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