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Living with Secrets

Everyone keeps secrets.  We all want to be seen positively, and don't want to risk being embarrassed, judged, or rejected by others.  But some secrets come at a high price to ourselves and our loved ones.  In this interview, Dr. Dale Atikins (psychologist, author, TV commentator, Reform congregant) and Rabbi Edythe Mencher (clinical social work psychotherapist, author, organizational consultant) explore when it is best to keep the truth to ourselves, and when to reveal what's in our hearts.

Joy Weinberg (RJ managing editor): Secrets can hurt. I have a friend who asked her terminally ill mother to tell her about the unknown aspects of her life. During the conversation the mother revealed that she had had an affair after she’d married. She then quickly assured this eldest daughter that the affair ended immediately after her birth and insisted that this confession be kept between the two of them. The father, who looked just like her, was not to know. The astounded daughter felt wounded and greatly burdened by her mother’s dying wish that she safeguard the secret. It appears that this mother cleared her own conscience at her daughter’s expense.

Edie: This is a nuanced situation. When we approach someone who is dying and say, “Please tell me your life story,” the person may perceive the request as an invitation to reveal secrets that we may not really want to know. In Jewish tradition observing modesty (tsniut) calls for keeping a certain degree of privacy between parent and child. The Torah admonishes us not to reveal one’s nakedness before one’s children (“Your father’s nakedness…the nakedness of your mother, you shall not uncover” (Leviticus 18 6-7)). At the end of life, however, a very old and ill parent who may be impaired in discernment because of pain and/or medications is apt to say things he or she would not have otherwise. Also, in Jewish tradition we are expected to confess our wrongdoings at the end of our lives with a vidui, a prayer of confession that includes the words: “Forgive me for all the times I may have disappointed you. I am aware of the wrongs I have committed. Forgive my shortcomings, for against you I have sinned….” The mother may not have wanted to leave this life without confessing to someone what she had done, and in the absence of having a spiritual figure or therapist, chose instead to unburden herself to her daughter, who, by listening, helped her mother without realizing it.

In this instance, the outcome would have been much better had the daughter asked her mother very specific questions about her life— Could you tell me more about your childhood? What was it like on your wedding day? —and had the mother considered the possible negative consequences before uttering her confession by asking herself, Why do I want to tell her? Is she the best person to hear about the affair? Will anyone benefit from my revealing the truth?

Joy: But once the secret has been told...

Edie: Now the question becomes: Should the daughter honor her mother’s wish by not revealing it to anyone else, if doing so takes a toll on her emotional health? Jewish wisdom can help here.

Our tradition stresses honoring our parents and highly values keeping confidences—but it also looks unfavorably upon bearing burdens alone that are harmful to one’s emotional and spiritual well-being. Even Moses was advised to appoint elders to help him judge and govern the Israelites as they traveled towards the Promised Land, lest he harm himself and the community through attempting to carry too much on his own (Exodus 18: 17-23).

In this case, the daughter would do best to find people in whom she could confide, such as a member of the clergy, a therapist, or a trustworthy friend who is not involved with the family, thereby allowing her to sort out her feelings without having to disclose the entrusted information to the rest of the family.

Dale: If the daughter chooses to keep the secret, she needs to find a way of easing her own burdened heart, perhaps by writing about it in a private journal, performing a ritual of “letting go,” or forgiving her mother. She might also choose to share this with a professional counselor, mindful that that the secret is safe as she works through her distress.

Joy: Had the mother confessed to her husband, the consequences might have been even more troublesome.

Edie: Confessing might have hurt the husband grievously and led to a rupture in their relationship. Yet it is also possible that, in time, this husband and wife might have used the opportunity of the revelation to renew trust and deepen their intimacy.

Regardless of the decision of whether or not to disclose, in Jewish tradition we are expected to right the wrong we’ve done. When the injured person knows of the wrong, atonement (teshuvah) includes apologizing to him, often before or during the High Holy Days. In other situations teshuvah might be better achieved by striving to become a person of greater truth, honesty, and fidelity—perhaps in this mother’s case by addressing issues in herself and her marriage that had led to her act of betrayal.

Still another way is to donate time and/or money to organizations devoted to strengthening family life. Psychologist Marsha Linehan found this approach to be most helpful to certain members of the armed services with post-traumatic stress disorder. Observing that the treatment they had been receiving—re-exposing them to the trauma until it no longer frightened them—was not working, she realized that for these soldiers, fear was not the problem, but shame for having participated in acts of war that they had come to view as un-heroic and misguided. What helped them was doing reparations. The servicemen couldn’t bring back the lives of people killed in Vietnam or confess to the surviving family members, but they could work for a charity aiding children of war or for an organization to prevent atrocities and promote reconciliation.

Joy: Sometimes a family member keeps a secret that other members would have wished to know.  A man I know lost his job, but couldn’t face telling his family, so he put on a suit every weekday morning and spent the day at the beach until it was time to come home.

Dale: For many people, especially men, their self-worth is inextricably linked to their paycheck, and, as such, they feel they must project an image of themselves as a good provider—at all costs. For a person who defines himself solely by professional status, telling the truth about getting a pink slip can be risky and frightening.

Edie: In this situation, context is very important. Suppose the man’s wife is being treated for cancer and he believes that telling her might be detrimental to the healing process. Or maybe the man knows that if he reveals his misfortune, he’ll be hit with an immense barrage of criticism from family members, or his wife will leave him. Such things do happen.

On the other hand, the man’s distress about losing his job may have impaired his judgment to the point that he totally misinterprets how his family will react. I know of a man who lost the job that was supporting his family, but rather than tell his wife and children, he checked into a hotel and took an overdose of pills. His wife had a premonition and searched for him in hotels throughout Boston. Thank God, she found him and saved his life. Family therapy helped this man realize how precious he was as a husband, a father, a brother, and a son—regardless of whether or not he was employed.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer (RJ editor): From these stories it seems that keeping secrets from close family members can be very risky.

Dale: The research suggests that people keep secrets because they expect to benefit from doing so, but these benefits come at a considerable price that often outweighs the advantages.

Joy: What are some of the costs associated with keeping secrets?

Dale: A secret can take a toll on our health. Some people feel like frauds, knowing they are living a lie. It weighs on you: Did I tell this person or not? What do I need to do to make sure he/she doesn’t discover the truth? Who knows in the family and who doesn’t? You always have to be on high alert not to let the truth slip out.

There can also be serious financial costs. If you’re broke, but to keep up appearances spend money you don’t have, you will undermine your long-term economic prospects.

Children, in particular, carry a heavy burden when parents warn them: “Don’t divulge Dad’s secret!” Teenagers almost make a career out of talking with their friends about their lives; what are they supposed to do now? The negative consequences often include distraction, waning of a child’s natural curiosity, and poorer performance in school. When the secret is revealed, grades generally go back up, for the child is no longer living a lie.

Secrets can also isolate you, deeply. If your adult child has a serious drug addiction and every time you visit him at the rehab center you make up a story about where you’ve been, you’re living with your guts torn out. You need support, but out of fear that your friends will consider you a terrible parent, you don’t take the risk to confide in the very people who are most likely to help you.

Joy: Are friends likely to support you after you reveal the truth?

Dale: Yes! Too often we exaggerate in our minds how people will respond. We overreact. While many of us think the world revolves around us and our secret is the most important thing in the world, in actuality, quite often sharing the secret we’ve been guarding so assiduously hardly makes a difference in the way friends regard us. True, some friends might think, Wow, what went wrong?, but most of the time good friends will not make us feel worse about our misfortune, real or perceived. More likely than not, they will offer genuine support.

One such secret involved the disappearance of a man right after he graduated from college. His parents wouldn’t let anyone know his whereabouts. Everyone imagined the worst—that he was dead. Years later, one of his friends called the missing person’s mother and demanded to know the truth. Finally, the mother admitted that her son had a sex change operation and she was too embarrassed to tell anyone. My friend’s response to the revelation was, “So what?!” She was aghast and furious at the mother and her husband for essentially having sat shiva for their own child. At a traditional shiva, friends and family have the opportunity to talk about the deceased person, to reflect on his life. In this case, there was no conversation, no engagement, only unanswered questions.

Aron: What a selfish act at others’ expense!

Edie: That is why, when you’re contemplating keeping a secret, you need to consider whose interests are being served—especially if what is in your best interest might be at the expense of others. While sometimes we tell ourselves that the choice to keep a secret is motivated by our desire to protect the injured party, it can really be a way of not taking responsibility for a transgression and of avoiding the consequences.

You also need to determine whether you are correct in assuming that your family or social network will stigmatize or shun you upon hearing the truth. You can ask yourself questions such as, Why am I keeping this private? Am I feeling ashamed? Why do I want to share it? Will family members truly ostracize me? And since it can be very difficult to assess your own situation without personal bias, take a leap of faith and entrust the secret to someone who is less emotionally involved in the situation—maybe a sibling, friend, therapist, or rabbi. Together you can figure out the best plan of action.

Aron: When might keeping a secret be a good idea?

Edie: There are times when revealing the truth can make a bad situation worse. The young woman who says, “I can’t tell my family I’m pregnant” or the man who says, “I can’t tell my wife that I had an affair” may have legitimate reasons for not telling. But even if the wiser option is to maintain secrecy, it is essential to separate your reason for not telling from feeling that, because of the secret, there is something wrong or unacceptable about you. Sometimes choosing not to tell because of a realistic sense of the damage the information would cause may be an altruistic act, demonstrating understanding, courage, and strength. If you feel deeply ashamed of what you’ve done, find other ways of performing teshuvah so that you can be proud of the person you have become.

Dale: A woman I know was molested by a relative when she was 12 years old. As a child, she had never told her parents because she knew they would react badly to the revelation. They had given her the very strong message: “You don’t talk about things like that. You buck up and get over things; that’s what we do in this family.” Although she suffered from depression and was convinced she was defective, she was right not to tell them. When, after many years of therapy with me, she decided she felt strong enough to reveal the truth to her parents and her fiancé, her parents told her they would have preferred not to know and thought that by now she “should have gotten over it.” Her fiancé, though, then revealed a dark secret of his own. And now that she felt “heard” by him and by me, the depression she was battling became less severe. She got married, their intimacy deepened, and she was able to experience more joy in her life.

Edie: Sometimes parents go further and instruct their children to maintain secrecy about sexual or physical abuse—which is always wrong, as that very secrecy allows it to continue. That is why it is so important for children to know trusted adults—teachers, clergy, pediatricians—in whom they can safely confide.

Aron: Is it generally a bad idea to keep secrets?

Edie: No, particularly those that do not involve wrongdoing or danger. In our increasingly tell-all culture, somehow we label anything that is not widely shared as undemocratic, uncool, even pathological. In fact, keeping a secret may be a way of holding close to something we deem precious. For example, for young children, the capacity to keep a secret is an enormous developmental achievement, demonstrating a new degree of separation from parents.

Dale: If you are in a loving relationship with someone, there might be no reason to let the person know about a previous relationship, because it’s over and no longer relevant in your life. If, on the other hand, your partner asks you about a former relationship, it might be best to answer truthfully, as keeping the secret may get in the way of your having a deep, trusting relationship.

Edie: Between partners, we have a right to the privacy of our own heart. Let’s say your partner asks, “Are you attracted to someone else?” Even if the true answer is yes, the best response might be, “How could that be when I’m with the perfect person!” In Genesis 21:6–7, when God tells Sarah that she will have a child, Sarah laughs at the thought of Abraham being sufficiently virile at the age of 100—but in relating the exchange to Abraham, God explains that Sarah laughed at the absurdity of her giving birth at her advanced age. Here God stretches the truth to keep Abraham from feeling humiliated, a potential strain in the couple’s relationship. The overriding principle is maintaining sh’lom bayit (peace in the home).

Yet we should not misconstrue Jewish tradition as condoning the keeping of secrets or distorting the truth in order to avoid deserved blame or a confrontation with someone we have hurt. Sometimes taking personal responsibility is the best course of action. Someone might say, “Why should I tell my sister I borrowed her sweater when it’s only going to get her upset and interfere with family harmony?” Well, you should tell your sister because Judaism places a great premium on truth-telling. You did something wrong, and your sibling’s looking frantically for her sweater. The stakes get raised if you’re thinking, “We’ll have a happier marriage if I don’t mention to my wife that my previous girlfriend broke up with me after she learned that I was secretly dating her best friend. If I tell her the truth about my past, she won’t trust me.” That may be true, but if you explain to her you have learned from that experience and would never do such a thing again, she may, in time, grow to trust you again. If, instead, your wife discovers your secret on her own, it could wreck your marriage.

Joy: How can Jewish tradition help us determine when to keep a secret?

Edie: The Pardes understanding of how to read the Torah can serve as a model in how we choose to share our personal stories with others. In interpreting the Torah we begin with the simple meaning of the text—pshat. Yet there are hints of meaning below the surface—remez. If we dig even deeper, we may discover the hidden truths or secret meanings—sod.

Just as with Torah text, in our lives there are times to share the simpler, more superficial story, because that is what is called for. As we grow in trust and/or intimacy, we might offer hints about the deeper story, testing to see how the person responds to this level of revelation. You might ask yourself, Is this person ready to hear the secret? How much information can he/she make use of? How might our relationship change as a result? Finally, if we have come to believe that this person is worthy of our trust and able to handle the information constructively, we may choose to confide the whole truth.

Aron: Should a parent’s serious illness be kept secret from a child?

Edie: There are many considerations here, such as the age and maturity of the child, and if there is time to disclose the information in doses. If the loss of life is imminent, it may be necessary to tell a child right away; if not, it may be better to do so gently and in stages, being sensitive to his ability to absorb the truth. If the child asks, “Will everything be all right?” it might be honest to say, “Yes,” in the sense that no matter what happens, people who love him will be there to care for him, and you believe that he himself has the strength and capacity to cope.

A rabbi I know in California tells the story of a student who confided in his youth group leader that he had just gotten a D in math and was afraid to tell his parents. The mother was suffering from a degenerative disease that had just taken a serious turn for the worse. While his parents had kept this from him to protect him, he had overheard this alarming news while his mother was on the phone. His father had told him many times, “Your doing so well in school helps give Mommy the strength to keep fighting her illness.” The boy felt that telling his mom the bad news might worsen her health. And he was carrying an even bigger secret that his family was trying to keep from him.

The boy did the right thing: he asked his youth group leader for help—and the leader did the right thing by turning to the rabbi. In the end, the rabbi and the youth leader crafted a letter to the boy’s parents, saying that they should be very proud and feel much strength to have raised a son who was so concerned for his mother’s well-being and so trusting of his Jewish community—and he just wasn’t very good at math.

Joy: How can we encourage loved ones to turn to us for support when something bad happens?

Dale: Be open. If kids are raised in a family where keeping secrets from others is the norm, they may come to believe that it is not safe to trust others with their intimate thoughts and feelings.

Edie: Make the effort to create an understanding, supportive culture in the family. If the message to bad news is to criticize or overreact, family members will be reluctant to admit any failures. For example, if a teenager walks in and says, “I just smashed up the Subaru,” avoid the impulse to counter with “Who gave you permission to take out the new car?” Try to control your ire and say, “I’m just so glad you’re all right”—or, if you’ve blurted out something unsupportive, quickly follow up with an about-face such as “I’m sorry. What was I thinking? The car can be replaced; you can’t. Thank God you are okay.” It’s totally understandable to feel shocked and deeply upset upon hearing bad news, but after a few minutes of talking about it, the emotional intensity usually subsides enough for us to reawaken our compassion.

Aron: The way in which someone reveals a secret might also play a role in the family’s reaction.

Edie: Yes. Sometimes a person reveals the secret in an overly aggressive way because she is scared and masks it with bravado, because she’s been taught that the best defense is a good offense, and/or because she fears being confronted with the very issues she has personally struggled with for a long while. She might say, “Like it or not, I’m marrying someone who is not Jewish, and if you give me a hard time, I’m not seeing you anymore” or “I’m gay, and if you want me in your life, you’d better invite my partner and me for Thanksgiving.”

Dale: Placing the other person on the defensive adds a whole other layer to the communication which does not have to be there. Instead, it’s best to promote an open dialogue by revealing the secret in a quiet, private setting and by sharing the reverberations surrounding the secret as well: the feelings you have about it, what you were afraid of, what happened as a result of keeping it, and how you hope to help the person understand your decision.

Edie: It would be much better to begin by saying, “This is difficult for me because I know you may have strong feelings about what I am going to share. I want us to be close and together find a way to get through this.”

If a secret has been kept for a long time, the person being told may become very upset about how long she’s been misinformed or misled. Therefore the holder of the secret may need to explain why he did not reveal it earlier and why he is divulging it now. For example, you might say, “Whether I was wrong or right, I thought you were not old enough to know that you were born out of wedlock. I am telling you now because you have the right to know.” It can also help to acknowledge the anger and sense of betrayal the other person may be feeling.

Still, no matter how well we plan and deliver a hidden truth, we cannot be assured of the desired response. It is quite possible that our loved ones won’t like what we tell them, now or ever. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that, with time, their perspective will change.

Joy: We also might hope that, in time, the holder of a family secret, such as someone who is ill, relents, allowing the family to talk about it and help.

Dale: A patient of mine is struggling with this very issue. A close friend is very ill and the woman’s adult children don’t want anyone to know about it. My client has been respecting their wish for privacy even though the person who is ill is comfortable with having her condition known and would likely benefit greatly if the truth were shared. People who know my client and this woman are aware that something’s going on. They ask my client, “How is she?” and since she does not have permission to say, “She’s sick,” she does this little “dance” and says, “Be in touch with her; I’m sure she’d love to hear from you.” She feels like “there’s an elephant in the room.”

While the holders of a secret have a right to keep a situation private, it helps to be aware that, for others, having to hold that secret can be awkward, burdensome, and stressful.

Joy: Do Jews tend to be more secretive than other people in certain areas?

Dale: The pressures that induce Jews to keep secrets have changed over time. In past generations, perhaps because anti-Semitism was of paramount concern, Jews felt great pressure to keep up appearances and respectability. Even when more Americans began to publicly discuss such issues as domestic abuse, sexual molestation, and drug addiction, the Jewish community was slow to acknowledge that these problems affected us—“Jews don’t drink,” “Jewish men don’t beat their wives”—and some Jews continue to deny the occurrence of these and similar afflictions. Now, in light of our greater acceptance in society, we are more concerned about projecting an aura of success—a cohesive family in which the parents are prospering and the kids are going to the top schools. The very achievements in which Jews typically take pride—family, education, career/ambition—are the same areas we feel most ashamed about when a reversal of fortune happens, and these become the family secrets.

Aron: Why do we react this way?

Dale: Mainly for our self-protection. We all want to be seen positively, and don’t want to risk being embarrassed, judged, or rejected by others. We may also hold secrets because we feel powerless to share a confidence the family has perpetuated as “hush-hush” for so long. But the truth is that there is no such thing as a perfect person or a perfect family; I tell people that the best we can hope for is to be perfect in our imperfections.

Edie: Social stigmas also play a major role in people’s reluctance to share the truths in their lives. If society labels us or what we’ve done as bad, we may come to see ourselves that way. So it’s not enough to ask people to take a leap of faith and reveal what they have kept hidden. Changes in attitudes need to happen in our congregations and communities to make truth-telling the easier path for us all.

Joy: One of my mother’s greatest regrets was not spending time with her sister in the hospital before she died. Her sister had cancer, and at the time people thought cancer was contagious, like leprosy. The family never spoke of it and never saw her again.

Edie: That reminds me of the story of a woman who was rescued by an American soldier at Treblinka. As he approached, she said, “Don’t come near me; I’m Jewish.” She had internalized being an object of disgust. The soldier said, “I’m Jewish, too.” They ended up getting married. Cutting through shame to find common humanity is one of the most powerful ways to give us the courage to live more truthful lives.

Read The Transition, one rabbi's secret about her daughter Laura becoming Lawrence.


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