Secrets fascinate us through the mysterious ways they bind us and divide us. In spite of the universality of secrets (Who does not keep them? And what popular drama does not hinge on the keeping and the revealing of secrets?) surprisingly little has been written about the psychology of secrets. Yet the contours of our character are drawn by the secrets we keep. We tend to our boundaries every day by choosing who knows what about us.
My next few posts will focus on secrets. These essays are spin-offs from a book of creative non-fiction I’ve been working on, tentatively titled The Lives of Secrets.
The usual rap on secrets is that they’re dangerous and should be avoided. But a second thought tells us quickly that secrets are unavoidable and essential for minding our boundaries—hence their universality. And we learn this early. What childrens’ games don’t require practicing the art of making and keeping secrets? Intimate relationships require the sharing of selected secrets. Parents who can’t keep their sex lives secret from their children or their friends pay dearly for their indiscretions. Mafioso who don’t guard the family secrets get bumped off, and corporate executives who play loose with corporate privacy get fired. Socially sanctioned concealments serve the needs of relationships and of society. Secrets bind us, and they divide us.
In 1902 Albert Einstein’s lover Maleva Maric quietly disappeared from the physics department at the Zurich Polytechnic, where they both worked on their doctorates. Maric, the only woman in the physics department, suddenly left for Novi Sad, Serbia, where she had been born and raised, and did not return for most of a year. Albert and Maleva cooked up a cover story. None of their friends knew the true reason for her interrupting her studies, and they kept it that way—to their graves. Einstein’s biographers did not learn the truth about this trip until ten years after Albert’s death. The couple, who married in 1903 and then had two sons before divorcing in 1919, betrayed and opposed each other in contentious ways throughout their lives, but they each took their loyalty to this secret to their graves.
Walter Isaacson, Einstein’s most recent biographer and author of Einstein, His Life and His Universe, remains baffled by this secret. How and why did the most celebrated scientist of the twentieth century conceal the birth of his first child, a daughter Lieserl, born in 1902? How did he manage to deny her existence (no records have been found of her death or her life) to all who knew him, though he acknowledged her in several letters to Maric, discovered ten years after his death in a descendant’s attic in California. The secret about this missing child both bound him to Maric and divided them, foretelling the ways Einstein would later deny Maric herself, through silence, prolonged absences, and infidelity.
Several years ago while writing the introduction to The Lives of Secrets, I realized that I’d never taken stock of the secrets I keep. The intuition for secrets is so ingrained in our development that many of us are only vaguely aware of the secrets we keep. Think of a secret as the concealment of information from specific people in an effort to manage a potential problem. Many of our secrets are trivial, but some are important, formative, and worth guarding.
With effort I came up with five major secrets, though none so formative as denying the existence of a child. Mine have mostly aimed to protect the intimacy of a relationship or the image others might have of me. Some now seem silly relics of earlier insecurities, one a secret hatched in the confusion of a college love affair. Yet I hold on to them, maybe more out of loyalty than fear—they’re familiar friends, part of the shape of me.
This exercise taught me one underappreciated fact about secrets: most of us keep secrets we are not aware of. What does your list tell you?