In Defense of Secret Lives
Everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life.
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I posted this quote on my Facebook recently, and a couple of people commented that the legendary Colombian novelist was dead wrong. Some folks, my friends claimed, do not have secret lives. They added that while we all have private and public lives, none of us should have a secret one. I found the first claim astonishing, and the second, troubling.
We’re in a revolutionary age, and like all revolutionary ages, we are obsessed with the necessity of revealing secrets. The #MeToo movement is in part about women (and some men) telling of the sexual abuse they kept secret; it is also about revealing the troubling, hidden misconduct of powerful men. In the #MeToo framework, secrecy is indispensable to a culture of abuse – bring everything into the light, and the predators will get their comeuppance and their victims will find their freedom.
Meanwhile, in 2021, the right-wing simmers in a fetid marinade of conspiracy theories, all of which promise to reveal secrets about who is really running the world. The curious are led down the proverbial rabbit hole, given access to “secrets” about pedophile rings, Jewish bankers, big pharma, and chemtrails. Last year, Q-Anon promised that any minute – okay, any minute now – okay, maybe next week – Donald Trump would reveal all the secrets, and his terrible swift sword would bring a mighty reckoning down on the necks of the wicked liberal elites who stay young by drinking children’s blood.
I don’t want to oversell the comparison between #MeToo and Q-Anon. Most of you reading this are probably aware that most of the sexual misconduct that #MeToo reveals really did happen; most of you are (I do hope) aware that Q-Anon is a grab-bag of nutteries foisted on the lonely, the vulnerable, the bigoted, and the chronically paranoid. The only overlap is a shared foundational conviction that a lot of bad stuff has gone on, and is still going on, in secret - and that healing hinges on revealing all that has long lain hidden.
The distinction between a public life and a private life is a fairly easy one to make. The obvious example, usually deployed to explain privacy to children, involves the toilet. Once they are old enough, we expect our children to shut the door when they are in the bathroom. There is no shame attached to sitting on the toilet. No one will be shocked or scandalized to learn that you pee and poop in the bathroom, but outside of very relaxed families, it is done with the door shut. Pooping is private, but it is an act that is not at all inconsistent with what we know about you as a human being. We might not want to hear about it (or smell it), but we take it for granted that you do it.
As we get older, we learn that privacy also includes the right not to disclose things that other people may want to know. If you’re having a bad day, most of us agree you have the right to answer, “I’d rather not talk about it,” when a casual acquaintance asks what’s going on. No one has an automatic right to access your inner world.
This right to privacy extends into intimate relationships. Ask any woman who has ever had a man pester her for details of her sexual past. I suspect many of you will agree that a boyfriend or a husband does not have a right to an honest answer to the question, “So, how many people have you slept with?” (Tangentially, on this subject, a gentleman never asks – but he also conveys a willingness to hear whatever his partner wishes to tell him.) Even marriage itself is not a master key to another person’s memories. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke points out, in the best relationships “we are guardians of each other’s solitude,” honoring the right of our partners to be autonomous and private.
For the most part, when we distinguish between a private life and a secret one, we presume that secrets are only necessary because they involve dishonesty or betrayal. For example, the delightful threesome you had when you were on your junior year abroad, the one that still crosses your mind from time to time? Your husband doesn’t need to know about that. That’s private. The fact that you cheated on your husband while you were on a business trip to Peoria last year? That’s a secret. We frame secrets as breaches of promises made; the private life was what you got to enjoy before you made that promise.
Yet we all recognize that not all secrets are bad. There are the innocent secrets we keep, like keeping quiet about a loved one’s surprise birthday party. There are the serious secrets that the heroic have always kept under dictatorships, such as hiding a Jew from the Nazis or smuggling terrified refugees across borders. It doesn’t take much work to think of many historical examples where secrets saved lives. Plenty of people who lead double lives have done so in the service of others.
When Gabriel Garcia Marquez says we all have a secret life, he isn’t talking about birthday parties, or hiding Anne Frank in the attic. He means we are fools if we deny that beneath our loves, our loyalties, and our routines, we are filled with contradictions. We harbor barely concealed rages (sometimes, you’ll get a glimpse of a loved one’s secret life when they are behind the wheel), or like Walter Mitty, we have a fantasy world to which we retreat when bored, disappointed, and frustrated.
The best-selling romance novel of all time, The Bridges of Madison County, was a massive hit for a host of reasons, not least because it revolves around two adult children discovering, discussing, and then ultimately accepting with gratitude and reverence their late mother’s extraordinary secret – a brief and incandescent affair. A simple Iowa farm wife had a perfect, four-day-long, life-altering romance with a stranger, and she kept it secret until her death. Rather than being horrified, her children rejoice that their mother both had this love and that she kept it a secret from everyone, including their father. At the heart of this book’s stupendous popularity (and if you are under 35, you almost certainly haven’t heard of Bridges and you may not be missing out), is the comforting idea that those whom we love can and will ultimately embrace the parts of us we work so hard to keep hidden. Our deepest secrets, once revealed, do not repel or disappoint. Our secrets humanize us, and once known, drawn others closer.
Not all secret lives involve sex. At its core, what marks a secret life is the certainty that its revelation would somehow astound those who think they know us best. “If they only knew, what would they think?” That’s the question we ask with worry or wistfulness as we contemplate this part of ourselves. If they only knew how full of rage I get, or If they only knew I’ll never get over that one person, or If they only knew I only pretend to share their politics. There are few (I won’t say none) of us who aren’t keenly aware that there is a part of ourselves walled off from the world, and that it would be costly, even terrifying, if that wall should come down.
Other people need and deserve our public consistency and our private virtue. Most of us, keenly aware of how loved ones see us and rely on us, work desperately hard to live up to our commitments. Most of us know, however, that by being in a relationship with another person or with a community, we have walled away some aspect of ourselves that might repel or at least upset other people. We keep that part of ourselves a secret. One spouse hides money, just a little each month, building a nest egg that could, just maybe, crack open into a brand new life. Another masturbates to fetish porn furtively each night while the rest of the house sleeps, sure that if their browser history were revealed, there would be anger and disgust.
The conventional wisdom is that the secret masturbator and the secret saver may not be wicked, but their hidden life is an indictment of the quality of their relationships. If there were true love, or true openness, such secrets would not be necessary, and all could be revealed. That’s nonsense, rooted in the fantasy of fusion with another human being or a community. In real life, we are rooted in contradiction, surprise and complexity -- not because our relationships are too tenuous for the truth, but because secrecy itself is both inevitable and necessary. A secret is not evidence that one still has more work to do; it is evidence that one recognizes that perfect consistency and unity are dangerous illusions.
Hypocrisy is the rent vice pays to virtue, the saying goes. The corollary to that is that the secret life is the tribute that human complexity pays to human community. My public life is what the world deserves; my private life is what my loved ones deserve; my secret life is where I get what I deserve. The therapeutic instinct is to declare that tragic; as they claim in AA, “You are only as sick as your secrets.” Maybe, however, that’s wrong. Maybe secrets aren’t what drain us – maybe some secrets are the batteries that power our lives, enabling us to show up for love, for work, for family, for the wider world.
Real love isn’t just saying, “I can accept anything about you, no matter what you tell me.” Real love is also, perhaps, saying, “There are parts of you that may always be a mystery to me. There are some things you may never share with me, and that too is okay.” Love is as much concealment as it is transparency. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was a compromise policy to cope with the issue of gays and the military; it refers too to the inevitable compromises we all must make to live in relationship.
We want a culture where those who feel burdened by their secrets feel safe to share their truths. We also want, and deserve, a culture wise enough to recognize that secrecy, contradiction, and complexity are part and parcel of what it means to be human, not to be pathologized and lamented but acknowledged, honored, and perhaps, celebrated.
I’ll let Leonard Cohen have the last word:
And the dealer wants you thinking
That it's either black or white
Thank God it's not that simple
In my secret life.
(Postscript: When I write, I put one song on, and play it over and over again until I’m done with my work. It helps my easily-distracted brain focus. Just for fun, I’ll start sharing the tune that was on repeat while I wrote each newsletter. For this letter, it was John Hiatt’s recent recording of his classic, All the Lilacs in Ohio.)