No Hiding Place

 

 

 

The Family Therapy

NETWORKER

May/June 1993

 

 

U N L O C K I N G
FAMILY SECRETS
. . . . . . . . . . . .

 

NO HIDING PLACE

 

Understanding the liberating

power of honesty

 

By Frank Pittman

 

 

WHAT PEOPLE DON’T KNOW CAN HURT THEM—and what they don’t reveal can hurt them even more. Secrets can destroy lives and relationships. When something is kept secret, it can grow in power and significance until it becomes the center of one’s identity. Fed by fear and shame, secrets thrive in the dark. People hiding with their secrets may shrink from intimacy, believing they would never be loved if their secrets were known. Secrets make strange bedfellows—we must cling to those who share our secrets; otherwise, we would be alone with our secret shame.

 

As therapists, we have learned the liberating power of revealing the awful things other people have done to us, the secrets of our benighted origins, the myriad ways in which we have been abused and molested by the people we trusted, our ridiculous and polymorphously perverse adolescent adventures (at any age), the entrapping habits and addictions we slip into, and even the weird and kinky thoughts and impulses that go through our heads at times. We even know the healing power of openly acknowledging the cruel and thoughtless wounds and betrayals we have inflicted on others, especially those we love the most. Therapists know how to liberate us from the crippling power of those universal secrets by pushing us to reveal them to others. Only then do we discover that others have similar secrets and that we all share the human condition and are not really required to be flawless in life.

 

 

THE WEBSTER INTERNATIONAL Dictionary defines private as “unconnected to others” and secret as “con­cealed from others.” Some matters, like bowel movements or masturbatory fantasies, are private—everyone knows you have them, but most people would rather be spared a description. Private matters are expected, but perhaps unsightly. Secrets are unexpected and perhaps even dangerous. The mess in the closet is private; the dead body in the basement is secret. Marital sex is generally private; adulterous sex is generally secret. It may be socially clumsy, however psychologically liberating, to expose private things, but it is psychologically and interpersonally damaging to keep significant things secret. Secrets involve relevant information that is kept from the people who need it. Secrecy can hurt, even when secrets are being kept to protect people from having to face unpleasant reality.

 

Hawthorne was a tiny 17-year-old kid, five feet tall, wiry, swarthy, hyperactive, charming, intensely engaging and irrepressibly loud. His sisters complained that he would swing from the chandeliers while they would try to study. Hawthorne had two tall, calm, earnest, Scandinavian college professor parents, and two tall, blonde, serenely controlled sisters. In this placid family, Hawthorne’s rhythms were disruptive and every sound he made cacophonous. In the first family session, I commented that Hawthorne seemed utterly delightful but strangely out of place in his family. Hawthorne acknowledged he had always felt that way too, and talked about how well he got along with people outside the home. He described his family’s opposition to his athletic efforts at gymnastics and wrestling, for which he seemed better suited than basketball and tennis (his father’s sports and the ones at which his sisters excelled).

 

After the session, Hawthorne’s mother called me to confess that Hawthorne had been secretly adopted. Her younger sister had run off to join the circus, had taken up with a Hungarian trapeze acrobat, gave birth to Hawthorne, and promptly died. The family had decided to keep Hawthorne from knowing the truth about his ancestry (which they considered embarrassing) while they tried to stamp out anything they considered Hungarian in his nature. The result was that Hawthorne had been raised to think he was defective and freakish rather than knowing he was an accurate realization of his unique genetic nature.

 

Hawthorne ‘s parents were relieved at the suggestion that the secret be revealed. They were reserved and private people, and had often wanted to tell Hawthorne the truth, but they just didn’t know how to bring it up. Like so many people, they were frightened by the prospect of revealing a long-held secret. Once the family secret was revealed, the definition of the problem shifted from Hawthorne’s embarrassingly foreign nature to his family’s prejudices and their skittishness about dealing openly with the truth.

 

While problems result when things are kept secret, they also occur when private things are made public. I once consulted on the case of Fidora, a shy young woman with a secret that, she believed, interfered greatly with her dating life. During her lonely and isolated adolescence, she had had some sort of sexual experiences with her dogs. She wouldn’t describe exactly what she had done with the dogs, only that she was so ashamed of the activity that she felt a compulsion to confess it. She feared any man who knew that she had had sex with dogs would be repulsed and would disappear from her life. She handled this anticipated rejection by informing any man who asked her out on a date: “There is something you need to know about me. I used to have sex with dogs.” Sure enough, the young men did not ask her out again. A therapist had advised her never to tell anyone about it. That proved to Fidora that she was forever unacceptable because of her canine experiences.

 

I reacted somewhat differently to Fidora’s plight, pointing out that many people have had embarrassing sexual experiences, but such things are private, and people who talk publicly about private matters are displaying bad taste. I told her that many people have had sex with creatures of one sort or another, but would prefer not talking about such private things with anyone but the most intimate confidantes. As I reframed it, the problem was not Fidora’s sex with the dogs, but her talking about it to strangers.

 

A year later, I got a follow-up on Fidora’s situation. Fidora had kept her private business to herself long enough to get into a sexual relationship with a young man. In time, she confessed her secret to him, but he didn’t run away because he now knew her, loved her and thought her secret was more funny than horrifying. He beamed, wagged his tail and moved closer rather than farther away.

 

 

THE PERSON WHO SHARES YOUR secrets owns your soul. You are bound to those who know your secrets and you are separated from those to whom you lie and from whom you hide yourself. Most people cannot relax well with people from whom they are keeping any significant secret. And most people are eager to reveal their secrets once they feel they are in a place safe enough to do so.

 

Honey grew up on a chicken farm in south Georgia. Her parents worked hard and her father died young, but not before he and his wife, Vidalia, had expanded their chicken plucking operation from a few hens in the tool shed to the biggest chicken farm in the state. Vidalia was left flooded with caged chickens but afloat in money. Vidalia wanted everyone in the county to see every cent of her wealth-she drove it, she wore it and she lived in it. Above all, she let her only child, Honey, model it for the town. She sent Honey to the finest schools and trained her to live lavishly and marry well.

 

And Honey did marry well. She wed Garlington, the grandson of a former governor. Garlington had taken his inheritance and built a successful publishing business that specialized in quirky and prestigious books on regional topics and local color. His most successful publication was The Grits Cookbook.

 

On the eve of Honey’s wedding, Vidalia swore her to a secret pact. In addition to whatever else she might give the young couple, she would slip 81,000 a month into a private “mad money” account if Honey would never tell Garlington about it. Vidalia reasoned that men can’t be trusted because they like to use money to control women. Honey would have her own secret money for jewelry, furniture and personal things that Garlington need not know about. Honey thought the offer was a chance finally to get close to her mother, so she made the pact to keep a significant secret from her husband.

 

Ten resplendent years, three beautiful children and 120,000 secret dollars later, instant grits dominated the market and Garlington, after a slow, painful financial decline, was broke. Honey had used most of her mother’s monthly money to decorate a grand house in Atlanta, but she still had almost 840,000 left. She and Garlington had pulled the kids out of private school, cancelled their vacations and were about to lose the house if Garlington couldn’t come up with $20,000. He had already hit up all his friends and relatives, but he was too proud to ask his mother-in-law for help. Honey asked Vidalia for permission to use her “mad money,” but since that would have required telling Garlington of the secret pact between mother and daughter, Vidalia said no.

 

Honey was in quite a quandary. She began having anxiety attacks and came to therapy. In therapy, she revealed that she was not satisfied with her marriage. She had accepted Garlington’s largess and had devoted herself to making a home for him, but she had never gotten very close to Garlington himself. Her life was spent shopping with her mother and figuring out how to lie to Garlington about the price of everything she bought for herself, the kids or the house. By making the secret arrangement with her mother, she had mortgaged her soul. Honey began to think her mother had used money to keep her from fully giving herself to her marriage.

 

Honey brought Vidalia in to see me and I saw that she was not a fire-breathing dragon at all, but a woman trying to hide her humble origins behind wealth. She was terrified of losing her only daughter, to whom she now felt inferior. I talked to her about the destructive power of secrets. Alone with her, I even insisted that she, like all of us, must have tried to live with secrets. This is always a safe generalization to make, and one that frequently presses the button that unleashes the crucial secret in someone’s life.

 

Vidalia confessed that she had indeed lived her life protecting a secret of her own. She had grown up poor in a family of sharecroppers, but she always had nice things while her brothers and sisters didn’t. She got special treatment from her mother, and her envious brothers and sisters resented her horribly. Her father tried to make it up to them and kept his distance from her. She had never under stood it until the truth was revealed to her when she was grown and married. The old family doctor of the town died and left a letter explaining that he was Vidalia’s natural father and that he had from time to time slipped Vidalia’s mother a little money for pretty things for her, but that he couldn’t acknowledge Vidalia because her father didn’t know the secret. The old doctor left her some money, with which she bought the land for the chicken farm. She was so ashamed of her paternity that she never told anyone, even her husband, where the money had come from. Her mother had always told her never to let a man know about her money. Her husband, faced with a secret, naturally assumed the worst. He decided his wife was having an affair, so he pulled away from her for the rest of his short, lonely, workaholic life.

 

I thought it was crucial for Honey to know Vidalia’s secret, and my optimism about the outcome gave Vidalia the courage to face this humiliation for the sake of her daughter. Honey understood what it meant for her proud, secretive mother to reveal her greatest shame to anyone, and she felt more loved by the gift of her mother’s honesty than she had from the gift of her mother’s money. And she told her so.

 

The next step was to bring Garlington into the circle, but Vidalia would not permit Honey to reveal her secrets to Garlington, whose aristocratic pedigree intimidated her. She threatened that she would never give Honey any more money if Honey revealed any of this to Garlington. But Honey now realized that her marriage required a level of honesty she had not previously given it. She was determined that there would be no more secrets separating her from the people she loved. Furthermore, she accepted her mother’s challenge. She thought her marriage would be stronger if she and Garlington did not accept any more money from Vidalia. Vidalia was panicky. Like the doctor who was her father from a distance though he never spoke a word to her, she had relied on money as her way of giving and receiving love. What could she do now?

 

Honey went home and revealed every thing to Garlington, clearing up many mysteries for him. Garlington used the last of Honey’s “mad money” to save the house, and then promptly sold it, netting enough money to buy a more modest house and get a new business going. Honey took her houseful of treasures and opened a gratifyingly successful antique shop. Her years of shopping and lying about the worth of things was a disad­vantage in her marriage but held her in good stead in the antiques business.

 

Now Honey and Garlington are keeping their heads above water, living happily under reduced circumstances with far more intimacy than they had known before. They actually plan things together and share the things on which they spend their carefully pinched pennies. Honey does not spend as much time with her mother as she once did and she’s not afraid of her anymore. Honey will not permit her mother to give her children money, so Vidalia is, instead, spending time with her grandchildren who are teaching her how to play and love rather than just work and spend.

 

 

THE DEVASTATING DESTRUCTIVENESS of infidelity is not primarily because the private act of sex has been shared with an outsider, but because the intimacy of the previously bonded relationship has been betrayed by the secret and the lie of the infidelity. During a secret infidelity, people are likely to feel alienated or adversarial with their old mate, and bonded to their affair partner. They may even feel caught up in the temporary romantic high of the in-love state. The crazy alliances produced by infidelity are familiar. One of those alliances might be with a therapist who shares the secret.

 

As the rest of the world gets more open and trusting, some psychotherapists persist in their historical phobia about truth. They seem to fear the family, perhaps even the world, would explode if its secrets were known. When therapists assume their clients are fragile and all family relationships are treacherous, they urge caution about honesty and intimacy. When they do so, they send the terrifying message that the client’s secrets really are that horrifying, that the client really would be rejected if the secrets were known, and that intimacy is not possible for one with such a secret. Such therapists, as they increase their clients’ shame and alienation, tell us they are guarding their clients’ privacy.

 

Arnold was a lawyer who had been depressed since having a mild heart attack and began seeing a therapist. After a few weeks of therapy, he told Marie, his wife of 35 years, that he needed to get a divorce. The shell-shocked Marie brought him to see me.

 

Arnold explained that his therapist, Dr. Lowe, had suggested that a divorce might help his depression. While he regretted that such a drastic measure seemed necessary, he would do whatever it took to recover. He explained that he had learned in therapy that he had married Marie for the wrong reasons. Since Marie needed him after the death of her father, Arnold had lived his life being a dutiful, responsible husband to her.

 

Arnold insisted that he felt excessive responsibility for his wife. His recent heart attack had led him to worry about how he would support Marie if he ever lost his job. He thought he owed it to her to set her free so she could find a healthier man. I told him this sounded like the sort of rhetoric people think up to cover their tracks when they are having affairs and want to run away from home. Arnold assured me he was not having an affair.

 

It did not make sense to me otherwise so I asked permission to speak to his therapist. Dr. Lowe explained that Arnold needed to get the divorce he’d always felt his father should have gotten from his mother, a chronically ill woman to whom his father catered excessively. Dr. Lowe had Arnold and Marie take a popular psychological test of martial compatibility, and sure enough, despite their 35 years together, they were officially incompatible. I explained to him that it seemed to me that Arnold was having an affair. Dr. Lowe assured me that was not the case.

 

Arnold kept coming up with objections to his marriage and Marie responded to each complaint. She lost 20 pounds, got a job, began going to baseball games with him, learned to fly fish and gave up all her volunteer work. He and Marie were leading the life he said he wanted and they would hold hands in my office while he talked about his father and his sons and the burdens of being a man. I almost forgot that he had ever mentioned divorce, until one day he cheerfully announced that he was moving out.

 

After this announcement, his three sons gathered in my office and confronted him about his decision. They were shocked and outraged by their father’s action. Arnold impatiently explained that, on doctor’s orders, he had to divorce their mother in order to save his life. The boys were further inflamed by their father’s detachment and cheerful acceptance of something that was ripping apart their world. He seemed out of touch emotion ally with the enormity of the situation, and his sons confronted him about the possibility that he was having an affair. He denied it.

 

Marie continued in therapy with me while Arnold continued to see Dr. Lowe. As soon as the divorce was final, Arnold’s long-suspected affair surfaced. He acknowledged that he had been involved in the affair since before the therapy began. He explained that Dr. Lowe had advised him not to reveal the affair, as it would upset his wife and sons, would look bad in the divorce case and would confuse the couple’s therapy. Marie was livid and the sons even more furious with their father. Arnold would not meet with me again.

 

Two years later, as is so often the case, Arnold’s great romance had fizzled. Arnold and Marie came back to see me to work out the details for their remarriage. Their sons’ lives, meanwhile, had been torn apart. The older one got divorced, the middle one dropped out of law school, and the younger one was heavily into drugs and 12-step programs. The younger one was preaching at his father and the older two were still refusing contact with him. All three were outraged at their mother for taking him back. They said they could forgive their father’s affair—people in crisis do things like that sometimes—but they were furious with him for lying to them and trying to get them to feel sorry for him. The sons said they felt their father had betrayed them and had left them to take care of their mother while he was secretly playing out an adolescent fantasy with another woman. Arnold hadn’t trusted his sons to love him in spite of his mistake, so he lied to them. Their anger seemed inexhaustible and interminable and, as children so often do when they feel betrayed by their parents, they self-destructed.

 

The wounds from Arnold’s traumatic affair will be healed long before the wounds from his naive and ill-advised efforts to keep it secret. Infidelity, like a suppressed cough, cannot be completely hidden.

 

 

ONE OF THE MORE DESTRUCTIVE notions to enter the therapy field is the prejudice that people of different genders are natural enemies and can’t be permitted to know one another’s secrets. I regularly hear from men, even male therapists like Dr. Lowe, the patriarchal idea that men must never let women in on their secrets because women would just get “stirred up,” and it is a man’s responsibility to protect the “little ladies” from hearing anything that would trigger an emotional response.

 

In the feminist literature, I often find the belief that men are likely to react violently if they hear something that challenges their power and control over women, so it would be dangerous for a woman to reveal anything secret or even private to men. Joan Laird, in Evan Imber-Black’s collection, Secrets in Families and Family Therapy, explains that “Women, from all over the world, have learned how to use secrecy and silence for strategy and survival, to bide their time for another time or place, to preserve their stories and experiences, to protect themselves and their children, to enrich their lives, to define themselves.”

 

If all women are treated as if they are hysterical nincompoops and if all men are treated as if they are cold-blooded bullies, the potential for intimacy would seem to be markedly lessened. (Of course, people who are fragile or explosive have to be treated gingerly, although I haven’t noticed that keeping secrets from fragile people brings out the best in them.) When people believe honesty—and therefore intimacy—is impossible be­tween people of different genders, an adversarial gender stance is inevitable, with its loneliness, its disorientation and its potential for war. If people cannot know one another’s secrets, they cannot understand one another, and they can overcome neither their own shame nor their fear of people with secrets different from their own. Couples cannot find peace until they get over the belief that the sexes are “opposite.”

 

Teddy came to see me with his wife June. He had just caught June having an affair with a man she met at a country western dance hall she frequented every Thursday night. June explained that she liked to drink and dance and just get away with the “girls.” She had gotten too close to a cowboy she liked to dance with, and when they were making out in the parking lot, he took advantage of her. “It just happened,” she explained. After that, she met with him a few times, and if she drank too much, he wouldn’t let her drive home. She didn’t protest because she didn’t want him to know she was married. June explained that men felt so high and mighty they were always trying to get control of women, and her screwing around was just her blow for women’s rights. June’s father had asserted tradi tional male privileges of infidelity, brutality and control. In June’s mythol ogy, men were the villains and women the victims, and she was going to fire a few shots of her own.

 

Teddy protested that he was not like her father, whereupon June accused him of being like his own brutal father. Teddy burst into tears and confessed his own secret. From the age of four until the age of 14, his father would wake him up for oral sex. He thought the same thing might have happened to his older sisters, since one of them complained before her wedding that she wished her father hadn’t taken away her virginity. Teddy had never discussed it with his sisters because it might embarrass them. Teddy had not told his mother because it would upset her. And the only time he mentioned it to his father, the old man changed the subject. He certainly never mentioned it to his older brother, whom he assumed would have been manly enough to have resisted their father’s advances.

 

Teddy hadn’t told anyone his horrible secret until he confessed it that day in therapy. He had always feared that what his father had done to him would render him sexually inadequate and June’s affair had brought him face to face with his worst nightmare. June explained that their sex really was fine, but he was such a private person that she couldn’t get close to him. He kept her at a distance, and it was emotional openness, not sexual pyrotechnics, that she was seeking from extramarital sex with cowboys.

 

Teddy and June had each wrapped themselves in a secret, and were not accessible to anyone else. After the revelation of their secrets, Teddy and June were each, for the first time in their lives, in a position to be known and understood, and thus to achieve some degree of intimacy. Of course, if they chose, they could have used the other’s secret revelation as justification for continued distance. Teddy could have brooded over June’s infidelity and June could have recoiled from Teddy’s disturbing family history. But with the help of therapy, they did not pull back, and they were able to achieve more closeness than either had considered possible before. They even learned that people of opposite genders are not completely opposite and foreign.

 

Increasingly, women are letting men know what it feels like to be a woman, some aspects of which have long been kept secret from men. And now men are beginning to let women know something of the secret life of men. Our lives are so different from the image we have tried to convey to one another, it is no wonder that we just don’t understand. Once we understand what it means to be a woman or a man, once we reveal the isolating secrets of our gender, a partnership finally becomes possible.

 

 

THERAPISTS ENCOUNTER THE ISOLATING and disorienting power of secrets almost every hour: people like Hawthorne and Vidalia with family history secrets; people like Fidora and Teddy with sexual shames; people like Honey with money secrets; people who come to therapy but don’t want anybody to know; and a succession of parents who bribe their children and remind them, “Don’t tell your father” or “Let’s not upset your mother with this.” Therapists in general are well-seasoned to handle these secrets with aplomb. We maybe adept at dealing with secrets about the things other people have done to our patients, but still frightened by secrets involving the things our clients themselves have done wrong. Faced with secrets of infidelity, like Arnold’s and June’s, we may be tempted, as Dr. Lowe was, to conspire with people to reduce their guilt while maintaining their alien ating secrets—at enormous cost to the intimacy of family relationships.

 

When we therapists believe a secret is unforgivable and its revelations would be dangerous, the client receives a frightening message about him- or herself and about the world. We may accept our patients and make psycho-dynamic, systemic or sociological excuses for them, while still conveying that their secret is unacceptable to the world. Thus, while explicitly “support ing” them, we implicitly undermine their self-esteem, their sense that they are fundamentally decent, acceptable peo ple. Clients treated in this way are bonded to the therapist but left isolated with shameful secrets that they believe to be too dangerous to reveal. (Honestly, in all these years of working with infidelity, I have never seen a murder, a mutilation or even a divorce over an affair that was ended and confessed. The danger comes when the affair is con tinued, hidden, lied about or repeated.)

 

I’ve been through so many frightening revelations, and have seen so much benefit and so little harm from honesty that I don’t hesitate to ask the embarrassing questions and push for total openness in intimate relationships. People who don’t want that much intimacy can push back, lie or quit therapy if they insist, but I don’t have to magnify their shame and isolation by agreeing that their secret is unforgivable and therefore anxiously sidestepping it. I grow increasingly confident in the safety of honesty during therapy. Certainly therapy involves much more than openness, but it is a crucial step toward a trusting atmosphere in which both intimacy and change become safe and possible.

 

Therapists really should trust the world enough to understand that we cannot be loved, or trust the love we get accidentally, unless we take the risk of letting ourselves be known. We are alone with our secrets until we share ourselves with those whom we would love.

 

 

Frank Pittman, M.D., is in private practice. His new book, Man Enough: Fathers, Sons and the Obsession of Masculinity has just been published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons.