How does a secret begin? How does a secret shape a life? What drives the stages of disclosure until it’s no longer a secret? Though we all harbor our own secrets, we don’t often get a window into the secrets of others long enough to trace them from start to finish. I’ve just read a fascinating and short book that gives us that long window: Mimi Alford’s Once Upon a Secret . I’ve been looking for this kind of story for the last five years, since I started working on writing a book about the lives of secrets—formative secrets that shape a person’s character. More than any other book I’ve found on how secrets work (and there are surprisingly few), Mimi Alford’s chronicles the life of a formative secret from conception through its shaping of character to the many stages of disclosure.
Dilemma. Nineteen year old Mimi Beardsley’s dilemma began in June, 1962, when President Kennedy, for whom she was interning in the White House press office, steered her into Mrs Kennedy’s bedroom in the West Wing after she had had two daiquiris, unbuttoned her dress and, to her amazement, had sex with her. The next day she returned to her desk in the press office. What could a young woman in that era do with that experience and that information? Who else knew? How dangerous was it? She felt stunned, confused, flattered, and alone.
Conception. She kept the event to herself, and waited. Her “pivot point” came two weeks later when she was invited a second time by Dave Powers, JFK’s aide, to swim with the President in the White House pool. She knew when she said yes what would follow. She felt at the time that she had no choice. Again she said nothing to anyone about her sexual encounter with the President and returned to work. The secret was hatched.
Content. The essence of her secret—clandestine sexual encounters with JFK during Mrs Kennedy’s absences from June 1962 through November 1963—endured for forty years, within a tight but gradually expanding circle.
Circle of Confidence. Initially she had no idea who else beyond JFK, his attendant Mr Thomas, his aide Dave Powers, and the Secret Service agents, knew about the affair. She chose not to tell her roommate, sister, parents, friends, or college classmates. Several other women who were also invited to swim with the President appeared unphased by Mimi’s favored status, but they never said anything about her encounters. When she returned to college at Wheaton in the fall of 1962, her overriding goal was to protect the President’s and her reputations. She withdrew from friends and studied: “I was just withdrawn and on guard, and it was a stance that clouded my relationships with friends for years.”
Expectations about Disclosure. Without overt orders, Mimi understood that she was to keep these encounters to herself. She expected that disclosure by her could mean the end of her prized but risky relationship, scandal for the President, and humiliation for herself. Loyalty demanded discretion.
Ancestor Secrets and Offspring. Though Mimi was new to this game, JFK clearly was not. Mimi recognized she was one of a series of JFK’s affairs so her secret sprang from his. And formative secrets often spawn spinoff secrets. In her return visits to the White House during the academic calendar, Mimi kept up the pretense of working in the press office, a pretense condoned by Pierre Salinger, JFK’s press secretary. Later, as the disclosure process unrolled, new secrets would sprout.
Economy. The benefits of concealment outweighed the costs for Mimi until November 22, 1963, when she and her fiancé, Tony Fahnestock, were driving from New York City to his parents’ house in Connecticut. News on the car radio of the assassination at first numbed her and then agitated her with such intensity that evening that she confided in Tony her affair with JFK. The sanctity of the secret yielded to her need to shift loyalties from her deceased sexual partner to her future husband. His response the next day—as a condition for proceeding with the marriage, he demanded complete silence from her on this issue and the end of all communications with the White House about anything—confirmed her suspicion that her secret was a dangerous one. She and Tony never discussed it again, and she remained true to the promise, effectively a gag order, for the remainder of their marriage (with two exceptions). Mimi now had another secret, that her husband had gagged her on this and related aspects of her life. After one and half years of intense focus on the White House, she suddenly blocked that part of her life out of all conversation. Her White House work had been mentioned in her engagement announcement, but she deleted it from her wedding announcement. If anyone noticed, no one pushed her to explain why.
Character Formation. She attributes to this secret a role in developing her capacity to maintain a façade, her pattern of confusion about her true feelings in relationships, including her first marriage of thirty years, and her reluctance to assert herself.
Disclosure. The need to conceal wrestles with the urge to tell. In 1973, ten years after being sworn to secrecy by her husband, Mimi confided in her older cousin. On a walk after her cousin’s offhand remark about the Watergate scandal, “Secrets…they always catch up with you,” Mimi told her about her secret affair, and the effect was reassuring for Mimi: disclosure without disaster. But now she had another secret to keep, that she had broken her promise to Tony. In 1983 she confided the affair to her sister, Deb. And in 1991, after divorcing Tony, she confided her affair to a friend. In 2003, when confronted by a reporter from the New York Daily News, she publicly acknowledged the affair, but provided no details. Disclosure, but partial.
Aftermath. The formative effects of a secret become more clear in the aftermath of disclosure. For Mimi Beardsley Fahnestock, the aftermath included eventually falling in love for the first time with a man, Dick Alford, with whom she could be transparent: “I realize now that each time I told the secret to someone I was getting one step closer to restoring my emotional health.” In the context of this marriage she wrote “Once Upon a Secret,” her full disclosure about how this secret shaped her life and how the thirty year process of disclosure eventually released her.