It's Getting Harder and Harder to Keep Secrets. Why Do We Still Try?
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In a 2006 radio-friendly single, country singer Clay Walker recounts the day when, age 10, he found a shoebox filled with photos of his mother as a very young woman:
Her hair, her clothes, her drinkin', smokin'
Had us boys confused
I'll never forget the day
Us nosy kids got introduced
To mama 'fore she was mama
In a string bikini in Tijuana
Won't admit she smoked marijuana
But I saw mama 'fore she was mama
We put that box right where it was
And never said a word
Oh, but growin' up got hard just tryin'
Not to picture her
In anything but aprons, dresses
Mini-vans and church
Oh and daddy would have whooped our butts
For diggin' up that dirt
On mama 'fore she was mama
The song, penned by the prolific hit-maker Casey Beatherd, tells a somewhat familiar — and in 2022, charmingly anachronistic — tale of kids coming to grips with what their parents lives were like before they themselves were born. (Listen to it. If you like a good pop country hook half as much as I do, that chorus will linger.)
On Friday, my children discovered a storage box of old photo albums that had been sealed since around the time Walker’s song first climbed the charts. The photo albums, filled with my pictures from roughly 1998 to 2003, cover the period immediately before and just after I started dating the children’s mother.
According to my son, Heloise didn’t want to look at the photos at first. “I’m tired of seeing things of daddy’s I don’t want to see.” David and Eira went through the albums, and declared the only embarrassments were sartorial. There was much mocking of my frosted tips, a de rigueur style for young men in fin de siècle Southern California. My daughter consented to look, and shrugged.
“None of these are bad. It’s nice to see Grandpa Hubert.”
My children already know much too much. Heloise did a deep dive on the internet early on in the pandemic, starting with an innocent googling of her own name. A few hours later, she had learned that her papa had been a teen sex worker, read unsettling snippets of memoir I had posted — and far worse, pored over news articles declaring me a madman, a predator, and an attempted murderer. She was not quite 12, and though we had given her a thumbnail sketch of her father’s very public failings, we had not been ready to give her everything. Too soon, she had it.
Friends, let me be in part a cautionary tale. It is true that I have a very colorful past that is well-documented, and an uncommon name that makes Google searches very precise. Some of that is thanks to my own compulsive need to overshare, but even if I deleted all of my writing online that was in my power to delete, the articles about me would not disappear. I’ve given up trying to have them taken down; the only thing to do is live with what is there, and cope with the children’s evolving responses to what they already partly know.
Clay Walker sings about a box of pictures that show him mama before she was mama. Not all of us manage to confine our most embarrassing episodes to the time before we become parents. My 2013 downfall came when Heloise was four and David one. And there have been more embarrassments since, such as that moment just after Heloise’s seventh birthday when I forgot that even though we were divorced, Eira and I still were on the same family phone plan — complete with automatic photo sharing. I’d been casually dating a young lady, and we had exchanged intimate photos in the way adults are wont to do. Before Eira could see and delete the photos — and suggest it was time for ex-spouses to have separate arrangements with AT&T — Heloise had grabbed her mother’s iPhone to play Subway Surfer, and received a very deep shock.
I have heard from other parents who have had similar tense moments. Children find pornography on their parents’ browser histories. They read the sexts. They dig deep into the archives of their parents’ social media history. Kudos to those moms and dads who are confident that turning over all of their devices to an intrepid, suspicious and tech-savvy child would reveal not a single cause for embarrassment. I do not believe that all parents are anywhere near as reckless as I have been, but shameful things happen on a spectrum, and I suspect, gentle reader, you’re on it somewhere.
“Growin’ up got hard,” sings Walker, once he had seen what he had seen and now could not ever unsee. In the song, mama burns the box filled with memories, but it is too late. It is always too late; I deleted a lot of things that needed deleting once they had been seen, but seen they had been. Los Angeles Magazine could take down the article that describes me teaching a 22 year-old how to self-harm, or trying to carry out a drugged and drunk murder-suicide; I could delete every word I’ve ever written about the men and women I slept with. It wouldn’t matter. These stories have already been told, they have been seen, and they are known, seared into my children’s minds.
The thing about kids is that the questions come over a period of years. Heloise’s initial shock settled into initial insouciance. “Dadda, you did some crazy things.” As she’s progressed deeper into adolescence, her view of the world has broadened in some ways, contracted in others, and what was too enormous to understand has become something she can comprehend all too well. Teen girls often go through a period of being disgusted by their fathers (Simone De Beauvoir had a lot to say about that in The Second Sex, in the same chapter in which she explained why teen girls get crushes on their professors, a chapter I now have decided I ought to have reread more often). Heloise is certainly in that phase of disgust. It will take a long time, and a lot of work for both of us, to come to terms not only with the scale of my muddled life, but the indelicate specificity of the photos and the stories that are now stuck in her brain.
In the early days of the #MeToo movement, the hashtag #TimesUp trended. All the secrets would come out, we were told; the mighty would fall, the non-disclosure agreements would be annulled, and many tongues would tell many things. It was almost biblical in its suggestions of impending judgment. The first were going to be last, the last were going to be first, and so many nasty white men were gonna go to prison. For the likes of Messrs Weinstein and Epstein, time was indeed up. Whether #MeToo has gone too far or not far enough is beyond my scope here. The point is that we live in an age where secrets have gotten increasingly hard to keep, because the tools to uncover concealed truths have become so accessible and ubiquitous.
Tick, tock. (The app that obsesses the young has always had a menacing name to my ears.)
My children have had their share of surprises, but they know their mom and dad are in fact their biological parents. We’ve done the DNA ancestry tests, which confirm not only that the children are my descendants, but that most of the family stories about where our various ancestors hail from turn out to be true. It is not always so. I know of two men who have been shattered to find out that their children are not their biological progeny, a shock they received thanks to 23andMe. I know of another man who just learned through DNA testing that the woman he thought was his much older sister was in fact his mama, who gave birth to him at 14; the family concocted the story that everyone thought would be best for everyone.
Secrets come out, and just as our ancestors could never have imagined that a great-great-grandchild spitting into a plastic tube could prove their infidelity, we cannot comprehend what future technology will unveil the things we were sure could not possibly be known. Sooner or later, #TimesUp — not just for harassers, but for all of us who have led lives where the public narrative and private truth diverge. (I suspect that’s most of us.)
Faced with the increasing difficulty of concealing the messiness of our lives, one solution is to call for greater holiness. If you never visit a porn site, your kids won’t find porn on your computer! If you never take a naked selfie, no one can ever embarrass you with it! If you never get drunk at the office party, there won’t be any humiliating photos of you! If you never tweet an off-color joke, or retweet a cancelled comedian, you won’t ever face the pitchforks yourself! If you never give up a baby for adoption at 15, and then go on to marry and have more children, you won’t ever face questions about the other sibling — or face the shock of having the unmentioned child show up years later, as an adult, filled with questions. If you could just manage to be pure, why then, even the most astoundingly sophisticated technology will reveal nothing untoward.
Another option is to maintain the status quo where we try and do our best, but know that we will mess up, and live in fear of being caught out. Jane Hirshfeld writes about those kind of people:
We know nothing of the lives of others.
Under the surface, what strange desires,
what rages, weaknesses, fears.
Sometimes it breaks into our daily paper
and we shake our heads in wonder –
“Who would behave in such a way” we ask.
Unspoken the thought, “Let me not be tested.”
Unspoken the thought, “Let me not be known.”
Under the surface, something that whispers
“Anything can be done.”
For horses, horseflies. For humans, shame.
We can choose to pray that we not be tested, and not known, and maybe we’ll get lucky, and maybe we won’t. We can pass on all that anxiety to our children, replete with warnings that just one mistake might ruin their lives. Better they be beset by anxiety and walk the narrow road than be too confident and fall into the abyss, eh?
The third option, of course, is radical acceptance and forgiveness of ourselves and others. That’s not a religious concept necessarily, though it sounds so. It’s a recognition of the universality of human frailty. It’s about accepting that we all fall short of the mark we set for ourselves, whether we have a God or no, and normalizing that shortfall. It’s about recognizing that our private lives rarely stay completely private for long, despite our most ardent attempts at discretion. It’s about recognizing that while there is a distinction between a private life and a secret one, most of us want to keep some things secret too — and again, despite our best efforts, some of those secrets will somehow come out, sooner or later.
To a certain kind of person, shame and guilt are essential for human society to function. If we never feel bad about what we do, and worry what others will think if we’re caught, we’ll never live up to our responsibilities to our families and community. Fear of being caught naked, literally or figuratively, is, these people think, a building block of society. Fear of being shamed certainly builds sturdy walls, but are those walls worthy of our children?
Somewhere on the internet, I am sorry to say there is a video of me masturbating in the restroom of a Delta Airlines lounge in JFK airport. It was posted by a jealous boyfriend in Las Vegas; angry at a girl having a sexting affair with a professor in California. I check periodically, and though you can’t find it easily, it is still there. I have to live with the reality that my children may find that video, and the reality that they have already found out so much, and seen so many searing and visceral things one would rather they had not seen. For me, the only way to stay even partly sane in the face of so much shamefulness about me out there is to fight like hell against the forces that declare these things are shameful.
In the song that I wish Clay Walker would sing, mama would sit down with her boys, and say that before she was mama, she did indeed do many foolish and high-spirited things, and some were silly and some were dangerous and most were a great deal of fun. I wish Clay Walker’s imaginary mama would say that even after becoming a mama to the best boys in the whole wide world, that wildness is still part of her, and though she will never leave her babies until the Lord calls her, there’s a part of a mama that will probably always scandalize a child.
I wish that in the song, Clay’s mama would say, someday you will do things that you hope your children never find out about, but chances are, they will, and I hope you will look them in the eye and say you love them very much but there’s an inchoate impetuousness in all of us to one degree or another, and the sooner we make peace with it, the better.
Maybe I’m just hoping that someday, Heloise will understand that while I am not like other dads in many ways, perhaps I am more like them than she realizes. And while I of course hope for her understanding and eventual absolution, I hope far more that she will be easy on herself when she finds herself doing what she never thought she’d do.
I wish that for you, too.