Monday, September 6, 2010

Secret Poison

by Sophie


It would be hard for me to convey just how much I hate secrets. The greatest hurts of my life have been due to things unsaid, terrible truths that lay thick on the ground all around while those who tried to ignore them were crippled by their own shame. Secrets are especially damaging to children, whose struggle to understand the world in the face of partial truths and lies is made near-impossible, and whose attempts to shift their understanding to fit the flawed picture can result in invisible emotional deformities that can cripple them for their entire lives.

Naturally, this sort of sad landscape is rich with story potential, and I suppose it's no surprise that I'm most comfortable there when I'm writing. And I think the inexhaustible thirst of the reading public for revelatory stories, addiction memoirs and abuse stories and even dark thrillers with unspeakable crimes at the heart - I think this reflects a collective longing to understand and best the homely horrors of everyday life as practiced in our society. And I'd go a step further and say that the reader of this type of fiction is not just looking for the catharsis of seeing a victim rise above her torment - but also recognizing a core darkness that is present in the villain or antagonist of the story, the abuser or the addict or the killer.

It's a sad but basic truth that victims and perpetrators, especially when the former is a child, have muddy relationships. The villain steals innocence, sometimes intentionally, sometimes despite himself. The child is stamped forever with the shape of his particular darkness. Extrication never returns the victim to the same state she was in before, and that is why pat endings to thrillers are never very satisfying - we know, deep in our hearts, that the child rescued from the killer's clutches, who is seen reunited with his mother in the last frame of the book with the handsome sheriff looking on - we know that child is a changeling, that this is only the first page of a new book that cannot end well, one colored with a whole catalog of shame and terror and self-recrimination and doubt.

(As just one of thousands of examples, I'm currently reading DRINKING: A LOVE STORY by Carolyn Knapp, a chronicle of her years of alcoholism. One of the most compelling things I took away from the book is Knapp's painstaking insistence that there was nothing dramatically wrong with her childhood, just a general lack of closeness and a vague sense of secrecy, of things witheld. At times we learn of small hidden dramas later discovered by the now-alcoholic adult Carolyn, but one senses that it was the more diffuse and general sense of things unsaid that created the emptiness Carolyn filled with drink. That is, of course, just my reading.)

So: secrets -> inner life minefield -> great potential for fiction.

My own kids have probably suffered an overabundance of truth as a result of my determination to avoid the deception snares. We laugh about it now, but I am sure that there were many times when an evasion or even a gentle fabrication might have sufficed. I've outed people and habits and history that could probably have been left to rest with no great consequence. If I could start parenting over again I'm sure I'd make different choices. But I was well-intentioned, and I think I got the basic point across - truth is best.

That said, I confess now to being an incurable secret-keeper. I'd say we all are, but speaking just for myself, I fail every day in my professed hope to be more open. I'm secretive for convenience' sake, to save feelings, to get what I want. I even, though I try *really* hard not to, keep secrets from myself, the most damaging ones of all. But I'm getting pretty good at recognizing it. By the time I'm dead I intend to be an open book.

Of course there are lovely secrets, the sort that are accompanied by blushing and quickened pulses and mysteriously-signed notes...and I'll leave those for my sunnier Pens to plumb.


Juliet Blackwell said...

I love this, Sophie. Perhaps the biggest secret is how you seem so sunny and happy most of the time, while thinking of yourself as dark and plagued by secrets...but that's part of your complexity and your charm. And you're right, fiction is the greatest place to explore these themes--the secrets to keep and enjoy and those to expose no matter the consequences.

Anonymous said...

It is much easier to be vulnerable to the truth than vulnerable to a web of lies that, once woven, oh, shoot, Shakespeare said it better :)

I was gob-smacked by Jesus Land, and love Dennis Lehane in part just because he started Mystic River where most people end their stories.

Thanks for a gorgeous Labor Day post!

Vanessa Kier said...

Great post, Sophie!

It brought to mind Billy Joel's The Stranger. The part about how we try on the faces of a stranger when we're all alone.

What I find fascinating about writing darker fiction is that it helps expose those secret faces in herself that a writer might not have been willing to admit to previously. Faces she might be terrified to confront. Yet, without those strange faces guiding us, we wouldn't have such complex characters, both heroes and villains. So these secret faces make our writing stronger.

Writing also puts us in an incredibly vulnerable position, since we're sharing those secret faces with an unknown, potentially harsh, public. Trusting that somehow, no matter the type of feedback, we have a face that can handle it.

L.G.C. Smith said...

Vanessa, that last point has been a real sticking point for me. I don't keep a lot of secrets in my life. I'm one for tossing the dark and murky stuff right out into the noonday sun so I can come to grips with it. But a public persona requires a more nuanced presentation of self, I think. Or a tougher ego. Something. I find it challenging to manage my own secrets.

Sophie, this is such a wonderful, thoughtful post. Secrets become you. :)