Archive for April 18, 2016

The Secret Lives of Secrets

[Notes for a talk to Clinton County Reads 4/12/16]


Thanks to Mary Tom Watts and to all of you in Clinton County Reads for this chance to talk with you about one of my favorite topics, secrets.  Clinton County Reads must be the only literary organization in the state that declares itself with an active verb in the present tense. Frankly, it’s a bit intimidating.  Down in Hamilton County where I come from we have nouns modified by adjectives and gerunds modified by prepositional phrases, but nothing so bold and brief as the active verb in the present tense.  Omit Needless Words.  EB White would like the name, and so do I.

Everything I Never Told You is a fine title for a book about secrets.  It hooked me.  Is there any more compelling force in this novel than the way secrets shape the lives of every one of the Lee family?  Celeste Ng manages to tell us a lot about the things these family members never tell each other.  The struggles of the Lee family show us how divisive secrets can be, so I want you to take a close look with me at how Celeste Ng shows us some of the toxic features of secrets shaping the lives of each member of the Lee family.

But first a bit about what we know and don’t know about the psychology of secrets.  How do we know that secrets can be powerful and formative?  The soaps tell us.  Shakespeare and Hollywood tell us.  It’s hard to find a good drama that does not rely on the tension surrounding a secret.  But we also know it from the playground, where most games rely on secret plans or strategies by one team or player to gain an advantage over the other.

In her 1983 book Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation, sociologist Sissela Bok defined secrets as “intentional concealment.”  Bok discussed the universal need for and the danger of secrets:  “We are all, in a sense, experts on secrets.”   Our societies create institutions for the management of secrets: the Catholic confession ritual, legal counsel, psychotherapy, AA groups, corporate trade secrets, war plans, political campaign strategies, and huddles before each football snap.

So if we’re all experts on secrets, or at least experienced, what do we know about the life of a secret?  What does psychology tells us about how secrets are born?  Have you ever traced a secret from its birth through its growth?  How do we protect them, change them, multiply them into several secrets, widening the circle of confidence?  And what moves us to part with them, let them fade or cease by leaking or by sudden forced disclosure?  It’s hard to trace the life of a secret, even one of your own. Why?  Because we keep our secret ways hidden.

It’s possible to practice psychiatry behind a curtain, in a crowded hallway, or at a party, but I’ve found it works better behind a closed door.  I’ve spent a lot of years helping people understand and manage their secrets.  It’s part of what I love about psychiatry—the privilege of helping people know and take care of their secrets.

About eight years ago, after a week at the Antioch Writers Workshop, I decided to try interviewing selected people about how secrets had shaped their lives in some lasting way.  From these interviews I would write creative non-fiction short stories that focus on some aspect the psychology of secrets.  I did three sets of interviews and wrote three stories, which is a start toward the ten I had planned, before I had to set the project aside for other academic work.  The project is still on hold, but I plan to finish the book some day.

Along the way I looked into what had been written about the psychology of secrets and found surprisingly little.  Psychologists are not known for being shy about prying into people’s private business, so it’s a mystery to me why so little formal research has been published on the psychology of secrets:   One book by Anita Kelly The Psychology of Secrets (1999) and a handful of original research papers.  Lots about lying, not so much about secrets.   I’m not sure why, probably a research funding fashion trend, but here’s my Cliff Notes version of what we know that is relevant to Everything I Never Told You.

Secrets often involve at least two people and require effort and resources by one person to hide information from others.  The tension between the sharing and the hiding is the heart of what drives the drama around secrets.  Emily Dickinson, hardly a paragon of transparency, taught us to “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”  She was the maestro of partial revelations, the recluse compelled to reveal herself, always on a slant.

We create secrets to solve problems in the short run. Like the other kind of conception, secrets are often conceived impulsively, and then they sprout legs and take off to cause trouble.  In the heat of the phone call to tell her mother about her wedding to James Lee, Marilyn chose to keep his ethnic status a secret, to delay her mother’s opposition to the marriage.  Lydia and Jack choose to keep their relationship hidden, maybe to reduce interference from Nath or her parents.   Hannah hatches her secret (p 22) about catching Lydia’s silhouette on her last night, assuming it would only make her mother upset and her brother angry.  Both secrets work in the short run.

Some secrets we create, others we inherit, often without knowing it.  After Chapter One ends with the police dragging the lake for Lydia’s body, Chapter Two opens with this line: “How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers.”  Chapter two shows us how Marilyn inherited from her mother the taboo against speaking about the disappearance of her father when she was two.  That example sets the stage for Marilyn’s own disappearance to go study medicine in hiding, and then the disappearance of desperate Lydia to go ride a boat at midnight.  Why?  We never see anyone telling anyone about any of these vanishings.  Everything I Never Told You.  Is that shame driving a culture of secrecy across three generations?  Can you hear the unspoken message that it’s usually safer to conceal the truth that troubles you than to confide or reveal it?

Secrets beget secrets, and sometimes to protect a secret, we lie.  On page 15 we learn that Nath knows that “these girls have never been Lydia’s friends.”  But Nath does not correct his parents.  Nath keeps a secret about his sister’s secret friends.  On page 16 we watch Nath’s amazement at how Lydia could lie about her secret friendships.  And then we read, “Except he can’t tell his parents that now.”  We never learn why.  What is the worst that could happen if he told them?  We never know.  But often what keeps a secret a secret is some strongly sensed assumption about the catastrophic consequences of disclosure—yet that consequence often goes unspoken and remains poorly understood.

On page 17 Nath justifies his silence with “If he says anything now…they’ll say, Why didn’t we know about this before?  He’ll have to explain that all those afternoons…” when he had covered for her she had really been with Jack.  And he’d have to admit Jack had been a part of her life for months.   So Lydia’s secret about Jack leaks to Nath and begets Nath’s secret about what he knows about her presumed quiet desperation.  Another thing I never told you.

Secrets stake out boundaries.  They define our circles of confidence.  They bind us to those inside the circle (Lydia and Jack to each other, the brotherhood of a street gang, the bonds of lovers), and they separate us from those outside (Lydia from her family).  Boundaries define character, so no wonder dramas often use secrets to develop character.  Secrets are a vehicle for spelling out the intricate tangle of ties among groups of people that we find so fascinating.  And secrets show us how people manage sensitive information.  Marilyn’s decision to just suddenly escape the family without notice to study medicine reveals an alarming lack of trust in James, her children, and in her own inner resources.  She could not find a way to pursue her goal without ditching three kids and a husband?  Then she came home and we heard nothing about it from her.  Everything I Never Told You.

Secrets are often conceived in a shifting set of circumstances and assumptions about the catastrophic consequences of revelation.  The risks and benefits of concealment may change.  A witness protection program for the mafia informant may no longer be needed after the godfather is bumped off.  To Lydia her loneliness may seem at 16 like a life sentence of misery and humiliation.  She can’t imagine 17 being different, or her desperation being relieved by love or humor or religion or time—any form amazing grace that would make her secret about her loneliness no longer necessary.

Shifting circumstances open the way for or force disclosure.  Revealing a secret is both the initial catastrophe and the eventual deliverance from the bonds of secrecy.  Secrets thrive on often untested assumptions about the dire consequences of disclosure.  If Marilyn reveals where she is studying, she will never become a doctor.  If James reveals his affair with Louisa, his family will kick him out or he’ll lose his job or his reputation…or all three!  None of these expected consequences come to pass.

Secrets that once solved problems eventually become irrelevant, bothersome, complicated, or sometimes unbearable.  Just as we crave attachments, we also crave to be known.  This longing to be known drives fugitives to turn themselves in after years on the run.  It drives deathbed confessions.  Lydia’s disappearance and death forced her family to face a series of partial revelations about her.  They came to know her in a new and painful way.  On his deathbed Anatole Broyard, the writer and New York Times book reviewer, tried to inform his children that he was not the white man he had passed for most of his adult life, but a Creole from Louisiana.  It took his daughter Bliss Broyard  six years to write in One Drop the full story of the secret she inherited from her father, who hidden it from her for over 20 years before trying to tell her as he was dying.

In Everything I Never Told You we don’t see much of the healing that comes with revealing oneself to loved ones.  In fact, this book could be titled Everything I Never Told You….and Never Will. The next edition should come with a warning to all therapists who read this that it may incite them to frustration and violence.  It’s an astute picture of the many ways that well-meaning people miscommunicate.  I don’t know what it adds up to by the end of the book, but I counted no less than 22 missed communications in the first 20 pages.  And I’m still looking among all their secrets for one honest confiding moment between two members of the Lee family.

What do you think about everything I’ve told you and Everything I Never Told You?