The Importance of Being Honest

I’ve always respected and perhaps also feared people who can be told secrets that they then lock away. The ability to keep a secret is of course a mark of trustworthiness in a person: You know she values her promises, and can put someone else’s interest above her own. And the inability to keep a secret is a mark of untrustworthiness, or at least carelessness in one’s speech. Because no one tells us secrets without our understanding that the whole idea is not to tell others.

But if one way of showing trustworthiness is the refusal to tell a secret, another is the unwillingness to have secrets at all. “We have no secrets,” Mahatma Gandhi famously said of his organization for reform in South Africa, the implication being: We have nothing to hide, we are transparent. We don’t worry about leaks, because there is nothing to leak. We can withstand any scrutiny.

Adrienne Rich, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA, ca. 1951.
Adrienne Rich, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA, ca. 1951. Peter Solmssen; Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

Of course we cannot all be Mahatma Gandhis. In ordinary human life it’s almost impossible to go about one’s business without hiding things from others. We don’t suppose that, for this reason, we are all fundamentally untrustworthy. There are lots of reasons we keep secrets—or fail to keep them.

I still have secrets of my own that, were they disclosed to the wrong person or in the wrong way, could explode my life. I expect that most of us have these kinds of secrets, by a certain age. But in another sense I’m keeping fewer secrets, because I have less time to myself than I used to, so less to hide, and because I’ve grown older, so I’m less inclined to try to hide things about myself. For years I was a secret drinker, and I learned then what someone who has a secret life will learn: that the power and control you get from keeping secrets comes with the awful price of being increasingly lonely, of cutting yourself off from the people you love.

The great philosopher of secrets in the twentieth century is Adrienne Rich, especially in her collection of essays On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. Rich is concerned with the secrets we fear to tell anyone, the secrets that isolate us from one another. For Rich, the human wish to keep and share secrets goes to the very heart of why we want intimacy at all, and why we value art. Rich was herself familiar with secrecy: She felt that she had to keep her own sexuality hidden until after her husband’s death (he committed suicide when Rich was forty-one). She thought that the patriarchal structure of Western civilization itself, and of nineteenth- and twentieth-century America in particular, forced women to hide and deny truths they should not have had to veil and disguise.

The revelation of a secret, Rich points out, not only brings us closer to others but also serves as a driving force behind creative expression. “It is always what is under pressure in us, especially under pressure of concealment—that explodes in poetry,” she writes, explaining the importance of secrets to the poetic process of Emily Dickinson. One method of keeping secrets starts with a funny kind of self-deception—the fact that we hide truths about ourselves from ourselves, all the better to keep those truths from others. Dickinson’s art relied on a rigorous honesty. To write the kind of poetry Dickinson did, Rich says, “she had to be willing to enter chambers of the self in which ‘Ourself behind ourself, concealed— / Should startle most—.’” Rich continues: “To relinquish control there, to take those risks, she had to create a relationship to the outer world where she could feel in control.” This is not an easy state to achieve. Rich adds (and here she could just as well be describing herself and the terrible struggle she endured while trying to write her own early poetry as a young married mother): “It is an extremely painful and dangerous way to live—split between a publicly acceptable persona, and a part of yourself that you perceive as the essential, the creative and powerful self, yet also as possibly unacceptable, perhaps even monstrous.”

One of the reasons we keep secrets is that we don’t know what other people will accept or reject. We hide, we take the fearful route. Back when I was a secret drinker, I believed that my then-wife would leave me if she knew the truth. Of course, I also feared that if I told the truth, I’d have to change my behavior, which I didn’t want to do. If it’s secret, you still get to do it. If it’s out in the open, someone may decide to stop you. If your secret is hurtful enough, someone might simply stop loving you. So again, with a secret we have a source of control, a way to preserve the status quo.

The paradox is that, in using a secret to try to preserve a relationship, we may very well destroy the intimacy that the relationship is supposed to provide. Here we see the tension that makes secrets so tricky, the struggle between self-protection, control, and the intimacy that comes from being willing to relinquish that control. In one of her most beautiful passages, Rich, addressing her lover, writes about the importance of being brave and revealing our secrets:

It isn’t that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you . . . It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to extend the possibilities of truth between us.

To be intimate at all requires willingness to share at least some of our secrets, and although we don’t expect perfect transparency—from another or for that matter from ourselves—the possibility of a loving relationship seems like it must include efforts to get closer to the truth, about ourselves and each other. Trying to tell the truth means losing control, it means taking risks, it makes love a frightening and challenging thing. But each time we open up to one another and see that it was not as necessary as we feared to keep a secret, our intimacy and our confidence grow. In fact, to really discover who we are, we might have to be involved in this process of risk-taking confession with another human being—otherwise we will become lost in our own secrets. For Rich, if we don’t engage in this process, we abandon ourselves to the powers of self-delusion and narcissism. “When someone tells me a piece of the truth which has been withheld from me, and which I needed in order to see my life more clearly, it may bring acute pain, but it can also flood me with a cold, sea-sharp wash of relief. Often such truths come by accident, or from strangers.” We might even share secret thoughts—say, “I’m a bad person,” as I remember once confessing to a lover—that another assures us is not the case at all. Part of the complexity of secrets and secret-telling is that it may be hard to know the difference between risking telling the truth and simply seeking reassurance.

Which brings up the problem of how we are involved in each other’s secrets. “How do we listen?” Rich asks. That is, suppose we suspect that someone we love is hiding something from us. If we say, “Hey, you’re keeping a secret from me,” that person is probably just going to dig in. The problem, says Rich: “How do we make it possible for another to break her silence?”

Rich actually provides something like a set of guidelines for being a more liberating listener—concrete ways we can help our lovers, and our lovers can help us, to escape from the fear that keeps us in the bondage of secrets. She recommends that we reveal our own complexity to our intimates, so they can feel assured that their complexity will be welcomed. She advises that we take the “hard way” of telling the truth about ourselves, so that our lovers can see that we embrace the challenge of telling the truth.

Above all, she insists that we have faith in each other to tell the truth about things we believe will matter to the other person. In doing this, we refuse to assume that we know the mind of the other person; we respect her autonomy. We don’t pretend to ourselves, as we are so often inclined to do, that we should keep a secret because its revelation would be too unpleasant for the person we love. “I also have faith,” Rich writes, “that you are telling me things it is important I should know; that you do not conceal facts from me in an effort to spare me, or yourself, pain. Or, at the very least, that you will say, ‘There are things I am not telling you.’”

This brings me back to how my relationship went so disastrously awry when I was a secret drinker, and how it feels now, when it feels like I have to hide a little bit less every year. And it reminds me of a lesson I learned from Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan had the chance to address the problems in his marriage, but every time his wife’s temper flared, or he was drawn into a confrontation that threatened his calm, he turned away into established habits.

What I was so afraid of, when I was a secret drinker, was losing my marriage . . . which eventually happened, in no small part because of my secret drinking: not because of the fact of the drinking itself—when that all came out it was very anticlimactic, as you would guess—but because of the habit of concealing, which spilled over into other aspects of the relationship. We wound up living two fundamentally separate lives. And now, when my present wife and I have a fight, or when I am tempted not to reveal something that I know really matters, at least some of the time I force myself to say it. Tolstoy’s point is that every time someone you love makes you uncomfortable, you have a little opportunity to grow as a person and in the relationship. This is what Adrienne Rich is arguing for: Rather than avoid those moments, we should be willing to plunge into them. If we are artists, it is where we will find our art. If we are lovers, it is how we learn to love.

Clancy Martin is the author of How to Sell (2009) and Love and Lies (2015, both Farrar, Straus and Giroux).