The stuff of secrets

‘Don’t tell anyone I told you this,’ you say.

‘Don’t tell.’

‘Don’t tell, and I’ll fill your head with thoughts that you must keep to yourself. You and I are in on this alone.’

Only we’re not alone, others know but it’s up to them as to whether they share this information.

Still, you and I must keep our knowledge secret, not because of you, but because of me.

I would not want to be seen as someone who gossips, or who shares secrets around.

And so it goes.

Once again, I’m sworn to secrecy.

I have secrets, but I keep them to myself.

I tell no one my secrets because once I tell, they’re not secret anymore.

Let’s face it, secrets generally hold more than one person in their web.

Sure a person can have a guilty secret: I smashed a window down at the housing estate when I was young. I did it alone in a fit of rage and I’ve told no one. Don’t tell a soul.

This is a secret one person can hold onto alone.

At a conference, Maria Tumarkin once said that children are like ‘sniffer dogs for secrets’. She used the example of her grandmother who picked at the crumbs on their dinner table even as she’d had plenty to eat.

As a child, Tumarkin could not understand this behaviour but she recognised in it the seeds of something unspoken, and in time learned the secret of her grandmother’s traumatic past.

When she herself was young, Tumarkin’s grandmother starved during the pogroms in Russia.

Tumarkin knew there was a secret, one her grandmother refused to discuss at the time.

So many secrets and most of them pass us by unnoticed.

Given I grew up in a family of secrets, every day a secret, my father’s behaviour towards my sister in the night, a source of shame to our entire family, I learned to keep secrets.

Is it shame that makes us keep secrets, our own shame or the shame of another?

One of my brothers insisted, even when we were adults that we keep my father’s story a secret until certain people were dead.

He never clarified those who should die before the secrets were out. Was he protecting these certain people from the shame of exposure?

There’s a scene in the film, ‘Notes on a Scandal’, where the central character, Sheba, played by Cate Blanchett, is caught out having an affair with a student, some twenty years her junior and given the story is set in the early 2000s in Britain, her act is criminal and eventually she’s taken to court and the parents waiting outside the courthouse are baying for her blood.

The police lead Sheba from the courthouse through the furious crowd and she is in shock. The shock of shame. The look on her face. A look of despair. Utterly recognisable.

Banished from the world of decent human beings, because her so-called friend, Barbara, an older history teacher, played by Judi Dench, reveals her secret, intentionally because Barbara is hell bent on revenge. Sheba had betrayed Barbara by not loving her enough.

I have a good friend who reminds me regularly that human beings are primitive, even at the best of times.

Put us under pressure and we resort to base human cruelty or degenerate attitudes that show our darker side. We try to stay civilised, at least most of us do, most of the time, but when it comes to secrets, it’s not so easy.

‘Your seceret is safe with me,’ I might say.

‘Don’t worry. I won’t tell a soul.’

I’m good with secrets. I’ve kept my own for years, so why not keep yours?

Though as time passes, we can lose track of who told us what and which of what was told to us is secret, to be held in the dark, and which of what has been told us is up for grabs and open for further discussion.

Some things can slip out.

Some things not.

One of my daughters introduces me to her friends as ‘My Mum, who has no filter’.

No filter indeed. Little does she know.

I, too, have my secrets, my filters. I, too, make decisions about what can go out there into the world as coming from me and what not. And although I might write things she would never in a lifetime let on to other people, there are other things, I hold close to me.

Though at the same time, I try not to let too many of my emotions show on my face when they pop up from time to time because my thoughts are often writ large in the creases on my cheeks, chin and forehead.

I cannot stop a reaction from entering my physiology even as I might keep the words to myself.

We all do. We say so much more than words. We share so much more than ideas about events and people. We share attitudes and knowledge.


I do not like to be distrusted.

I do not like this idea that I am not a safe person to whom you might talk because I cannot keep a secret.

If you want me to keep your secrets, please don’t tell me them in the first place and if they slip out please allow me to be the one who decides what I shall do with them.

Given this is indeed my decision, as it is your decision to keep the things I tell you to yourself, or not as you choose.

I can’t remember ever asking someone to keep something secret, except when I was thirteen or fourteen and my older sister had told me the facts of life to my horror and she had told me to keep the knowledge to myself and not tell my less than two years younger sister who in our older sister’s eyes was too young to know these facts.

I did not agree with my older sister but never told her so.

Instead, there in one of the half constructed AV Jennings houses that littered the empty market gardens of Cheltenham behind our house, I skipped from bare floor beam to bear floor beam and breathed in the stink of untreated wood and of the glue the went into holding some of bits together and told my younger sister all about what my older sister had told me, about what men and women get up to when they want to make babies.

My younger sister was less horrified than I had been. Perhaps because I had forewarned her on the seriousness of or topic.

Perhaps, because she knew things already that I did not know. She who had entered my father’s bedroom when she was home sick after several months of hospitalisation in Fairfield infectious diseases hospital with rheumatic fever. And on the days my father was also home sick or off work after a bender, he had called her into his bedroom and asked her to help him wash his penis.

I did not know this secret then. I have only come into this information in recent times from a source other than my younger sister.

Perhaps because my younger sister would also like for it to stay a secret. More of my father’s shame that becomes her shame because she was still a child and he should have known better than to drag her into something so disturbing as to confuse her about the meaning of bodies and relationships and touch.

There now, I’ve let out another secret.

I’m afraid I’m compulsive when it comes to divulging certain secrets.

But they’re secrets I reckon must come to light if only to shake off some more shame.



You deserve a letter of your own

The year she turned eighty-five my mother wrote a letter to all nine of her living children. She wrote it by way of apology.

I imagine she wrote this letter seated at her round table in the dining room of her tiny unit at Park Glen, the retirement village to which she had moved five years earlier.

She wrote it on a sheet of lined foolscap paper but by the time my older sister had photocopied the nine copies necessary – at my mother’s request – the lines had disappeared.

My mother must have written in her best handwriting, as the words are legible, unlike in earlier letters she wrote to me alone.

There were three things that struck me after I read my copy of my mother’s letter:

How I would respond?

How might others respond?

And who received the original?

It was clear mine was a copy and somehow it became a measure of my position in the family, one of the many. It also became a measure of the position of the many in my family, all except my older sister who in the end took the original back to my mother, after she had made copies for the nine of us, including one for herself.

More recently, this same sister was clearing out her garage and she came across, not only her copy of my mother’s letter to us all, but also another letter my mother wrote to her alone.

‘Of all my children,’ my mother wrote, or words to that effect, ‘Of all my children, you deserve a letter of your own.’

My sister read out my mother’s letter over the phone and we wept together hearing again our mother’s thoughts about my sister’s hard life and her pain.

To this, I added a pain of my own, the pain of not being the one of all those children, not the only one but one of the eight children who, by default did not deserve a letter of our own.

I decided then, should I ever write such letters to my children, I will not write a group letter, instead, individual letters to all my children, each letter expressly designed to address the child in question.

I recognise it’s not so hard for me. I have only four children and nine is a long line of letters to write.

It’s not surprising my mother should choose to address us all equally.

Most of my siblings, as far as I know, did not respond in any way to our mother’s letter.

I presume they read it.

I presume they felt something in the sting of it, but as far as my mother had told me at the time, only three of her daughters talked to her about her letter.

Not one of us wrote back. And I include myself here.

I acknowledged my mother’s letter but it did not occur to me at the time to wonder what it must have been like for her to write such a letter and also to be met with silence from most of her children.

I’m twenty years of age away from reaching my mother’s age at the time she wrote this letter, but it occurs to me now that she wrote from the wisdom of her years and although one of my brothers disparaged her efforts as manipulative, I wonder whether a degree of empathy is called for after my mother’s long life, lived to the best of her ability, however much littered with mistakes.

My mother’s letter is one long apology and one long explanation of her position in making the mistakes she made.

She wrote it when she was eighty-five years old. It deserves recognition.