My Father’s Closet will soon be out in the public domain and I awaken at first sunlight. Whether from fear or excitement, the adrenaline in my body feels the same. It’s not easy to break the family “don’t ask, don’t tell” taboo and “out” my father. I continually push aside shame, and adjust sacrosanct family privacy boundaries. My passion to reach others with similar family secrets overrides old messages.
Last week, I got an email from a colleague inviting me to be part of a “private” meeting with half dozen people. How is that private? I think about private stuff as what I might watch on the internet – be it a shopping spree at PlanetShoes, or my temptation to respond to an unexpected email from someone I dated in high school. My inside kid grew up with a big sexual secret in our household, so even as a grown-up, I struggle with the difference between privacy and secrecy. I lived awkwardly with this question while writing, My Father’s Closet. What privacy do I owe my gay father as I tell his story? Was his journal private? (I’ve made my writing friends swear to destroy my journals immediately upon my death.) Do I have the right to tell my father’s secrets? Thirty years after his death, can I use his writings as if they were now in the public domain?
In the LGBTQ world, the question of privacy vs. secrecy surrounds the coming out process. When celebrities “come out” as LGBTQ, they open their lives to journalists, but does their public role take away their right to privacy? I heard an interview with Cate Blanchett when the film Carol was released. In the film, she plays a woman who is married to a man, while pursuing a compelling lesbian relationship. The reporter asked her to talk about personal sexual experiences that led to her convincing portrayal. Was that a fair subject? She deftly described the craft of character development, thereby protecting her own privacy.
When research into my father’s world at Ohio State University led me to his long-term partner whom I’d never met, the dilemma emerged again. When does my right to claim my own story supersede an ethic of privacy protection? Lawsuits aside, when can anyone “out” someone else, as I do by describing my father’s intensely emotional relationship with Walther? Was their love for each other private or secret?
When co-author Kibbie Ruth and I were writing the book, Healthy Disclosure, she defined the difference between privacy and secrecy in the following way. Privacy, she said, involves thoughts and feelings you choose not to share, because you cherish them for yourself. You don’t have great shame about them, just a sense that no one else needs to know them. Private thoughts and memories are fodder for self-definition. You likely have private sexual fantasies, old memories that embarrass you, and other things you’ve never told anyone, and never will. You might say to your priest or your therapist, “I’ve never told anyone this before, but….” But there are private things you don’t even tell your therapist. Privacy involves personal material and you have the choice to share it or not. It’s about one person, you, and so long as it doesn’t hurt you or others to do so, you may keep it private.
Secrets are different. Secrets are kept due to the overwhelming shame or embarrassment that surrounds them. Revealing them would bring up internal shame or cultural stigma and could damage relationships. For example, if coming out as LGBTQ to family means facing rejection and being ostracized by those you love, losing your job, or losing cultural status, then you have private material that you are compelled to keep secret. Your private awareness about gender or orientation may be protected by intentional secret-keeping. Some secrets are kept to protect others. My family clearly felt it was necessary to keep my father’s homosexuality hidden. Their protection hurt us all and conversely helped us all.
If you decide to reveal a secret, you have several steps to take. A resource I recommend is The Secret Life of Families by Evan Imber-Black. In this how-to book, she lays out the pros and cons of opening family secrets. When I became clearer about the extent of my family’s secret-keeping and made decisions about whether to make private material public, I repeatedly consulted this book. So if you are keeping a secret you’d like to reveal consult someone dear to you, visit a therapist, and pick up Evan’s book. When you decide to disclose a secret, you can pretty much plan on anxiety and early awakenings before feeling relieved and free.