Archive for June 30, 2014

The Life of a Secret

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.

Our Overriding Need to be Known

On April 19, 2008, Josef Fritzl, age 73, made a remarkable choice, surprising many who knew him, perhaps even himself.  He called an ambulance to rescue his daughter Kerstin, 17, who had fallen in her room and had remained unconscious.  He asked her mother Elisabeth to help him carry her out of the house to meet the ambulance.  And then he followed the ambulance to the hospital, where he explained to Dr Reiter what had happened, with a note from Kerstin’s mother, who remained at home with their other children.

The remarkable and surprising aspect of this compassionate and fatherly act lay in Fritzl’s choosing to initiate a series of events which he knew could soon lead to his arrest and incarceration for the rest of his life.  In the heat of this crisis, Fritzl chose to expose himself to risks of revelation that he had chosen to avoid for 24 years.  Why, after 24 years of successfully deceiving his wife, his children, the tenants in his building, and the authorities in his town of Amstetten, Austria, would Josef Fritzl deliver his daughter to the hospital and to the inquiries of professionals?  He might as well have been delivering himself.

Kerstin’s condition, severe renal failure, and oddities in her mother’s note, which purported to have been written from the distant village of Kematen, where her mother had supposedly joined a cult 24 years earlier, puzzled Dr Reiter sufficiently that he alerted the police.  The investigation revealed that Kerstin had lived every day of her 17 years in a concrete dungeon behind eight locked doors, clandestinely built by Josef Fritzl in the basement of the building where he and his wife Rosemarie raised three children and served as landlords to other tenants.  Until the day her father and mother carried her to the ambulance, Kerstin had never seen daylight.  Nor had her two siblings, who also had been born and raised in this dungeon.

The investigation also proved what Kerstin’s mother said, which is that Josef Fritzl was both Kerstin’s father and grandfather.  Twenty-four years earlier, Fritzl had lured his defiant teenage daughter Elisabeth into helping him move a door in their basement.  In the process he gassed Elisabeth.  She fainted and awoke locked in this dungeon, never leaving until the day she carried Kerstin to the ambulance.  Elisabeth bore seven children by her father in this dungeon.  One baby died age four days.  Three others were removed by Fritzl, who later claimed to have found each one near the house, persuading local authorities to allow Fritzl and his unsuspecting wife Rosemarie to adopt them.

On March 19, 2009, just 11 months after he chose to send Kerstin to the hospital, Fritzl was charged with murder, rape, incest, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and slavery.  He pleaded guilty to all charges and was sentenced to life in prison.  Why, after nearly a quarter of a century of successful deception, did he, in effect, deliver himself to the authorities?  We do not know, but his choice tells us something about the shifting economy of secrets.  On some level Fritzl recognized at 73 that the costs of his secret had finally outweighed its benefits.  He chose to let the truth be known.

You don’t have to be such a monstrous criminal to learn the hard way that one enemy of the keeper of secrets is our overriding need to be known.  You and I know this about our less lurid deceptions. We can’t help spilling the beans about that detour to the casino on the way home from the business trip.  Like the otherwise smart politicians who get caught with their pants down, we set ourselves up to be discovered in our indiscretions.  We want our control over what others know about us, but we also want others, at least those closest to us, to know who we are, eventually.  The older we grow, the more important this may be to us.  This need to be known becomes so great that we take risks we did not dare to imagine when we created the secret.  Our need to be known overrides the shame that created the secret.

I recently met a Vietnam Vet who, after 44 years of telling his family that he had won a Purple Heart, finally admitted to them last year that he had lied about this award as a way of coping with the dishonor he felt when he returned from combat service in 1970.  After so many years of expecting rejection for this false claim, he was stunned to learn that his family responded with forgiveness.  He could have persisted with his secret for many more years, but after his retirement from an honorable career as a fireman, he chose instead to show them this underbelly of his private life.  His need to be known finally outweighed his need for a Purple Heart.