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.



Think of the starving Biafrans

In the early weeks while convalescing after my broken leg, a friend, Maria Tumarkin emailed a series of questions as part of her research into the nature of guilt and giving, topics dear to my heart.

When it comes to giving, I am a mass of contradictions. I come from a family of nine children and therefore the notion of give and take is central in my mind, especially the notion of sharing. But I can feel overwhelmed by the neediness of others.

My husband calls people who ask for money, ‘beggars’. He has a difficulty with them. Perhaps a consequence of his deprived childhood and the fantasy that those who beg are not trying to work as they might.

It is their ostensible lack of dignity that gets to me. To beg is to demean yourself, though many of these people are drug addicted or drunk. They have fallen low. My heart bleeds for me them, even as I avoid eye contact.

The local people who ask for money on the streets trouble me. Though when I traveled through Europe, the beggars there troubled me even more. I had the impulse to help them, though again I resisted it.

They are like a bottomless pit, and I fear I would fall to the bottom of that pit were I to start trying.

I met a woman in Paris outside the Louvre. She dressed innocuously in a floral skirt and blouse. In retrospect I think she may have been a gypsy. She thrust a gold ring at me and told me to keep it, that it must be mine she said, only a woman like you could own such a ring.

My husband tried to drag me away. Give it back to her, he said. The woman insisted she had no use for such things. I should keep it. Before I had the chance to give it back the woman was asking me for money for a coke.

I was generous to you, now it’s your turn, she seemed to say. The ring of course was not gold. I could tell simply by its weight in my hand. Even if it were, I felt tricked. I threw the ring back and fled.

Such begging disturbs me more than a direct request for money because it is a trick and I do not like to feel tricked into giving. I want it to be voluntary, to come out of my desire, not to have it squeezed out of me.

I have a particular concern for asylum seekers. If I had more time I would volunteer to work with this group. I identify with this group more strongly than with any other disadvantaged group, maybe even more so than the poor souls in Pakistan caught in the floods.

When I was little there was a metal statue on the teacher’s desk in the shape of a black man’s head and shoulders. He wore a straw hat and had a large open red painted mouth. There was a lever at the back of the collection box into which we kids were encouraged to put any spare pennies.

The fun of inserting the money was reward enough for giving the money up. I never had any spare pennies. If I did I would have used them on myself or my siblings. I felt too starved then to be generous to strangers.

Even so, these poor people on the other side of the world who did not have enough to eat troubled me. My relationship to them had been tarnished by my mother’s constant admonitions when we were children to ‘think of the starving Biafrans’. Think of them and do not complain about your own lot, was her message.

So my tendency has been to avoid thinking of these others, as if were I to think about them, I would cease to exist.

I also have a clear memory of a time when I was a child when things had gone badly in my family and my mother needed to ask the priest for financial assistance. He gave it in the form of a food hamper.

I hated the fact of that hamper more than I can say. I hate to be a charity case. It would have been better, had the priest involved himself more and given a different sort of help, one that offered more dignity to my family.

I consider that I am inconsistent in my response to those who are more needy than me. I am ashamed to say that I am not more generous to those beyond my ken.

On the other hand, I rationalise that were I to give all the time I would have nothing left for those who rely on me, my family, those with whom I work. I could all too easily become one who gets such a thrill out of giving that she gives it all away.

I work hard on curbing my tendencies to give. I know that giving to others can be built around ulterior motives. I distrust the Mother Teresa’s of this world. She took prostitutes off the streets and turned them into servants. Both to me are forms of subjugation, though one might look better than the other. Were these women given a real choice, they might not leave Mother Teresa so sanctified.

There is also the mistaken belief that giving is the only way to receive. If I look after you, you will look after me.

There may be something in this notion but taken to its extreme it is a dubious basis on which to give.

I trust giving that involves something on both sides, that of the giver and that of the receiver. Only then to me does it feel valid, though that said, I again wonder about circumstances where someone might give and another receive, and they neither know it, as with anonymous donors.

And what about the notion of corporate philanthropy as Maria Tumarkin mentions in her essay?