting that invitation.

The book works brilliantly in bringing to life that particular period in the sixties and seventies when the old certainties, the known and the familiar were cast aside in pursuit of adventure and risk, the experimental and the new. The quiet devastation inflicted on the children left ( literally) floundering in the wake of a parent's total absorption in and commitment to self is skilfully, albeit painfully, depicted and, kudos too, to the redoubtable Helen whose insights, pragmatic scepticism and unwavering support enabled the author to finally find his father.

Gordon Lyle

Philip Larkin may have been right about the impact our parents have on us but, in this compelling and intriguing tale of exploration, the author is determined not to be ‘handed on misery’ and rather to open hearts and minds, to learn lessons and to hand these on instead. Brave and very personal, not many books make their impact as viscerally as this.

Gordon Lyle, former VP HR Starbucks

Tritia Neeb

As soon as the secret box is opened, you must continue to read to the final page!

People have told stories for centuries, which keep their hopes and tragedies alive long after those people have passed away. ‘Secret Box’ is a story about a quest that is exciting, emotional, funny, insightful and at times difficult. Shadows of the past can prevent us from enjoying our lives in the bright sunlight. Here the author shows us the courage needed to make the shadows disappear.

J Keeley

What I love about this set of stories is the raw nature ...

I had the privilege of reading this twice as Tony did ask me to review the early manuscript. Even though I found the first time compelling reading, I found reading it again even more compelling and even harder to put down.

What I love about this set of stories is the raw nature of it. I say "set of stories" as it seems to me a whole series of nested stories rolled into one. The story of Tony's Dad, the story of his parents' marriage, the story of Tony doing all is research into the history of his father, the raw story of Tony's own secure marriage full of honest conversation. And laid through all of this the richness of developmental psychology laid bare: how we get to be where we are, and how important it is for us both to understand how we turned out the way we did and at the same time to honour the parents that also were not pure despite how much we want them to be.

Tony Page is a rare kind of storyteller and it is worth reading his other books too, Diary of A Change Agent and Hippos to Gazelles. Both also raw, rich, real stories of life where we want so much for it to work out perfectly and where the reality is always different from that and we have to keep on going.

Diane Pomerantz

A poignant and sterling memoir of the author's search to understand his relationship with his father ... he then takes it a step further to explore the meaning of the relationship between fathers and sons more generally: quite a formidable task and (he) does an admirable job with it.

Once a writer puts his story out into the world... the story is forever transformed by every reader and becomes a myriad of stories… goes far beyond the father-son relationship. This is a story of families. As a woman I could strongly identify with (the mother): she had to protect her children but what could she do?

This is a story of narcissism and how it impacts an entire family and the generations that follow. It is a wonderful psychological memoir that speaks to many of the current issues of today. I highly recommend it.

Ms B Bloomfield of Lapidus

As someone interested in writing memoir, I was fascinated by this story. A high concept idea, unravelling secrets in the family, turns it into a very readable memoir mainly about a father who turned from a God-fearing do-Gooder into a sybaritic hippy and womaniser, leaving four children puzzled and abandoned.

The author reflects on the selfie/selfish generation that we have become. A memoir that is not at all misery but thoughtful and thought-provoking. This is a good read.

Sally Phillips

A great story and a gripping read. I couldn't put my copy down and had to return in haste to Amazon for further copies as presents for friends and colleagues.

We learn how a man who marries for love and sets out to do good in the world by the 1960s has become delusional, deranged at times, and completely centred on meeting his own, un-meetable needs. It was the 1960s, I was there, I remember the excitement of the anti-psychiatry movement and the huge emphasis on human potential and individual freedom. These provided context and connivance for the father's actions.

Secret Box fascinates as a real-life record of authorial research. His father has left a box of papers and diaries, which the author, supported by his wife, finally decides to open and investigate. Conversations with surviving relatives are recorded, former scenes of family drama re-visited (with) psychotherapeutic methods made transparent as the author recreates the most puzzling family situations.

Finally, there's a heart-lifting chapter in which the author revisits the scene of one of his father's human potential workshops, now a clinic for recovering addicts. It's a lovely validation of real human potential, based on trust, honesty and individual responsibility, and sits in contrast to the lies, hypocrisy and lack of responsibility that characterised the father's demise. While the author does speak with some detachment, there's no mistaking his compassion for his flawed, damaged parent.

All in all, a great book.

Lindsey de Feliz

Entertaining, thought-provoking and highly recommended.

Tony Page’s Secret Box is part novel, part memoir, part detective story of a man trying to solve the mystery about his deceased father. The book works on many different levels.

Firstly, it is a memoir about the author’s life, but in addition, it is also full of great ideas about how to actually write a memoir, and how to trigger long-hidden memories, by using a whole range of interesting tools. It is also a book about psychology, given that the author is a psychologist, and again discusses several different techniques but not in an abstract way as they all add to the layers of the story.

It covers the 1960’s bringing back memories for those, like me, who lived through those years. Secret Box is well written, informative and entertaining as well as thought-provoking. I really enjoyed it and have no hesitation recommending it.”

Sue Toft

Well-written and absorbing. Anyone with an interest in psychology will find it illuminating and for the general reader, it is a very enjoyable and human story.

Dave Peck

Thoughtful, provocative and rewarding.

I really enjoyed this gripping story. Tony’s extraordinary experiences and his honest exploration of his feelings about them as he grew up are fascinating. Additionally, of course, the reader is drawn into looking at her/his own family relationships through the psychologist’s eye.

A thoughtful, provocative and rewarding auto-ethnography. I’d never knowingly read one of those before!

Ella Mesma

What a fab and insightful read. I learnt so much about human beings, plus really enjoyed the story, the honesty and getting to know all the characters: definitely recommended!

Kritika Narula

Realistic. Raw. So different. Just states the truth.

I have never read a book that handles the issues of digging the past so realistically. This is what makes the story and the book in entirety so different: a highly risky narrative. The narrator's journey of weaving together these remnants seems painfully realistic, and raw. A favourite bit is the psychological tangent it took: and kept, realistically. It doesn't exaggerate it as a moment of epiphany for the whole family just to make it a great, fun plot. It just states the truth: that often the passage of time creates unease for you, but the others may not feel it with the same intensity, or even, at all. The rest of the family isn't bothered.

Closures are sought by all of us and they are highly underrated. Or in the words of the author: 'Silence denies us understanding while truth lets us live and breathe.' A long-awaited look at the aftermath of living in dysfunctional families with individuals scarred and marred by what the world offered them.

Tasveer Shemza

A unique story. Captivating. A real page-turner.

Family stories are fascinating to many of us and a well-explored genre. Tony Page, however, had a unique story to tell. He linked the personal to the psychological, placing his family in the context of both his father's time and his own. This gave the book an extra special dimension.

The book was also a quest and a mystery. I found it altogether captivating and a real 'Page-turner'!

Dr Sarah Stahlke

Wow! Fantastic. Engaging. Relevant.

Because of my academic interest in personal experience research methods, Tony Page invited me to read his book, Secret Box. I believe in the power and potential impact of one person's story yet I expected this story to be something I would look in on from a distance and observe with interest but little passion. Wow, was I wrong! I could not put this book down. I stayed up into the night to find out what happened next! I was captivated from the beginning and completely absorbed in a story that ultimately had tremendous resonance for me.

In his 60s, Tony Page embarked on a voyage of discovery to learn about and reflect on his father’s life, actions, and behaviour, and the impact he had had on Tony during his formative years and early adulthood. His father had lived his life on an ever-escalating search for potential and purpose, slowly but surely destroying his family through his self-centeredness and self-absorption. To build a historical picture, Tony pursued information about his father and family, reaching out to people and places to which he was guided by his own memories, as well as the artefacts contained within his father’s “secret box.

I was incredibly impressed by Tony’s commitment to his inquiry. He was relentless, creative, methodical, and thorough. I marvelled at the wisdom, support, patience, and balance that his wife, Helen, offered him through the process. I felt drawn into the journeys, conversations, storied and dramatized memories, and all of the disappointments and confusions that emerged from the experiences of Tony’s life. I wanted to understand along with Tony what had happened over all those years.

Although this story of family differs from my own, certain elements caused me to think about my own father and mother, about myself as a parent and seeker of purpose and meaning, and, on a sociological level, about families and the power they have over the people within them. Tony illustrated beautifully through this book that “armed with your story you can claim your place and figure out who you are” (p. 18). He also showed us that the human experience is shared and that one person’s experience can teach another person something about theirs. This is a fantastic, engaging, relevant book.

Jo Franklin

Got under my skin. Forgiving my Dad just a little more.

Brave and stimulating. Tony's book got under my skin and stayed with me very vividly after reading it. The past is indeed 'a foreign country' and… the best interpreter for this strange land would surely have to be a psychologist as experienced and skilled as Tony obviously is. As someone who had a very self-absorbed and selfish father, (I) came with the viewpoint that some people are just too selfish to become parents.

Through a variety of methods, (including) his dining room table theatre of objects, Tony searched for the meaning from the piecemeal evidence of the diaries against the reticence of relatives. With his deeper understanding of his father, I found myself forgiving my Dad in turn just a little more - putting him in his own context and not judging him by our times - that helped!

Thank you for such an interesting and thoughtful exposition on the subject to help us all in that endeavour!

Dr Susan Kirkcaldy

A compelling read: riveting, exciting, funny, difficult, a thriller-cum-detective story and at its heart a courageous and raw personal story of a family in crisis.

This quest for understanding long-hidden truths unravels the mystery of how and why a family fell apart long ago. The intense yearning he has to validate memories has a propulsive force that carries us hurtling along with him, as he pieces the mosaic together, with the help of a ‘secret box’ of papers uncovered long after his father’s death.

His own family history does much more than tell this vital and compelling story. Woven within the narrative, drawing from his professional resources, Tony Page explains the methods and tools of his search as he searches, making these available for readers who resonate with the mystery and history of family stories of our own. Interwoven are also his own views on the emerging developmental philosophies of the 60s, their particular impact on his father, the family and more widely

It is this practice of reflective teaching about personal growth, intertwined with the unfolding reality of the author's personal search, that raises this memoir to a higher level and makes this a great read with wider relevance.

Finally, in the background, there is another theme: a love story of ‘a good marriage’. Throughout his quest Tony works with his wife Helen. It is evidently not her quest. Yet her presence, emotional integrity and wisdom permeate this book. In this wonderfully subtle evocation of partnership on the quest to fulfilment, this book demonstrates a profound longer arc of history: some sagas require more than one generation to resolve. Tony Page’s parents came into their own marriage with unresolved family histories, yet it is in this third generation that the promise of a marriage is fulfilled. It makes a deeply satisfying ending to a powerful roller-coaster emotional ride.

Frank Kusy

Cathartic and totally absorbing. A needy, narcissistic, idealistic father was neglectful, obsessive, and driven by demons, which compel him to take risks and to encourage his children to take risks too. In a brilliantly written opening sequence, one particular risk leads to near-tragic consequences – a terrible incident which will transform the carefree, uncomplicated boy known as Sunny Jim (Tony) into a troubled, disillusioned young man with definite trust issues.

So deep are these issues, and so complicated his relationship with his father – who is variously described as a Pinocchio, a Walter Mitty, a Jekyll and Hyde, and a Don Quixote – that when he dies and leaves behind a box of letters and diaries it takes Tony many years to open it and read them. There follows a kind of detective story with Tony and his wife poring over the Messiah Delusion of a wildly elusive dad and attempting to glue back a family which has been blown apart by an early death, a suicide attempt, and a destructive series of ‘revelations’.

But there are moments of pure humour – like when a sexually repressed man consults a guru and is made to speak from his trousers (!) – so that one can smile through all the tragedy. This is a very brave and important book with a very important message: don’t make a box of secrets because untold stories can be poisonous; also that as soon as a story can be told, the healing can begin.

Tomb Owler

Starkly honest and intelligent. Obsessive. Impressive.

This is a most unusual, but totally absorbing book. It describes the author’s quest – aided by his supportive wife – to understand why his deceased father became so distant and why he ended up abandoning his family to start a new one. The start of the book has a very melancholy tone. It continually made me think of my own relationship with my parents, plus made me worry how my own children will one day view my parenting!

The story becomes a detective novel with the author setting about trying to fit together the various jigsaw pieces of his past to make sense of it – particularly with respect to his father’s key role. It’s a starkly honest and intelligent piece of writing – obsessive in its search for understanding in the face of other family members’ reluctance to speak. It offers plenty to think about. An impressive piece of work. Definitely recommended.