YEARS AGO I was fascinated by my ancestry. I still am to a point, only I have other preoccupations to take up my time! Not only did I find out who my great greats were, I discovered their stories, was able to work out what their motivations, aspirations might have been. I saw them as characters in my own story, identified with their struggles. I even learned things about myself.
Other family members humoured me, as I asked pointed questions of anyone who might still be in the know. Until that was, I got to my parents’ generation. Then I might be met with a slight bristle, disguised as concern that in pursuing it I might accidentally self-destruct. Stranger still was the reaction when I wanted to talk about events from my own living memory, things that were mine to discuss. Suddenly, the language would turn to “Don’t you think you should just move on?” or at worst “Leave it alone. What’s the point of digging up the past?” At best I might be met with a blank expression.
What they failed to realise was that I already knew damn well their reaction was a projection of their own fear of having to face up to things that they themselves might no longer remember. And secondly, the past we leave behind never goes away. That time is a great healer is a lie – what fades only sleeps, wreaking havoc with our personalities and our relationships in ways to which we are oblivious. Unprocessed memories hole up in the unconscious part of our psyche and fester. And they grow. And they fester some more. And they grow some more. Until they act out because they can be contained no more. The only way to ‘get rid’ of them is to process them and integrate them into the conscious part of the psyche. Only then can we truly ‘move on’.
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For the purpose of this article, there are two kinds of secrets – the personalty traits, emotions and memories we deliberately hide from others and the ones we lose or ‘forget. I will refer to these collectively as secrets. I should, of course, point out that it doesn’t necessarily follow that the content is traumatic or even painful. Positive memories too can be repressed or hidden, if they are deemed unpalatable either to society or to ourselves. But the psychic harm is the same.
In the case of secrets kept from others, a whole manner of methods can be used to maintain the facade. This might include outright lying, denial, omission and minimisation, even gaslighting. Not only can this have a devastating effect on the person on the receiving end of such tactics, it can also quietly take its toll on the perpetrator, until they are unrecognisable as the person they once were.
Forgetting is a form of repression, just one of a host of clever tactics employed by the psyche to avoid feelings of pain, shame, guilt or anxiety. Denial and rationalisation are others. This internal type of secret can be more insidious, since they are more difficult to identify but still show up in our thoughts and actions, if they are not brought back into consciousness for processing.
Of course, the perceived need for secrecy arises in the first place from being conditioned to cherry pick which parts of our personalites are acceptable to society and to ourseslves. But that is another article for another day.
The real problem with secrets, though, is that they are multi-layered, each one compounded by yet another. And another. Until the innermost core of the psyche becomes an immovable knot. Over successive generations, the knots become ever more tangled, as they digest us from the inside out.
The longer we carry our baggage around, the more havoc it wreaks; the damage done to our joints may be more than just an analogy. Unaddressed issues have a devastating effect on our mental and physical health and our ability to function properly. I am not saying for one minute that repression alone causes morbidity, but I am more than suggesting that it plays a part. All illness to some degree is rooted in the psyche; when all other avenues are exhausted, it’s the only place left to look.
Has recent history not taught us that secrets and unresolved trauma do more harm when kept under the carpet than they ever could revealed? Secrets kill. Lies kill. Repression kills. Unless it’s self-inflicted, they just do it very very very very slowly …
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But our forebears did just fine, this is a modern issue, I hear you say.
Bull. Shit. Where I come from, the majority of people born around the turn of the Twentieth Century had OCD, for godsakes, and it was accepted as normal! They were just as reliant on substances to get through, they just disguised it better.
My grandmother, with the benefit of hindsight, though only second hand knowledge, had all the hallmarks of undiagnosed mental health issues. This was compounded by having to soldier through the aftermath of a stillbirth before having her next child plucked from her by a man too embarrassed to have spawned a ‘dud’. After a fortune spent on specialist care, as long as it was elsewhere, the little girl was raised (in a loving environment, thank God) by her unmarried aunt, thus paving the way for my grandparents to adopt a ‘whole’ one. A woman who pretended not to smoke or drink, she maintained the illusion of piety, while in all likelihood using my father as a human shield to avoid intimacy with her husband. All the while, my father’s entire extended maternal family were sworn to mortal secrecy over his adoption while she fretted over his every move.
His adoption wasn’t the only one. Eight years before I was born, the family of the pregnant girlfriend he left behind in Glasgow threatened to kill him if he came anywhere near, let alone marry her, and so yet another generation was given away. No doubt, getting my mother in ‘trouble’ and subsequently doing the decent thing had echoes of a past he was trying to fix.
Did my grandparents take the opportunity that presented itself to come clean? No, they did not. Instead, my grandfather arranged for his cousin in Glasgow to forge my father’s birth certificate, so that when he married, the lie about his origins could be maintained. The later accidental revelation that he was not who he thought he was and that he had been ‘abandoned’ by his natural mother was the beginning of the slippery slope that would lead to my father becoming a first degree alcoholic and an abuser and ultimately to his ignominous death on a pavement with a full bottle of whisky stuffed in his coat pocket. Until some spiteful piece of work opened his big gob over a few whiskies, from as far back as early childhood he had never understood my grandfather’s jibes that he was something that had crawled out of the gutter.
My father at his core was a compassionate, sensitive, creative individual, who had the misfortune to have his true self knocked out of him, like most of hs peers, by the time he reached puberty, then latterly his identity ripped from beneath his feet. The boy who played truant just to go visit Elsa the Lion at the Kelvingrove Museum, his true nature would occasionally show through only when intoxicated or changing his mind in the throes of drowning a miaowling ball of kittens. My father’s life, in effect, was a complete fabrication, because his authentic self was hidden even from himself. For the record, his real name was Eric Abernethy, if he’d stood up to his adoptive family he could have gone to Art School and my parents’ shotgun marriage was technically illegal.
I came into this world on top of a pile of deceit and I doubt very much I’m the only one. Every family has a story like this somewhere along the line, whether they know it or not. How can we kid ourselves that our predecessors were mentally tougher than us? Resilient yes, but often lacking moral courage where it mattered and driven by motivations that have not changed one iota in millennia. I hardly think it was my father’s interests he was protecting when my fine, upstanding grandfather asked the Registrar to commit a criminal offence. The prevailing culture, I have to add, was that the sin was in getting caught; it didn’t matter what you did, as long as nobody knew about it. As for Dad, the first twenty-nine years of his life (from his point of view) wasn’t just a lie, it was a fully-fledged cover-up from which he never truly recovered.
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I have learned from personal experience that the only way to achieve true healing when dealing with lifetime trauma and personality disorder is to dig and this is borne out in the work of psychosnalysts such as Carl Jung. For me, writing a memoir provides a safe and structured framework through which unprocessed material can be exhumed and restored, without the need for professional intervention. This extends not only to trauma but to situations where my own actions and intentions were less than stellar. This requires a degree of honesty first with myself, and ultimately openness with the people who inhabit my psychosocial environment. And there is no room for victimhood or blame. When all the pieces are reassembled, I am both victim and perpetrator, yet neither of the above.
And yes, confession is good for the soul (though I would argue that the practice of confessing to a priest while maintaining a facade to the majority only props up the culture of secrecy). Allegedly, a tribe in Africa have got it sussed, holding mass confessionals where tribe members spill their troubles and misdeeds to all and sundry. I can no longer find the story but the upshot of it was that their health record was enviable. The other plus of communal confession is that you no longer face exposure to exploitation or blackmail. Losing the fear of what will happen to us if our innermost secrets are exposed by going public allows us to operate with complete interpersonal free will.
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It is said that there will come a time when all will be revealed. That time has probably come, if only because we live in an age of easy access to information and a ready supply of scandal. Each new revelation in politics or entertainment brings with it a sense of inescapability, as well as a growing recognition that the cultural secrecy racket creates far more problems than it solves.
And relief perhaps, not just for those on the receiving end. Jusk ask any high profile con artist about how much mental energy is required to remember which lies have been told to whom.
In the wake of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal of the 90s, I always had the distinct impression that in the long run Clinton felt better for the exposure, that somehow he didn’t have to pretend anymore, had to look over his shoulder a little less. And I trusted a politician with nothing left to hide a little more. Charlie Sheen fought tooth and nail to prevent his HIV diagnosis becoming public. Once it was out in the open, any reputational damage came more from the lengths he went to than for having it. In either case, the burden of denial and eventual relief must have been immense.
In the end, revealing is healing. Far better to spit it out. And if someone, or something, is holding a gun to your head, look them or it square in the eye and politely say “Bring it on”.
Copyright (c) M K MacInnes 2020