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.



6 thoughts on “The stuff of secrets”

  1. I think sometimes people like the power of a secret when in actual fact it doesn’t need to be a secret at all. My family was also based on a secret, that led to other secrets and on and on. The first secret was definitely about power and control but the damage it caused through the generations was irreparable. Until me!
    I can’t keep secrets and I’m going to tell.
    I struggled with a work colleague who really did not have a filter about any information that came past her hearing, but she was incapable of understanding that while it was not a ‘secret’, it was not her information to repeat.
    Oddly, she could keep a secret.

    1. I reckon that’s true, Karen, secrets hold a certain power, especially when withheld or dangled within arm’s reach. I hope I
      m not too without a filter, though interesting what you say about your filterless friend: how she can at least keep secrets. Thanks, Karen.

  2. Confession is good for the soul. They say. I prefer the line from ‘The Prisoner’: Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself. I have secrets. Who doesn’t have secrets? I’ve had secrets I’ve shared and those I’ve kept to myself. What the difference between secret and private? I have things I prefer to keep private. They’re not secrets per se but I prefer not to share. Sharing diminishes things. They say—them again who’re always going around saying things—that a problem shared is a problem halved. In my experience it’s a problem doubled or worse. For most of my life I’ve shared too much. Every time I’ve moved to a new town or a new job I’ve sworn I’ll keep myself to myself but I never do. What have I to hide? Words like ‘hiding’ and ‘secret’ have negative connotations. As soon as people learn you’ve kept something secret or’ve been hiding something they want to know—no, they feel they have a right to demand to know—why and, honestly, most of the time I just want to keep whatever it is to myself. Because I can. Because its mine. There’s pleasure in having the choice to shit or hold it in. Opening up doesn’t change what I’ve done or what I’ve gone through. All it can do is provide me with another’s perspective on the experience and sometimes I think I need that but more and more I find I don’t. We’re all different. Some shrug off abuse; others get traumatised by it. What’s the right thing to do? What would a “normal” person do? It’s been a while since I’ve seen ‘Notes on a Scandal’ but I do know that very few people trumpet their newfound sexuality even though it’s “nothing to be ashamed about” because history has taught us how the many brutalise the few: Conform! Conform! No one is normal even though we live in an algorithm-driven world where computers want to reduce us all to the lowest common denominator. That’s the thing most of us never get. Unique used to be something to be prized but not so much these days. Sharing has become almost obligatory on sites like Facebook. I ate a meal last night. I don’t need to post a photo to tell the world. The world doesn’t care. And it really doesn’t care about my past either. There’s nothing that’s happened to me or I’ve done that hasn’t happened to others ten times over or others have done much worse. I’m not saying that speaking up is wrong—from a social point of view that’s how change comes about when a problem’s exposed—but although it might makes society a better place I do wonder how much it benefits those who, like so many in the entertainment industry of late, have opted to open up in public. Me, I have no desire to change the world. If it can just hold off blowing itself up for the next twenty odd years until I’m done with it that’d be fine me.

  3. I suppose it all comes down to the degree of sharing, and the motives behind it, Jim. Not all sharing is unhelpful, though some can come out of an inability to hold things inside long enough to reflect on its meaning for yourself. I don’t know if you intended it, but you sound annoyed to me in this comment. It might be that sharing has had horrid consequences for you. For me it’s been a way of getting past the shame. Though of course not everything needs to be shared. There’s so much that remains secret. Thanks, Jim.

    1. I’m not annoyed AT you but reading over my comment again it’s clear you touched a nerve. As you say, motive’s an important consideration. Some people “confess” to unburden themselves, some to support others in a similar situation, others for the attention and/or to be vindictive. Irrespective of your intent you will be judged and not everyone’s going to automatically see things your way; it can backfire on you and badly. The older I get the less I seek the approval of others or their sympathy or well meant (or not) advice. Or worse, their understanding. Such a misused word. You’re right, sharing’s not always gone well for me but pressuring others to reveal things has been as bad. As a child the truth was sold to me a good thing. Life taught me more often than not that’s not the case. Own your mistakes, yes, by all means but that doesn’t necessarily mean to have to own up to them.

      1. I’m wary of any notions of the truth, too, Jim. The truth is always multi faceted and depends on your perspective, which is also hopefully fluid enough so you don’t get stuck in absolutes. I’m not advocating anyone’s exposing all their secrets, that’d be dreadful. Just exploring the notion of keeping secrets. Thanks again, Jim.

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