Sample text for Anatomy of a secret life : the psychology of living a lie / by Gail Saltz.

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Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?
--from The Shadow (1930-54)

A woman in the doctor's waiting room natters on about the weather, oblivious to the fact that no one's really listening. Maybe she's a chatterbox. Or maybe she's terminally ill.

A man stands in line at the bank, frowning to himself. Maybe he's overdrawn. Or maybe when he gets home he'll tell his wife he no longer loves her.

A child on the swing in the playground wears long sleeves, though it's the height of summer. Maybe her mother is overprotective. Or maybe her mother beats her black-and-blue.

The husband in bed turns to face you. He may be thinking only of you. Or he may be thinking only of your closest friend.

The man on the treadmill next to yours at the gym runs as fast as he can, turning his iPod's volume up as high as it will go. Maybe he can't lose those last five pounds. Or maybe he can't get rid of the image of that woman he met at the bar, and can't drown out her screams.

And you: Maybe you know yourself. Or maybe you don't.

We all have secrets; we live and breathe them every day. We may not know what one another's secrets are, but we know they're there. They're always there, invisible presences in everyone's lives, the subtext beneath the text, the almost uttered but then swallowed sentence, the cryptic, fleeting expression on someone's face. Humankind's basic needs are food, water, and shelter, but secrets aren't too far down the list of essentials. They provide a safe haven that allows us the freedom to explore who we are, to establish an identity that is uniquely our own. But even the deepest secrets can also be shared; they are the currency of close relationships, the coin of exclusivity, sometimes the key to love itself.

Under some circumstances, however, secrets can also be profound sources of shame, guilt, anxiety, despair. While we're always surprised when we learn about the misbehavior or strange habits and predilections of friends or public figures, in another way we aren't surprised at all. We've grown to expect that such behavior will crop up occasionally, that unusual personality traits will be routinely revealed. And we expect it not only because we've seen it in other friends or public figures (and we certainly have), but because we have been known to behave in this manner sometimes, too, and because we also possess well-concealed traits and habits and interests that would be considered strange by other people.

Secrets can cause people to behave in ways that seem entirely out of character--to go to any desperate length to conceal what simply must be hidden, at all costs. They can require so much vigilance and attentiveness and sheer time that they begin to dominate an entire life, in effect becoming that person's life. Everything that is unrelated to the secret becomes secondary and irrelevant and is cast off. A kind of fear--sometimes, nearly a paranoia--sets in at the mere idea of the secret being unearthed. What if someone finds out I stole that money? What if my employer reads my blog and sees that I'm not just an ordinary nanny, but that I also have an active sex life and have taken Xstasy? What if my best friend finds out I hate her husband? What if my most private self is revealed? Then everything will be lost. The possibility of discovery is played out again and again like a sickening loop of film.

Many secret lives remain sub-rosa for surprisingly long periods of time. Relationships are kept hidden through sheer ingenuity, and dark acts stay in perpetual darkness. The serial killer learns to live with secrecy as his constant companion; so does the illicit lover, or the tax cheat, or the thief. The balance of power between secret and secret-keeper is constantly being negotiated. If we can control our own secrets, making sure they occupy the place we want them to, then our lives can seem manageable. But when our secrets start to control us--and far too often they do--then a normal life clicks over into something else: a secret life.

When that happens, everything changes. Suddenly we find ourselves forced to give up any remaining vestiges of openness and casualness and instead submit full-time to the exacting rules that the secret life inevitably demands.

And the reason we are forced to submit in this way is that the secrets we keep to ourselves are only half the story. The other half is composed of the secrets we keep from ourselves. These are the ones that have been forced underground over time, in some instances since early childhood. They are the ones that we simply don't want to know about, so embarrassed or enraged would we feel if we were forced to confront them head-on. Glimmers of those feelings occasionally surface without our understanding why; we may overreact to seemingly trivial events, or have a strong response to a particular person, or be disturbed by a dream we've dreamed without really knowing why. In these moments, we've somehow entered the cordoned-off territory of the secret from the self, and while we may not understand this has happened, we know enough to tighten up security even further.

But without access to these inner secrets, we can't really know ourselves at all. Instead, we're forced to spend our lives in a state of continual vagueness, ignorant of the reasons behind our own actions and perceptions.

In the following chapters I take the basic concept of secrecy--which is intrinsic to everyone, though sometimes subtly so--and magnify it so it can be viewed as the powerful, dramatic, life-shaping force it is. Some of the stories trace the ways that people's lives have been destroyed because of the secrets they keep. Other stories tell of lives that have flourished because of the layers of complexity and richness that secrecy provides them. At times, secret-keeping proves to be a question of choice, or even luxury; at other times, it has life-or-death consequences.

A few of the secret-keepers here are composites of people I have seen in my practice as a psychoanalyst. Their circumstances might seem extraordinary at times, but they arise out of the ordinary complications of daily life. I've chosen them precisely because they are representative. You might even recognize aspects of yourself.

Other stories in this book come right from history: a world-famous hero who, at the height of his fame, secretly fathered many children with several women; a composer of international renown whose sexual predilections might have forced him to commit suicide; a beloved military figure who could find sexual pleasure only at the receiving end of a whip. If these descriptions sound far removed from your own life, that's deliberate on my part; some of these lives have been chosen for their sweeping, dramatic scale, which makes it easier to see not just the ways in which specific secret-keepers operate, but the ways in which all secret-keepers do. And that includes every one of us.

"Know thyself," urged Socrates, while a more modern maxim insists, "Ignorance is bliss." The two proverbs, often quoted, deliver opposing messages. Some people live by one, some by the other. But most people, at different times in their lives and in various ways, live by both. They try to remain open and honest as much as possible, keeping some details fuzzy and vague and hidden from certain people, while concealing other details from everyone, including themselves.

Secrets: Can't live with them, can't live without them. They are here with us at all times, swirling around us, causing problems, generating excitement, forcing us to be watchful. "I know something you don't know," goes the singsong of children. This is true for all of us. We all know things that other people don't, things we'd love to blurt out but that we simply can't. Secrets are like a long inhaled breath that can't wait to be exhaled, and perhaps never will. They are maddening, thrilling, dangerous. Secrets routinely meet in the air and then disperse, unspoken. And every day, secret-keepers keep on doing what they do: living one life, and then living another.


I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not.
--from Saturday Night Live (c. 1975)

It was loneliness that drew her to the desktop computer at first, and later on it was excitement. Adrian always made sure to finish her homework first, and then she kissed her mother good night (her father was usually traveling) and went upstairs to her bedroom, where she would sit in front of the pale blue glowing monitor, living an IM life that was so much more compelling and fulfilling than the one she really lived.

Her early years had been easy and pleasurable, surrounded by friends. But starting in sixth grade, the line between cool and uncool began to thicken, and Adrian found herself falling on the wrong side of the divide. She didn't mind. She could always hang out with the other girls in this group and pretend that none of them cared about being uncool. But for the alpha girls, coolness evolved into cruelty. No matter how Adrian dressed, or what she said or did, the alpha girls beat her down with their nasty words, mocking her clumsy attempts to fit in. They'd taken a page right out of the movie Mean Girls, and though Adrian tried to believe, as she wrote in her diary, that they were just using her as a scapegoat and that she shouldn't take it personally, she took the mean girls' words to heart. She was ugly, she wrote in that diary, and fat, and stupid, and a complete loser. She might as well die right now. Even Stephen King's Carrie had it better than she did. So Adrian, a girl with deep-set, hungry eyes and an awkward way of carrying herself as she navigated the treacherous corridors of school, retreated into herself.

The Internet helped her do that, providing an alternate corridor that she could walk down easily, and where no one would hiss cruel names at her, or casually stick out a foot so that she would stumble and fall. Adrian began IMing every night, and while in her daily life she was an outcast, here she was popular. Different anonymous people chatted with her, both male and female, and she found herself writing responses in the shorthand that such interactions required. The rhythms of the chats were friendly and funny and sometimes flirtatious. She took the screen name Exotica, a name that had just popped into her head out of nowhere, which was funny to her, because Adrian, at fifteen, with her slightly lumpy nose and scattering of acne and clumsy demeanor, was the furthest thing in the world from exotic. But no one online had to know that.

One night she began talking with a guy who called himself chai83. He lived in the suburbs of New Jersey, only an hour and a half from her own Long Island suburb. "Hey, Exotica," he wrote. "How u doin?" To which Adrian replied, "Exotica is bored 2nite. Tell me something interesting." The tone of her words was playful and teasing; she'd never spoken like this to anyone before. But as "Exotica" chatted on through the evening and into the night, long after her mother had gone to bed, she started to open up to chai83. She kept a balance between her actual, Adrian self and her new, Exotica persona, mixing true details (chestnut hair, dark brown eyes) with made-up ones (age eighteen, worked as a bartender at a trendy club in Manhattan).

Though her own details were a stew of the real and the false, she never questioned whether chai83's own story was entirely true. He said that he was twenty-two, with black wavy hair and dark blue eyes, and that he was an aspiring actor who made his living as a waiter. Back and forth, they traded anecdotes and aspirations, mostly using suggestive language. This went on and on for a matter of weeks. Adrian seemed less troubled by the mean girls at school, and their catty comments simply floated past her. She was moving further away from school itself. She stopped listening in class, and began failing tests. It got to the point where Adrian skipped doing her homework altogether and just went straight to the computer, where chai83 was inevitably waiting. For an actor who had a day job and was often going off on auditions, he was online a surprising amount of time.

Then one night, chai83 said he wanted to "take my friendship with u to a new level." He asked Exotica to meet him in the parking lot of the mall in his hometown. Tentatively, she agreed. "How will I know u, Exotica?" he asked. "I will be the exotic one," she told him.

Three days later, after Adrian's body had been found in a swamp in central New Jersey, her desperate mother wept to the policemen who came to her home that her daughter was a studious girl who would never go anywhere unsafe or do anything stupid. And when the sergeant asked if Adrian had kept secrets from her, her mother shook her head no with conviction.

To have secrets is to be human. To find in a private world a personal identity is an essential part of what it means to be a member of our species. The ability to have a secret is the thing that gives birth to our sense of ourselves in early childhood, and the secrets we keep and share are what shape our relationships for the rest of our lives. Here, then, is a crash course in developmental psychology, as it relates to the complex and very human art of secrecy.

Once, none of us had any secrets. Our life in the climate-controlled aquarium of the womb was all mom, all the time. We were one with this woman whom we hadn't even met. When she ate Szechuan chicken, we did, too; when we had hiccups, she felt every tremor. Out of the womb, we technically had a separate existence from our mothers. But of course the infant is no less dependent than it was before being born; in some respects, it's even more dependent. The comfort and sustenance that came effortlessly while floating in the womb now require a little individual effort: a suckle, a thumb in the mouth, an earsplitting, colicky cry.

Through these tiny efforts, the child begins to distinguish itself as a separate entity in the world. Months pass. The independence grows. The child finds the lesson of peekaboo a source of endless fascination: A person can disappear and reappear! How cool is that? Soon the child makes the intellectual leap: Whoa, people don't disappear--they just go out of sight. Mom is gone now, but she'll be right back--mom, who used to be "me."

The child holds on to furniture and cruises around the great forest of the living room. He or she lets go and actually takes a solo walk. Babbling turns into syllables that are actually understood by the adults in the room. At around fifteen to eighteen months, the child recognizes itself in mirrors or photos. By two, the child learns that he or she is in fact a he or she. And it is at this moment that the child, after months and months of saying nothing but yes--yes to the breast, yes to a spoonful of Beech-Nut apricots, yes to mom and mobility and speech--learns to say no.

No is a word that comes with tremendous power. Any parent who has ever experienced a child going through the "terrible twos" will know just how intoxicating that power can be, for in one transformative moment, children begin to understand that they can have some control over the outside world.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Secrecy -- Psychological aspects.