We have a secret drinker in our family. We used to have two of them: one of them was me, and that secret came out—though it was already out, that’s the funny thing about secret drinking, everybody already knows—when I tried to commit suicide on January the first of this year. My wife found me in the closet with my improvised rope and off to the psychiatric ward I went. Looking back on it now, I wonder if it was the only way I could sneak through the three years of lying to her about my drinking, while protecting myself from the shotgun blast of accusations, tears and (well justified) outraged expressions of betrayal I would otherwise have had to confront: she couldn’t come after me in the way I deserved if she had a suicide on her hands, right? Was my suicide attempt one more lie, the lie to end all of the lies, the only lie I could think to tell that would free me of the shame of all the deceit?
Because the secret-keeping wasn’t the worst part. Secret-keeping, we all know, can be one way we cherish our own personalities, it can be how we reserve a part of ourselves just for us. A secret that is all your own is a bit like a secret between friends: an intimacy. A secret is like a little kiss we give one another, and there is no other way to kiss yourself (this, Freud remarked with characteristic narcissism, was one of our greatest frustrations, that we cannot kiss ourselves). The worst part was the betrayal that went with the deception, the worst part was the guilt: it was just like having an affair.
Eve Sedgwick probably did not invent but at least popularized the idea of an “open secret”: the secret everybody already knows, but no one talks about. The most famous account of an open secret is in H.C Anderson’s little parable “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” where the villain of the story is not the crafty tailor, nor the foolish Emperor, and of course not the naïve little boy who speaks the truth that everyone already recognizes: “but he’s naked.” The villain of the story is the Emperor’s retinue–his closest circle of protectors–and the public. “Open secrets” have been used by scholars to explain the behavior of ordinary Germans who lived in proximity to Nazi concentration camps (in the work of Andrew Bergerson, for example). Sedgwick uses the idea to show how society can exert pressure upon gays, lesbians and others who have sexual identities in the minority (are we so sure about that, these days?) to remain in the closet. But we are surrounded by open secrets of every description: we all know, and participate in, deceptions that are used to maintain the fabric of ordinary life. Sometimes it is an individual who is collapsing, sometimes a group; sometimes it is a fact too ugly to face; sometimes it is a truth we all agree to forget; sometimes, as Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out, it is simply an enormous collective silence.
But back to my family and our secret drinker. S/he is one of the most beloved members of our family; if s/he came out with her/his drinking it would be accepted by everyone in the family, by some with relief: it is sad to watch secret drinking, it makes you worry that the beloved is sinking deeply into loneliness, and watching lying when you know it’s lying is almost always sad, when it’s not evil (evil to lie, and evil to passively watch). Others in the family would no doubt react with anger or even (feigned) indignation: “But you promised you weren’t drinking!” That indignation, that slap-in-the-face, that reminder of the lies and broken promises, is what the secret drinker fears most of all.
One drinks because of addiction; one drinks in secret because of fear of rejection, because of that most terrifying loss, the loss of love. And there is a desire to punish the secret drinker. We all love to rake a liar over the coals (the will to moralize is a will to cruelty, Nietzsche said; the same sentiment was later repeated by a very different philosopher, Bertrand Russell). But after the initial onslaught I think even the angry ones would settle down and feel the relief that comes with a secret exposed. A secret is not a lie: the secret-keeper withholds information, while the liar actually offers false information. But both try to control your belief-structure, and thus your decision making.
When we are asked before entering the witness box “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” (absurd request! As if that were ever possible! For God only, perhaps, and He seems awfully good about keeping secrets, including such juicy ones as whether or not He exists), the burden of truth is correctly placed upon us because the jurors must be as close to the facts as possible in order to make the most adequate judgment. We make our choices based on information, and both the liar and the secret-keeper try to control that information, thereby controlling our choices. Our indignation with both secrets and lies stems at least in part from this, the manipulation of our freedom, the undermining of our autonomy.
So why don’t we out our secret drinker? Two of us tried, quietly and kindly, at one point, and s/he more or less admitted what was happening; but the behavior went on, and we went back to our old ways of being. I know—dread knowledge!—that were I to start drinking again (may I never), I could keep it secret, and that in time it would evolve into an open secret, and that again perhaps only those who are very closest to me might be partially deceived, but that everyone else would understand what was going on, and would go along. And outing, at the end of the day, seems vicious. It’s hard to know when we should tell the Emperor that he has no clothes, and for how long we should allow him to parade down Main Street, in his resplendent, humiliating nakedness.
S/he doesn’t seem depressed (or at least no more than the rest of us, and hell, we’re all medicated in one way or another), doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the state I was in when I walked into that closet at ten or eleven in the evening. (And the truth is, I do remember feeling pretty damn determined: it’s just hard to admit that now, because I have three daughters, so it’s a very shameful knowledge). We love our secret drinker, our open secret. Could it be we love our open secrets themselves? Nietzsche, again, said we have grown too mature, too wise, too merry, to believe that the truth remains after it has been stripped bare of its veils. Maybe the open secret is the truth? Maybe that’s part of the love? I have not sufficiently discussed the drinking of our own secrets, as we drink one another’s. That, too, sounds like a dangerous potion for love.
Photo by Duquesa Mercedes