I have a secret, a great and wild secret, and it might hurt someone else very badly if I told my secret, so I won’t. Only this, it is hard for a writer not to write a secret. It is hard not to whisper it to my best friend. It swells up, this secret, and the harder I try to put it down, the fatter it gets, the more it blocks my throat, the more space in my brain it occupies. I have a secret that I can’t tell, not because I took an oath (I didn’t), not because I would betray my source (I don’t care), but because I can’t. There are innocents in the way of my words. That’s what the person who told me the secret was counting on. Any decent human being with the barest of a half-baked, feeble pretense of knowing right from wrong would not and could not do it. Of course, as a journalist, I could mention my occupational service to truth. I could make some claim about the ultimately healing light of reality. But that’s just theory, abstract mumblings from behind the teeth of personal interest.
Journalists, squirm as they may, can’t get off the personal accountability hook. Sometimes, like priests and therapists, they must learn how to keep a secret. The problem is that my secret weighs on me. It aches with a malicious, stinging desire to be told. It stinks like old blue cheese in the refrigerator of my mind. I want to tell someone. I want to tell you. This is the thing about secrets: They do not lay dormant like old dogs by the winter fire; they bite and they nip, they worry the spirit till it wearies. This is most likely why the person who told me the secret told me. It was munching on that soul like a locust on a leaf. That soul couldn’t bear it. The thing needed telling and the person told it to relieve himself or herself of the mighty rock, the huge kidney stone, of the secret. The person passed on that burden to me. “That,” says my psychoanalyst mate, “is the nature of secrets.” They knock their spoons at the metal bars of their cell doors. They take hostages (like my ability to write about something else), they cause swellings and irregularity and bad breath. (Oscar Wilde was another one who couldn’t keep a secret and was imprisoned for his failure. O.J. Simpson came close to spilling the beans.) That’s why most secrets are sooner or later revealed, if not to the public then at least to the most interested parties.
The fig leaf that Adam planted on his genitals is probably the first secret. Secrets begin in shame, most often sexual shame, and are fed by our rather nasty pleasure in shaming others. I recently read to a child a book by a Victorian-to-the-max writer named George MacDonald called The Princess and Curdie . In it, Curdie is encouraged by an ancient but beautiful and mysterious princess to put his hands in a burning fire and hold them there. This magically gives him the power to touch other people’s hands and see whether they have souls of beasts or souls of human beings. The book is a religious parable in which Curdie, the Christ figure, redeems the castle from the sinners. What did Curdie do but use his magical gift to perceive the secrets of the heart, to periscope down beneath the hypocrisy of the court, beneath the snakelike ways of the prime minister and his nasty troops. Curdie with his magic hands could intuit the secrets that, if out in the open, would shame the evil characters.
This was short-cut muckraking journalism. But what Curdie did was also an invasion of privacy, a kind of wiretap without due process, a soul search without subpoena. On a certain level, he could be described as a paparazzo in the service of God. If I met Curdie on the street, quicker than you can say Mephistopheles I would stuff my hands into my pockets.
Our interest in other people’s secrets, in being told the real scoop, vies in intensity with our desire to keep our own secrets private, to keep prying eyes out of our dossiers. The tension there between these universal contradictory urges makes some of us condemn the memoir, squirm at self-disclosure and become very self-righteous about what ought or ought not to be seen in public, exactly like the folks who covered David’s all too prominent genitals, or those who once considered cancer such an embarrassment that all word of it was kept out of obituaries.
Our closets, small and large, are stuffed with items we wouldn’t wear in public, but we know enough to hide our curiosity about other people. We teach our children not to stare, not to point. We know we can’t tell them not to be interested, not to root around in the streets, the buses, the classrooms, for other people’s shame. We teach them modesty, what is and what is not acceptable in public. We don’t have to teach them the terror of being found out, caught out being different or odd. That seems to come with the first tooth. Most secrets are secrets because if they were known someone would be shamed.
So let’s assume that shame is like the cattle prod that daily drives us down well-worn paths and keeps civility among the braying herd. Let us assume that shame is not just the thing that keeps us pulling down the blinds but is also the muzzle on our intimacies with our friends and with our lovers. Secrets create distances between people. Secrets make us lonely, leave us alone usually just when we most need another voice. Secrets can make a joke of love, devastate a home, creep into our days and turn to rot the blessings we have received.
And there is no doubt that someone will throw a stone at you if you reveal your heart.
There are those among us who want more silence, more privacy, more public decorum, no showing of sores, no defying of the taboos of shame, more apparent conformity with the sexual and social norms. They are the tight-in-the-rear-end shame police, the clean-up crew, “everything in our town, in my house, is just fine, thank you” types. Like everyone else, I walk past them hoping to appear invisible. Except that as a writer I often must risk flying across the field naked in the noon sun.
So I have this secret that I must keep because it belongs to someone else and, as things are today, revealing it would be harmful. No matter how hard you beg me, I can’t tell you this secret. But I wish that I could. I wish it weren’t a secret in the first place. I wish that we could live without the fear of being judged or being laughed at or being stripped of our pride. I wish that we could really know each other and accept each other and the things that shame us could all be exposed to light where most of them would stop shaming us and become whatever they really are, for better or worse: mere human experience. I should be ashamed of this naïve wish so counter to the ways of the world, but I am not.
Someday, maybe, I’ll be able to tell you my secret. Maybe not.