“[S]ecrecy hides far more than what is private. A private garden need not be a secret garden; a private life is rarely a secret life.” –Sissela Bok
…but what about where the private life is a secret garden and it has always been off-limits to you? And what if you respect those limits because you think you know what’s inside them? It’s you who would be keeping secrets then…” –Sue Halpern
When I was a kid my dad would go on weeks-long working trips in the Grand Canyon, and while he was gone my mom and I would stay up all night together watching Politically Incorrect and then whatever came on after Politically Incorrect or old Hitchcock films, eating food that I can’t even mention without shuddering now, stuff we never ate during daylight hours or when my dad was home. We once stayed up until 2 AM together watching a show about people with weird “supernatural” abilities because I was insistent that I wanted to see an old woman called the Human Cork. Another night my mom read me the infamous vomit scene from Steven King’s The Body (the filmed sequence in Stand By Me really can’t compare) and we laughed until tears rolled down our faces, until my entire body hurt and we were stifling giggles, trying not to wake my sister. Those nights, and that night in particular, I felt closer to her than I ever have before or since. I think it’s because we were sharing a secret, because we’d made a privacy out of the two of us and it existed independent of the rest of our lives.
But what is private, and what is secret? I’ve been going over these questions a lot lately, as it is obvious to me that a decrease in my immediate access to privacy, not to mention solitude, caused some pretty severe distress, mentally and emotionally. And here’s something: as the amount of privacy I had decreased, the amount of secrecy I required increased pretty dramatically. As the amount of time I had to engage with myself on a one-to-one basis (so to speak) began to disappear, I found myself retreating in lockstep into behaviors that felt furtive, like I needed to hide away some stolen moments for myself like a squirrel with a cache of nuts for the hard times ahead. I went invisible on gchat, I only listened to music when I was alone; when I got a night to myself all I ate was instant mashed potatoes just like my mom would have, and as I ate I think I understood her a little bit better. I think I’ve desperately needed control over some part of my life, and so I began controlling tiny things and calling them secrets, actions that were only for me. Maybe it was the same for her, and I’m retrospectively proud to have been let in on the game.
Secrets aren’t inherently bad, and I think that actually they’re one of the keys into the mystery of desire for solitude. Privacy, at least in the American sense, means getting to choose what you want to show other people, and secrets are what you choose not to show. You can share privacy with as many people as you care to, but secrecy is usually a more personal matter. Most of my secrets are silly: foods that I only eat while alone, the need for an occasional night where I drink too much wine and read and get all adamant in my journal about the nature of beauty or whatever. Others carry more weight, but I find I’m bad at keeping the big ones. If it’s important enough, it’s usually important enough that I want to discuss it. Either way, the less privacy I have the more important my secrets become because, when I don’t have as much control over my privacy my secrets start to define more clearly who I am when I’m alone.
Because even though my secrets feel silly and small to me, I hold them close because they remind me of who I am as a solo entity, when it’s just me in here and out there and I’m not thinking about anybody else at all. No matter how much I care about them, other people are always a factor to be considered when I think about what I want to happen next, another variable that I can’t control. My small secrets wouldn’t hold up to the scrutiny of others, and so they become a symbolic stand-in for the solitude that is no longer as prevalent in my life as it was a year ago. The joys of eating gross comfort food or of a solo listen-through of a favorite cd increase exponentially when these actions become secret; they become precious, because they are for me and me alone. I could let other people in if I chose—as my mother did with me during those long preteen nights together—and sometimes I do (I just told y’all about the instant mashed potatoes, for instance), but for now I’m mostly guarding them carefully. A secret is insurance against the encroachment of others, no matter how welcome that entrance might be. Sometimes, you just need something that belongs only to you.