mothering bodies ~ adoption ~ alt.gender ~ parenting ~ work/life balance

Friday, February 21, 2014

Secrecy: the Fiction of Control

The problem with secrets is that they never stay that way.
Photo: MLB

By their very nature, they're doomed to fail.

At times, we hold the happy secret of a wonderful surprise ("Don't look in the driveway before I get home on your birthday, Darling!"), but this essay is not about fun secrets. It is about the other kinds.

We keep secret those topics we do not want to reveal to others. Usually, such topics cause us shame or fear--or, sometimes, both. Shame and fear are powerful motivators of silence, so much so that we even try to hide our painful or inconvenient truths from ourselves.

Some shameful secrets simply hide the embarrassing, like having eaten a fourth brownie. (Obviously, I am dealing in the hypothetical here. I know nothing about excessive chocolate consumption.) Other secrets bury frightening experiences; for example, a history of childhood sexual abuse by a popular family elder. It should go without saying that I neither equate brownie indulgence with incest nor suggest that these two very different examples represent the entire range of potential secretive topics. My point is that we humans often secret a wide variety of both our own foibles and the ways in which others have frightened and/or shamed us, and that we also sometimes cover up the very existence of these experiences to ourselves and others.

Why might we keep such multi-layered secrets?

We do it because secrets offer the promise of control. And control is power.

What we do not consider, unfortunately, is the fact that the secret's promise is unfulfillable and that the control it offers is a sham.

"A sham?" you may be wondering, slightly panicky. "What do you mean, 'sham'?"

The power promised by secrecy is a sham because it is fictional: secrecy offers a control that does not exist. We cannot control certain aspects of any scenario we seek to contain through secrecy. And, yet, our desire for that very control seduces us anyway, a desire so strong that it overrides reason.

"If I don't tell anyone about the fourth brownie," the dieter thinks, "then no one will know I cheated on my diet."

"If I don't tell anyone about Uncle Jonathan touching me," the child thinks, "then everybody will still like Uncle Jonathan and I won't get in trouble."

In both of these scenarios, the dieter and the child cling to equations of ignorance and control with happiness and, possibly, with transformed futures. And, yet, although none of these equations can possibly yield the intended results, the desire for those results outweighs the fact of their impossibility.

Regardless of whether the dieter reveals his willpower lapse or not, it still occurred. And whether the child reveals Uncle Jonathan's predation or not, it has also occurred. With regard to the future and to external forces, while the dieter may believe that he can control his reactions to all future dessert temptations, he may or may not abstain later. Nor can he control anyone else's reactions to or opinions of what he eats. Likewise, the child may hope or believe that she can control all of Uncle Jonathan's future access to her--as well as his responses to predatory inclinations during unsupervised moments--but she simply cannot. Nor can she control the relationships among her family members, whether or not her family will suspect Jonathan's pedophilia, or even any family member's reaction to her or to Jonathan if his crime is ever exposed.

For all of these reasons, keeping a shameful or frightening secret is tantamount to keeping a double fiction alive by promoting both the absence of one story ("What brownie?" "What pedophilia?")  and the existence of a fictional one ("I'm adhering to my diet!" "We're all happy and nothing's wrong!").

Promoting a double fiction feels more like work than control. In fact, it is exhausting work because, as we have seen, any semblance of control is flimsy at best. Keeping a secret requires constant vigilance on both the defensive and the offensive. Every word even remotely related to the taboo topic must be mentally vetted before it can be uttered. This means that the secret holder must monitor and possibly censor not only any conversation or other information alluding to the secret, but also all tangential references to it, as well as any indicators of the fictionality of the cover story.

If the secret involves another person, then the secret holder must surveil not only his or her own communications but also those of anyone else involved in or knowledgeable of the taboo topic.

In the end, the effort of keeping a secret has the effect not of burying its subject matter but, instead, secrecy has the opposite effect of foregrounding it.

Whew! But, wait: there's more.

We have established that a secret offers the holder a false sense of power--false because any attempt to control a secret brings it to the holder's forethought and, thus, renders it more difficult to ignore. Have you ever heard the idiom, "out of sight, out of mind?" Secrets are never truly out of sight or out of mind. Triggers pop up in conversation, in our media consumption, in the literature we read--regardless of whether frequently or rarely. Like dead bodies in bad thriller movies, the topics of our secrets--or the secrets themselves--always resurface eventually and the results can be disastrous. Chaucer tells us, "Murder will out," and literature is full of ghosts like Hamlet, Sr., who tell tales on the guilty and foil seemingly perfect crimes again and again. Other characters confess under the weight of the secret's burden. Recall the narrator of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" who confesses murder almost immediately because he imagines his victim's stilled heart beating loudly enough to alert the local police who otherwise suspect nothing. In these and other ways, some of our best art imitates life.

Because they are ultimately lies--yes, dear readers, fiction is untruth--secrets can be destructive. In psychoanalysis and trauma studies, we know that the attempt to mask past shames, fears, or crimes with secrets prevents us from moving forward in healthy directions with our lives. We understand that talking about these past harms or hurts--rather than working to keep them secreted--is redemptive, recuperative, and restorative. We call this talking "testimony" and I like the idea that speaking one's truth is, in fact, testifying.

Fearless Bodies, Voices in
the Winchester Star.
Photo: Amy Sarch
In so many areas of life, this notion of recuperative testimony holds true, but I have never seen it more true in practice than in the context of individuals breaking cultural silences. Last year and again a few weeks ago, I participated in public demonstrations organized to call attention to the global prevalence of sexual assault and violence against women and girls. The One Billion Rising movement is only one example of legion public testimonial demonstrations led by women worldwide in the last several years, but its timeliness makes it a prescient example for this post. Risings have been happening all month around the world in proximity to Valentine's Day. I want to call attention to this movement's aim: to allow women, men, girls, boys, abuse survivors, and allies to publicly use their voices and bodies of their own volition rather than under the force or coercion of others.

Do I think that a four-minute annual flash mob dance with matching tee shirts will end the violence that marks one out of five child and adolescent girls worldwide before they can mature fully? Not by itself, no. But I do think that a sea change is upon us and I am thrilled to be part of it. Many of the Risings around the globe are being organized by young women who want to use their voices to enact change rather than hope secrets will project a mask of so-called normalcy. These young women, some of whom bear the physical and psychological marks of abuse are no longer ashamed of their scars because they know that criminal culpability lies with the perpetrators. They no longer fear reprisal for reporting or speaking about abuse. Instead, these women--along with other allies of various gender identities and ages, survivor and non--are organizing public demonstrations, speaking about their experiences to news reporters, and dancing in public squares in the harsh light of noonday.

Other young people are writing blogs, novels, short stories, poetry, and plays that indict rape culture, war culture, and victim blaming/shaming by shattering the destructive codes of silence that maintain them. For example, my experimental class on Trauma Narratives this semester is full. Undergraduate men and women are reading Freud, Dori Laub, Lynn Higgins, Dorothy Allison, Frantz Fanon, Toni Morrison, Wole Soyinka, and Julie Mertus, among others--devouring and employing theoretical and narrative frameworks and vocabularies in order to write their own traumatic narratives about hitherto unspoken traumas both individual and societal, fictional and non. By daring to eschew secrecy and break cultural scripts of silence, all of these young adults are controlling both their own stories and that of our cultural future.

Their irrepressible voices inspire me. In their work, I see real power.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Embracing Half-Assedness

When I started this blog, I promised myself that I would not let too much time elapse between posts. In fact, I procrastinated for a good while before even starting it because I feared that I might sometimes lapse too long between posts. Then, after I started writing it, I decided that I would never go live with any post until it was perfect.

Did you see what I just did there? I defeated my blogging self before really even getting started: If I can't do it the right way, then I'm not even going to try! 

Behind Schedule! Failure? Or Not?
Photo: MLB
And, so, here I am with a three-month lapse between this and my last post and the writing has not been going well. And, honestly, I am barely editing this post before it goes live because--well, frankly, because I am a wife and working mother of small children who have been to school for barely twenty minutes since Christmas--what with all the inclement-weather school closures--and we have two dogs, and piano lessons, and karate, and…and so I've been pretty freaking busy and exhausted lately. 


Did you duck before that snark dart shot out of the screen? If you weren't fast enough, I apologize for that little cheek scratch you're probably nursing right now. 

But I have to tell you: now that I have officially failed all of the rules I set up for this blog, I feel great! 

No, I'm not drunk, just liberated. Want to hear why?

I have always liked to think that I don't do anything half-assed. I go full-assed on everything I do. The downside of this orientation, however, is that it is all or nothing. For example, if I don't have the time to change into running gear, harness up my dogs, and run them for an hour around the lake, then I may not exercise at all. If I have not polished a post to perfection, then I will not post anything to my blog. If I ate a donut at the breakfast meeting, then I might eat more junk food later since I've already shot the day's nutrition. Not exercising, not writing, not eating healthily--all of these are threads in a larger self-defeating helix that, fortunately, spirals smack into the ground. Some might call it rock bottom. Regardless, it is hitting the floor, getting one's wind knocked out, and shaking off the disorientation to realize that current behavior patterns are unworkable. A paradigm change is required. 

I hit the floor yesterday when I had to tell a student that I had not yet finished commenting on her paper draft. I felt terrible because I had tried to finish commenting on all of the drafts but had simply run out of time. Did I mention that my children rarely go to school anymore? Instead, they're learning valuable life skills at home, like foraging for snacks in the pantry and fighting over which one gets the iPad with the iOS7 game apps and which one has to use the first-gen model. When I told my student that I'd have her comments later in the day, she replied, "No problem. In fact, would you just comment on the revision instead? I just got a great idea in workshop and want to incorporate it. Could you wait to read it until either tonight or tomorrow so I'll have time to finish it?" 

Could I? 

Halving Redemption
Photo: MLB
In that beige, windowless classroom near the end of my third class of the day, admitting defeat to a motivated student I had wanted to help and receiving, instead, redemption, I realized the value--nay, the necessity--of half-assedness. Why not be okay with finishing my draft comments tomorrow? For that matter, why not trot the dogs around the block for fifteen minutes when we haven't the time for a long run?  Why not post a shorter reflective epiphany piece and maintain this lovely connection with you all rather than nothing? Why not enjoy the rare pastry without self-recrimination? 

Parents, women, those in the "caring" professions, and the firstborn, especially, fear failure. We fear being considered half-assed--and fear can paralyze. Embracing half-assedness is liberating because it offers the permission to fail without failing. In fact, it is really just another way of doing things in moderation, but with edgier vernacular.