I began to read at an early age. My parents divorced when I was around two. I lived with my mother and she read to me from as early as I can remember. Other than the newspaper, my father didn’t read much at all. He lived far away but we got together as much as we could. When I was in the eighth grade he invited me on a long train ride to visit my half-sister. She was much older with two daughters my age. On the train ride I read a book. My father saw the cover (The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne). He asked me disapprovingly if it was some kind of soap opera trash. I told him it was not. It was about a secret, a secret that destroyed lives. Some secrets do that. Other secrets create lives.
Secrets and literature have a symbiotic relationship. Many stories involve secrets. An author may know about a secret before writing a story or discover the details while writing. A secret may add suspense as the story progresses or it could be a twist at the end. In Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson, one of our recommended Summer Reads, we have both. As Eli Goldstone says in the Top Ten Secrets In Fiction, “Literature can use secrecy as a device to ensnare readers, to pull the wool over their eyes or to reveal to them things that the characters can’t see.”
There is another kind of “secret” that results from people being lazy or enthralled by fame. Author Laura-Blaise McDowell writes about “Frauds, fakes, counterfeits, liars, truth-benders, aliases—the world of literature has had many secrets over the years” in The Five Most Shocking Secrets In Literature. I would add Jonah Lehrer as a poster child for plagiarism and fabrication in science writing. I would note three things about this. First, lies should but do not always undermine trust (consider Donald Trump). Second, thanks for the fact checkers who eventually bring the truth to light. And third, lies are not secrets. Lies and secrets may be closely related but they are not the same. Many things may be related to secrets. One that I will consider later is what I would call the “unsaid.” Or, as the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein put it “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Michael Slepian is a psychologist who studies secrets. His new book, The Secret Life Of Secrets: How Our Inner Worlds Shape Well-Being, Relationships, And Who We Are, is a useful guide to everything you might want to know or not know about secrets. Consider these answers to questions Slepian was asked in a recent interview.
Are lies just a different type of secret?
Slepian: No, I would say that lying is one way you could keep a secret, but it’s not the only way. There’s plenty of secrets you can keep without telling lies. A lie is one way out of many to keep a secret, and then, of course, you can keep a lie a secret. They’re different constructs, but they’re kind of intersecting in this way.
How do you define a secret? Is there a difference, for instance, between a secret, and something that we just consider private?
Slepian: Yeah. In fact, there can be some gray area between, but there’s a way to draw a line between the two, which is that privacy tends to focus on you don’t broadcast personal information very widely if you’re a private person, and if there’s something that people don’t know, it may be because these aren’t the kinds of things we tend to talk about. For a lot of folks, they don’t talk about money, or they don’t talk about sex, and so that might be why people don’t know those things about you. But when it becomes a secret, it’s not just that someone doesn’t know this thing about you, but it’s that you intend for them to not learn this information. That’s when we arrive at a secret.
Some secrets may be justified on the grounds that exposing them would unnecessarily hurt someone. Even so, keeping a secret, especially one deemed important, can have serious negative consequences not only for the person keeping the secret from also for the person the secret is kept from. In his book, Slepian writes:
If you take away only one lesson from this book, I hope it is this: If you have a secret that is bothering you, consider sharing it with someone you trust.
Slepian’s book is well worth reading especially if you are concerned about or bothered by a secret you are keeping. He points to many fascinating facts such as:
Studies estimate that we spend around 40% of our waking hours mind-wandering.
In the seventies, Eric Klinger, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, estimated that our minds traverse 4,000 different thoughts throughout a typical day. Assuming 16 waking hours, that’s 250 thoughts an hour, or 4 thoughts a minute.
Can you imagine? Four thoughts a minute every waking hour? I pity the poor Buddhist who tries to quiet those thoughts. This brings to mind a quote from Leonard Cohen at a concert late in his life.
It’s been a long time since I’ve stood on a stage in London. Was about 14 or 15 years ago, I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream. Since then I’ve taken a lot of Prozac, Paxil, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Ritalin, Focalin. I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies and the religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.
According to Slepian, most of the secrets we keep are fairly similar, even predictable.
I ask people to simply tell me about a secret they are keeping, 92% of the time it fits into one of the 38 categories from our list. This, as we will see in the coming chapters, means that we are not so alone in the secrets we keep, despite how isolating the experience of secrecy can feel. Far from being what makes us different from others, secrecy is what we have in common.
As for when we start keeping secrets, it depends. Chimpanzees don’t seem to get there but human babies can get close.
Chimpanzees can’t grasp that the knowledge they hold might not be held by others. This places limits on their abilities to engage in secrecy … however, When something unexpected happens, for example, both babies and chimps tend to look longer … but, unlike adult chimpanzees, by eighteen months, infants understood the situation of another person holding a false belief.
At around six kids seem to realize they can fool you so that’s when you need to start keeping a closer watch.
… the earliest of kids’ secrets often involve them trying to keep their little indiscretions hidden… In their pre-school years, children will often try to conceal their behavior simply by denying it.
It is not that young children are incapable of remembering something from just moments ago, but rather, in order to remember the experience of obtaining new knowledge, they have to pay attention to their inner mental experiences in the first place. Children, at a young age, do not consistently do this.
By around age six, children understand that their past experiences accumulate into knowledge and personal memories, which expands their understanding of their self, and their capacity for understanding when something is secret.
The teen years is when things really start to pop. In the modern world it’s Facebook, Instagram, and Tik-Tok.
… what are these teens talking about to all these people? For the most part, themselves.
Younger children have plenty of memories, but rather than being organized into volumes and chapters, they are as organized as loose slips of paper thrown into a drawer. Teenagers, in contrast, organize their memories like an autobiography.
Eventually a lot of secrets revolve around sex. Surprise, surprise. Hawthorne had it right with Dimmesdale and Hester. And how that is viewed depends on the culture where you live.
Are that many people really having affairs? The current best estimate is that between 20% and 25% of people commit infidelity at some point in their lives, and about 3% of married individuals have engaged in infidelity in a given year (these data come from U.S. surveys of heterosexual married or cohabiting couples, and so the numbers will differ in other countries and contexts). A 2013 Pew survey found that 84% of Americans consider sexual infidelity morally unacceptable. Compare that to the 47% of French individuals, the 64% of Italians and Spaniards, or the 92% of Pakistanis who feel the same way. When it comes to infidelity—as with many other behaviors people tend to keep secret—perceptions of morality vary across country and culture and person.
We are storytellers. That’s why masochists bear their hearts in novels. But we wouldn’t tell anyone everything even if we could. Solitude has its benefits as Camus understood in his little story about Jonah, The Artist At Work.
By one estimate, past experiences encompass 40% of what we talk about.
If you have a secret … should you confess it? This question really combines two different questions: Will the confession provide relief to you, the person confessing? And what effect will your confession have on the other person, and your relationship with them? The answer to the first question is almost always a clear yes. As for the second question: it depends.
The best time to confide a secret in someone is when you feel comfortable doing so.
If confiding in others somehow entangles them in the problem, or places a difficult burden on them in terms of having to stay quiet, you would be doing those others a favor to not confide in them, and instead choose someone else.
When it comes to joyful experiences we don’t tell others about, it becomes easy to see how there are other flavors of solitude than isolation.
I love that line other flavors of solitude than isolation. It’s what I think about every time I walk out in the woods around my home on the Mendocino coast. The birds, the insects, the flowers, the trees, the sounds … all things I can have alone with myself without taking away the opportunity for others to have them too.
There are surely times you really don’t want the person you’re with to keep a secret such as when you are ordering in a restaurant or working with an investment advisor or in a doctor’s office or reading a science book. Knowing the truth, as much of the truth as it’s possible to know, can be very important and it doesn’t have to spoil the beauty and mystery of life. I agree with the famous physicist Richard Feynman who says:
“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”
But, there are also times when that “secret life” Marquez speaks of, I would call it an “inner life” so as not to confuse the idea of secrets, is of paramount importance and is something I at least would not give up for anything. There truly are flavors of solitude other than isolation.
I say this in spite of having just read Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson about which David Foster Wallace says in an article in SALON:
W’s M” is a dramatic rendering of what it would be like to live in the sort of universe described by logical atomism. A monologue, formally very odd, mostly one-sentence 6s. Tied with “Omensetter’s Luck” for the all-time best U.S. book about human loneliness. These wouldn’t constitute ringing endorsements if they didn’t happen all to be simultaneously true — i.e., that a novel this abstract and erudite and avant-garde that could also be so moving makes “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress is that strange thing, a novel about secrets that is not a novel about secrets. Or, have I got that backwards. Or wrong? I’ll think about it more and perhaps write about it later. Like every good novel I’ve just finished it’s my all time favorite. For now anyway. Like Eleutheria by Allegra Hyde that I recently recommended for much the same reasons.