The Secrets We Love and the People We Keep
My parents married in 1994 and five years later they were the mother and father of three children. I am the middle child and the only boy. Our family of five stayed a family of five until 2015, when my dad died. Four years after he died, my mom told me that my dad had been married to a woman before he married my mom. This had been kept a secret from my sisters and me.
Although this secret wasn’t a psychological warhead, I was still in shock. Why? was my first thought. Why had my parents kept such a trivial secret from their kids? In fact, the secret was so anticlimactic that I was almost annoyed. For over two decades it had been hidden from me, and the secret was just a divorce. It’s not that I wanted the secret to be something tragic or something that would make me question who I really am or who my family really is, but I expected something more. Yet, despite its seeming innocuity, it had still been kept a secret for so long. But why?
In October of 1929 J.R. Ackerley, a memoirist and literary editor, found a sealed note from his recently deceased father. In the note, the elder Ackerley admitted to his son he had a second family that was kept a secret. Confounded by this, J.R. Ackerley set out to discover who his father really was, not the man who he had thought his father was.
For thirty years, Ackerley investigated and wrote. He met his father’s second family, he spoke to his father’s childhood friends; he traveled throughout England, speaking to people, looking for answers. The result of Ackerley’s three-decade-long obsession was My Father and Myself, a memoir recounting his life with his father and his life after his father’s death. But he never made any attempt to publish the memoir. He kept it to himself.
One year after his death J.R. Ackerley’s memoir was published in 1968. The story of Ackerley’s father and his secret life was a commercial success. Readers were so captivated by the memoir that it was soon adapted into a film. But the interest in twisted, sordid family secrets was not a new cultural obsession brought on by Ackerley’s memoir.
In the mid-nineteenth century the family secret novel was one of the most popular literary subgenres in both England and the United States. Novels like Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret represented the pervasive interest in family secrets with over-the-top plots filled with deception, lies, and mystery. The belief that everyone you knew, even close friends and family, could be hiding a secret fascinated the minds of the masses.
March 15, 2019 was when I learned about my dad’s first marriage. I was with my mom waiting for our takeout order at a barbecue restaurant. In the restaurant was a bar, and we sat there and drank while we waited for our order. I don’t remember exactly how the secret came out, but I do remember it came out much earlier and with fewer drinks than I would have anticipated a secret of that age would. It felt like the secret had reached its maturity and it was time to open it up.
My first reaction was confusion, so I started with questions. After asking all the questions I could think of in the moment and receiving some answers, what I learned was this: Her name is Elizabeth but she goes by Betsy. She went to high school with my dad but they didn’t date in high school, and she was in the grade ahead of my dad. They married in 1989 at a wedding venue called Bay Pointe Inn. My dad was twenty-three years old and Betsy was twenty-four years old. The marriage was perhaps premature, because my dad was not ready to commit himself to one woman and take Betsy to be his lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, from that 1989 day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do them part. He cheated on her and they were divorced nineteen months after the wedding. No kids together, nothing to keep their lives even partially connected. In the divorce papers the only household item my dad received was a cheese cutter.
The family secret was the ultimate sign of family unity in the early twentieth century. The more skeletons stored in a family’s closet, the closer they were. And a family with no shared secrets was a mangled mess of people brought together only by shared ancestors, as people thought everyone had secrets, and if your family didn’t share secrets, your family was hiding secrets from you.
But this was a time when the lines between ‘privacy’ and ‘secrecy’ were blurred. In an anonymous letter to the editor in a 1918 edition of the London Saturday Review, a reader wrote, “Privacy is good sound metal, but secrecy is its rust due to some corroding influence.” This belief quickly spread, and by the 1930s the lines between privacy and secrecy were clearly delineated. People had a right to privacy, a right to withhold any information they pleased, even from family. Secrecy, however, was bad and toxic and should be avoided.
From the 1930s to the 1950s social science evolved immensely. One of the most studied issues during this time was individual privacy from the family. Ultimately, social scientists identified privacy as the most cherished attribute of family life. Husbands, wives, parents, and children deserved a protected space, and they had no duty to share any parts of their past they were not comfortable sharing. The upshot of this, it was believed, was a healthy family dynamic.
Leonora Eyles, a renowned advice columnist for Woman’s Own in the mid-twentieth century, laid all her private matters to bare in an autobiography she wrote at the end of her life. Along with her faithful readers, Eyles’s husband was shocked to read about her tragic upbringing, her running away from home as a teenager, her previous failed marriages, and her sexual past. But to her defense, Eyles’s columns always reminded readers that your past was your own affair and you owed no explanations, not even to your spouse, children, or other loved ones.
I never told my sisters about the secret after my mom shared it with me. It didn’t feel appropriate. I thought my mom had trusted me with sensitive information, and as her son it was my responsibility to respect it. I would have felt dirty and wrong if I went behind her back and betrayed her, like a traitor of family trust.
But I didn’t need to tell my sisters, because in July—four months after I learned about the secret—my sister Kylan texted my other sister Jaycie and me in a group chat. She said, “WAIT YALL,” in the first message, and then a follow up message said, “DAD WAS MARRIED BEFORE MOM HE WAS DIVORCED.” Apparently, my mom had told Kylan, who then shared the secret with Jaycie. The secret was now out among us kids and we quickly came to a consensus: Why?
Why did our parents feel the need to hide this inconsequential information from their children? What was there to gain from hiding it, and what would there have been to lose from letting it out? Did they not think we could handle knowing it, that it would shatter us psychologically? If anything, we’d take joy in it—the marriage’s loss was our gain. So why, we wondered, had we never been told about it?
John Bradshaw, teacher, counselor, and theologian, wrote the seminal book on the psychology of family secrets—Family Secrets: the Path from Shame to Healing. In the book, Bradshaw points out three of the most common reasons for withholding secrets from family members. The first, he notes, is protection. Parents may have a propensity to protect their children from the ugly and unpleasant truths of not only their family history but also the world at large.
Another reason for keeping secrets from family is religion. If someone were to commit an act that goes against the proper propriety of theirs and their family’s religion, they may feel the need to hide it from the ones they love to avoid judgment or being seen as a bad influence.
Shame is the third and final reason Bradshaw presents for why we keep secrets from the ones we love. Shame naturally leads to reticence. Nobody wants to feel shameful for what they have done, and nobody wants to be shamed for the things that make them feel shameful, so we internalize, and we keep secrets to protect ourselves and others.
My parents made no efforts to protect my sisters and me from the unpleasant or indecorous parts of life. It started at a young age with trivial matters. My parents gave me the sex talk at a time where I still struggled to even make it to X in the alphabet. No movies were ever restricted, no matter the content or rating. I remember the first time someone told me they couldn’t watch a movie because of its rating, and that idea was as foreign to me as a Federico Fellini film. Starting at the age of nine, I began swearing around my parents with no ramifications—it was just the way we talked.
While these are matters that all children are eventually exposed to or privy to, there were more delicate matters my parents also did not hide from my sisters and me. When I was twelve my parents told me about a close family member killing someone in an auto accident in the past. He, the family member, was driving a semi-truck when another driver went through a red light. The vehicles T-boned and the driver who ran the red light was killed instantly. The family member of mine spent the night in jail but was ultimately found innocent after the facts were sorted. But his conscience was not, and is still not, innocent, and his children—all adults—have never been told about the accident.
At the age of fifteen, my parents told me about a family member, this one a woman, being raped in the past. It was in the early 2000s and it happened at her daughter’s swim lessons. She went to the locker room to use the bathroom, her daughter paddling and splashing about in the pool, and was raped by a serial rapist who was later caught and convicted. My parents spared no details when telling my sisters and me these stories, never trying to shelter us from the ugliness of life or our family’s past. Instead of sheltering us, if anything, they did a rain dance and brought the storm to us.
Religion is also not a motive in my parents hiding my dad’s secret marriage and divorce from their kids. Divorce is a polarizing subject in many religious circles, yes, but during my childhood my parents were entirely unreligious—they didn’t renounce it, they just didn’t approach it. Religion was so absent from my family and we were so out of the proverbial loop that one time at a doctor’s appointment my dad thought he was doing a nice thing when he told the secretary she had “a little something-something” on her forehead, and he was surprised when she laughed at him, taking his word of advice in jest. That doctor’s appointment was on Ash Wednesday. And he knew it was Ash Wednesday, but he had no explanation for the something-something. It’s very unlikely religion played a part in my dad’s secret.
But it’s in the idea of shame that I finally find a modicum of sense behind the secret. My mom was my dad’s second wife, and she has admitted she always felt a sting from that. For my mom, this meant she wasn’t my dad’s first true love, the first woman he loved so much he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. It didn’t matter that they were married for twenty-one years, raised three kids together, and stayed together and in love until his death. There was always the thought of not being the first.
And maybe this thought led to feelings of shame, feelings she never wanted to resurface. She even went as far as having my dad burn all the photos from his first wedding, because she couldn’t bear to look at them or know they existed. Maybe it was shame that encouraged her to keep the secret from her kids, because maybe she thought her kids would feel the same way she did about it. And maybe my dad kept the secret, too, because that’s what my mom wanted.
Philosopher Michel Foucault claimed that the shift from shared family secrets to personal privacy was a simple matter of shame. Opening up about private matters made you vulnerable to condemnation and scrutiny, and no one was more likely to condemn and scrutinize you than your own family.
Catharsis, however, was still needed, even if it didn’t fall on the ears of the family. The Daily Mirror, in the mid-1900s, ran a weekly contest called “Secrets I Dare Not Tell My Mother,” in which secrets deemed too ignoble to admit to the family were sent in and published anonymously every Saturday, and then left to a vote in which the most shameful secret won. The contest was the most read and discussed column in the Saturday editions of the Mirror, and submissions overwhelmed the Mirror’s mailroom every week.
The paradox of sharing your closest secrets with those who you are the least close to is as human as speaking, as laughing, as crying, as all the things that make a human a human. Sociologist Mario Luis Small, in a study of over 2,000 subjects, found that people unconsciously confide in strangers and keep secrets from their family. The primary reason for this, he claims, is it’s less of a risk to open up to people you may never meet again, that revealing your darker, more worrisome sides of yourself to the people who care about you may change the way they think of you. It’s human to run from judgement and to run far and fast. And while psychological relief is found in confiding in strangers, the family is left out, and secrets build up in the family circle.
Six months after my mom revealed to me the secret about my dad and his first marriage, she told me another one of his secrets. In the final days of my dad’s life, he had a very solemn talk with my mom. It was the usual talk someone has with loved ones when in their dying days: assuring that everything will be okay, life will go on, be strong, you’ll get through this, etc. But at the end, my mom says, he told her that I had told him a secret, and when the time was right he would tell her what it was.
Another secret, but this time it was mine. My dad gave my mom no hint as to what the secret was, and they let it be, knowing that he would share it when he felt it was appropriate. But the next day he was admitted into hospice care and put into a medically induced coma. He died five days later and never had the chance to tell my mom the secret.
The Johari Window is a model created by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham. It was created in 1955 and represents the relationships we have with ourselves and with others. The model depicts a window with four panes. The top left pane is what is known to yourself and known to others. Your name, your job, your social role, and your values are in this pane. All things you know and others know about you.
The bottom left pane is what is known to yourself but unknown to others. Fears, resentments, shame, and private behaviors are in this pane. The secrets you keep.
In the top right pane is unknown to yourself but known to others. Incongruent behaviors, overreactions, and idiosyncrasies you don’t notice about yourself but the people around you do are in this pane. Blind spots.
The fourth windowpane is in the bottom right and it holds what is unknown to yourself and unknown to others. Here are your undiscovered potentialities, repressed thoughts, dark secrets, and the unexplored areas of the soul and mind. This is where my secret hides.
I don’t know what my secret is. I don’t think I even have one. The fourth pane in the Johari Window could be correct, and I could be hiding a deep, dark repressed secret from myself, denying its existence and blacking it out of my mind. Or it could have been the Fentanyl patches, the Dilaudid, the Oxycodone, the Alprazolam, the Methylphenidate, and the other pharmaceuticals my dad was prescribed and taking every day that could have deluded his brain and led him to believe I was hiding a secret deep in my unconscious mind. I don’t know which one it is.
When I think back to the last conversations I had with my dad, I don’t remember sharing any secrets. I don’t remember having any secrets. Sometimes I wonder if maybe he saw so much of himself in me that my alleged secret was actually his secret marriage and divorce that he had projected onto me. Or he saw so much of himself in me that he was convinced I too had a secret or would one day have a secret of my own. What I do know is, all the way to the end my dad was a man of secrets, and he may have died with one of mine.
“Everyone carries a shadow,” wrote Carl Jung, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” The Jungian belief in the shadow coincides with the fourth pane of the Johari Window. The shadow is the unknown darkness that lives in the personality. The shadow is seldom seen outside of dreams and visions, and often someone will live their entire life without ever revealing it, without ever shining a light on the things they unconsciously hide from themselves. The parts of yourself that you fear most hide in the shadow, so you keep these a secret from yourself, scared of who you really are or who you could be.
But, Jung says, it’s possible to confront the shadow. It takes a deep and lengthy work of self-education and introspection. You must reach into yourself and extract the things you unconsciously cover. This often results in denial and shame, and it’s an emotionally exhausting exercise in self-realization. But it’s the only way to see what hides in the shadow and learn more about yourself, even the ugly parts you’ve spent so long to avoid.
Maybe my secret is entirely imagined and only ever existed in my dad’s mind. Or maybe my dad really did know a secret I’m hiding from myself. It’s possible he looked through my fourth windowpane and saw my shadow and all that I hide from myself and try to hide from the world. I don’t count it out, not yet.
I started on my dad with the question of Why? Why had his first marriage and divorce been kept a secret? Now I’m asking What. What am I hiding from myself?