Every life is a patchwork of secrets, half-truths, evasions, shams and disguises. The most authentic among us have hidden compartments, shadowy corners and taboo behaviors we keep under wraps for fear of destroying our public image.
I know a Buddhist teacher who sells pot for extra money, a radical feminist whose sexual tastes call for chauvinist pigs to restrain her in bed, a vegan who eats bacon out of town, a priest who doesn’t believe in God, a best-selling author who doesn’t write, a poet who slept with his best friend’s daughter (over 21) and a college professor who used to turn tricks.
These are not immoral people. If you met any one of them on a plane, you’d think they were terrific, engaging and upright. Their contradictions would never bother you because you’d never know about them. Social behavior is always selective; being private isn’t deception. We believe, naively, as tell-it-all Americans, that secrets are indicators of inner corruption (“You’re only as sick as your secrets!”), things to be avoided, wrong. But this is ridiculous. Nobody is an open book.
Denying this, we turn to hypocrisy. Those who keep the darkest secrets are generally the most judgmental. But scratch any one of us and you’ll find other personalities, other masks and mores, other people. We’re shape-shifting, multi-symphonic — moving easily from public to secret and back again. We are not the same in all situations; there would be no room for our contradictions; what happens elsewhere stays elsewhere; this is how we grow as people.
I remember being at Mardi Gras once, watching a bunch of Bible-banging tourists from Iowa cheer on two half-naked leather queens beating each other with riding crops. These Christians were having the time of their lives! Back home, they’d condemn these sodomites and never ever have them to dinner. But on a hot afternoon in New Orleans, with a couple of beers in them before lunch, who the hell cared? Smack that bottom! Lick that boot! They’d left their scruples back at the Super 8 with their Samsonites and rosary beads.
A secret life is critical. Everybody needs one. “We are poor, indeed, if we are only sane,” said psychologist D.W. Winnicott. Life without a shadow is hell. We’re not meant to be wholly visible, onstage in the world 24/7. Our secret life is our secret garden, the off-limits place where we can take risks, pretend, transgress, feel free and keep ahold of our innermost strangeness. The shadows of a secret life make the lightness of being bearable. We’re checkered beings, not lily-white, and that’s what makes us original. It is also what keeps us interesting.
Stephen Dunn put it perfectly in “A Secret Life”:
“The secret life/begins early/(It) is kept alive/by all that's unpopular/in you, all that you know/a Baptist, say, or some other/accountant would object to./It becomes what you'd most protect/if the government said you can protect/one thing, all else is ours …/ Even when you speak to your best friend,/the one who'll never betray you, you always leave out one thing;/a secret life is that important.”
Think about your secret life. What parts of yourself do you misrepresent, nip and tuck, deny or hide? I do an exercise with my students where they’re asked to write down, for their eyes only, a secret they’ve never told anyone else, regardless of how big or small. Most of them love this assignment but in every class there’s at least one who denies having a single secret.
“What can I say? I’m an open person,” he or she will tell the room, sounding just a little self-righteous. “I’m not a person to keep secrets,” (in a tone like, keeping rodents for pets). As a teacher, I live for these bullshit moments. “No kidding?” I say. “None?” “Uh-uh,” they shake their head.” “Think harder.” They roll their eyes. Then they look confused or offended or both, followed by a glimmer of truth. “There is one thing,” they’ll say, recalling some buried bit of secrecy, “but I haven’t thought about that in years.” That generally turns out to be the doorway to their inner life. These secret-deniers often have the greatest insights and breakthroughs in class.
Colleen (not her real name) was a good example. Condescending, unpleasant and sarcastic, Colleen was a 39-year-old social worker who scoffed at the “flakiness” of the exercise because she didn’t have any secrets. I asked Colleen to dig deeper. She accused me then of trespassing her boundaries. I reminded Colleen that the class she’d signed up for was called Truth Story Transformation. When I asked her why she seemed so upset (her face had turned a pale shade of eggplant) Colleen looked like she wanted to strangle me and clammed up for the rest of the class. Then she stalked out without saying goodbye at the end of the session.
I expected that that was the end of Colleen, but after three days, I received an email that moved me deeply. Colleen began by saying she hadn’t slept for two nights. “I was so upset by what happened in class,” she wrote. The anger lasted for a couple of days, then as it began to die down, Colleen had a painful revelation. She was a secret lesbian. Though married with kids, she’d been attracted to women since high school but the only time she said this out loud was to her counselor (a nun at a Catholic school) who threatened to tell Colleen’s parents unless this was never mentioned again. Colleen had gone undercover “to the degree that it seemed like it never happened.”
It wasn’t until I’d asked her to write down a secret that she realized how “utterly clueless” she’d been not to know that she carried this shadow inside her, this unborn self, this other Colleen. Her swallowed secret had poisoned her life. Colleen confessed that she’d never been happy in her marriage, never felt like a good mother, never trusted herself and rarely ever felt any joy. “The shame I’ve lived with all these years,” she wrote. “What a waste!” Knowing her secret, Colleen wanted to change. She wanted to know all the parts of herself. Once she knew who she was, she could choose how to live.
You can’t be everything to everybody. A secret life is that important.