“…Break[ing] the contract you signed when you were three years old, promising not to ever, ever tell the truth, promising your family secrets would go with you to the grave.” Annie Lamott
Breaking the promise not to tell secrets. Breaking open the entire, so-often-toxic idea of secrets. Transparency has become a buzzword in the public sphere over the last couple of decades. Not that it has gone very well in that sphere, of course. The nature of the beast, public life, seems to include secrecy and behind-the-scenes manipulations in every public arena, from politics to business. But that’s not where I am going with this commentary. I’ll leave that to others who are more knowledgeable about those worlds. Mainly white men and those who have chosen to study and infiltrate those realms… women and people of color, for instance. Although learning a bit about those machinations intrigues me, I’m definitely not willing to invest my time to gain a thorough understanding.
I am and have always been, perhaps by necessity, more interested in the secrecy and lack of transparency in the private sphere. My personal analysis is that white men, white Anglo Saxon men, men in general, have shaped the rules of secrecy in our personal lives in much the same way as in the world at large. ‘Protecting their power’ and control is one way to frame it. Of course there are widespread cultural differences of degree, but I feel comfortable asserting that this dynamic exists. I was raised in a culture that was rigorously shaped by WASP men and gender roles were fairly rigid. Men did not talk about feelings and if women needed or chose to, it must be kept out of sight. Hush, hush. No good would come of airing one’s emotions, much less troubles; that was the nearly iron clad rule.
On the most tragic level, this injunction forced women to suffer rape, sexual assault and abuse in silence. The victim-blaming and victim-shaming standards held sway for centuries and despite some advances in my lifetime, still hold women in a cage of secrecy. Trauma of any kind was something to be kept private, in spite of the obvious harm this caused to generally blameless humans, even or especially children.
Here we go…
If you have already seen something I’ve written about this, please forgive the repetition. When my mother gave birth to a Downs Syndrome child in 1963, my baby sister’s very existence was kept a secret. When she died a little over a year later, the (dare I say, natural) need to mourn her death was truncated**, denied by the fact that if people did not know she had lived, how was grieving to take place? I was eleven years old. The package of secrecy and denial was tightly wrapped in a final (and I do mean final) injunction: we were never to speak of her again. The rare times that a spark of self-preservation leapt from my inner self and I spoke her name or referred to her life and our loss, I was smacked down quite vigorously.
There are chronologically earlier, and equally painful, examples in my family of the denial of reality by use of secrecy and others that came later in my childhood. They continued right through to the day I confronted my 84-year-old father about his excessive alcohol use. (The Alcoholics Anonymous program states that only the addict/alcoholic can take on that label and I agree, so I do not refer to him as such.) I confronted him and told him I had taken away his car keys. I named it, his drinking, a secret that had been protected by the family code of silence for my entire life. By naming it (and taking away those keys) I took away some of his power. He was furious, cursing me and trying to hit me with his cane, telling my mother that I did not belong in the family.
Those who know me, I think, would describe me as discreet, someone who can be trusted with confidential information; a compassionate listener, a kind and sensitive person. I also love surprises and will go to great lengths to assist in the planning of happy surprises. But do not come to me with a secret that is being held in order to protect someone who has power or that has the potential to harm someone less powerful. Mainly due to my early experiences, I’ve become a vigilante against toxic secrecy, down to my very core. I will not abide by the code of silence. I am committed to breaking that dreadfully coerced promise whenever I can.
** Truncated: ORIGIN late 15th cent. (as a verb): from Latin truncat- ‘maimed,’ from the verb truncare.