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
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
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
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
Joy:Are friends likely to support you after you reveal
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
The Transition, one rabbi's secret about her daughter Laura