TV Tropes Tuesday: TV Tropes: Family Relationship Switcheroo

Family Relationship Switcheroo is a trope where it turns out that a family relationship is not what one thought it was.  There can be many variations, but the most common is when it is revealed that a person grew up believing that his or her mother was his or her sister and his or her grandmother was his or her mother.  Actor Jack Nicholson experienced exactly that, never learning the truth until after his mother and grandmother died.

This is something that happened a lot in the past.  Until a few decades ago, it was considered shameful for a girl or woman to be pregnant out of wedlock.  Very often, it would be a family secret.  Not only that, it was common for girls and women pregnant out of wedlock to be sent away to special homes for the duration of the pregnancy, while their mothers would pretend to be pregnant.  Another reason for such an arrangement is that it was common for unwed mothers to be forced to give their babies up for adoption; many girls and women, not wanting to lose their children chose to simply be the older sister to their children rather than the mother; another reason to avoid adoption was the fact that in those days, it was rare for non-white babies to be adopted.  This stopped in the 1970s when birth control pills became widely available, when abortion was legalized, and when premarital sex/cohabitation became more and more socially acceptable.

Today, it is common for children born to teens to be raised by their grandparents, but there is no dishonesty about the relationship.  However, this trope still happens sometimes in real life.  I wouldn’t be shocked if a conservative politician were to do this in order to preserve his or her family image.  However, sometimes there are sinister reasons for this trope to happen in real life; that reason would be to cover up sexual abuse and incest.  Tragically, that might be the most common reason nowadays.

There can be other types of relationship switches.  One might be if a woman were to cheat on her partner with his family member, meaning that his child could biologically be his brother (if she cheated with his father), nephew (if she cheated with his brother), or cousin (if she cheated with an uncle or cousin).  Anther variation is if a man cheats and fathers a child and the child is raised as the man’s nephew/niece.  Yet another variation is a child being raised by an aunt, believing that the aunt is his or her mother.

Some examples in fiction:

  • In the Australian soap Home and Away, Charlie is revealed to be Ruby’s mother, born after Charlie was raped. Charlie’s parents raised the baby as their daughter. When Ruby finds out, she goes ape about it, before finally forgiving Charlie for the deception.
  • A major arc on Moesha involves Dorian discovering that his uncle, Frank, is really his biological father, born from a relationship he had while he was separated from his first wife. His mother was thus really his aunt.
  • On The Parkers (a spin-off of Moesha, above), Nikki is shocked to discover (on a family trivia game show, no less) that she was adopted. Her biological mother turns out to be her aunt.
  • Desperate Housewives : Bree hides the pregnancy of her teenage girl and pretends to be the mother of her grandson.

Some examples in real life:

  • Jack Nicholson’s “older sister” was really his mother while the woman who was allegedly his mom was actually his grandmother. His real mother did it because she had sex with a man (both were unmarried) who ended up leaving her and she didn’t want anyone to know that she was an unwed mother (both Nicholson’s grandmother and mother died before he found out this family secret). In a height of coincidence, he learned this just as Chinatown — in which he starred — was about to open in theaters.
  • The same was true for:The Guinness Book of Records refuses to accept many well-known historical claims for “oldest mother to successfully carry a child to term” out of suspicion that they were examples of this trope.
  • Eric Clapton
  • Bobby Darin
  • David Campbell. His real father was Jimmy Barnes, who would go on to become an Australian rock icon.
  • Ted Bundy suspected for years that his older sister was in fact his mother, finally learning it for a fact in 1969. Even worse, she might very well have been his sister after all, given the heavy, yet unproven speculation that he was the result of Parental Incest between her and his grandfather.
  • Bayard Rustin.
  • Jaycee Lee Dugard’s two daughters, (ages 15 and 11) by her rapist and kidnapper Phillip Garrido believed their whole lives that Jaycee was their older sister and that Garrido’s wife was their mother. They had to find out the horrible truth after the police finally caught and arrested Garrido.
  • Upon the announcement of her candidacy for Vice-President of the United States in the 2008 elections, rumours began to circulate that Gov. Sarah Palin was actually the grandmother of her youngest son, and that his oldest sister was actually his mother. Subverted, as the rumours were soon proved completely unfounded. Her eldest daughter, Bristol, would later get pregnant out of wedlock, but the Palins decided to be public about it.
  • In the Middle Ages it was not unusual for popes to have illegitimate children (such as Pope Alexander VI‘s children, Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia) that they bestowed favors upon, although it was considered gauche to publicly acknowledge their paternity. Instead, they were referred to as “nephews” or “nieces” of the pope. This is the origin of the term “Nepotism“.
  • In 1939, a then-5-year-old girl from Peru named Lina Medina was taken to the hospital for a tumor in her belly. During the examination, it turned out that she was pregnant (she had gone through puberty at an unusually early age). She gave birth via c-section to a young boy, but was told her whole life that he was her younger brother. It is not known who his father was; Lina’s father was jailed on suspicion of incest, but he was released for lack of evidence, and Lina herself wouldn’t say who had done this to her. She lived a pretty normal life otherwise, and later married and had another son (this time one that she actually knew was her son.)