29 April 2009

Families and Secrets

Sometimes there are weird flare-ups in my family.
Something happens that seems incredibly important at that moment, but even two weeks later it's forgotten, or at the very least utterly unimportant.  Such a thing has just happened. For some reason, we've had an outbreak of secrets fever:  people telling them, people making them with other people and keeping them from other other people, people whispering furtively down phone lines or over skype.  Which leads me to muse upon secrets.

I believe in keeping secrets.  I have secrets, told to me by other people, that I have kept for years. I had one secret about myself that I kept for almost thirty years before I finally told my mother, and did keep for thirty years before I told my father. When it comes to other people's secrets, I observe a number of what I think of as very simple rules:

1.  If someone says, "Don't tell this to anyone," or, "This is a secret," I don't tell it to anyone.  ANYONE.

2.  If someone says, "Don't tell this to anyone," or, "This is a secret," I treat the entire conversation surrounding that utterance - everything that came before and everything that came after - as a secret.  As far as I'm concerned, when it comes to other people that conversation never happened.

3.  If you are discussing a sensitive subject over e-mail or via letter (two media in which I don't think one should discuss sensitive subjects, but sometimes you have to), anything beyond the most banal facts of life that is mentioned in the same e-mails or letters is also kept secret.

4.  If I don't know if it's a secret, but it's told to me when someone is alone with me, and it is something I would like kept private or think the other person might like kept private, I don't tell it.

5.  Some things - love lives, sexual lives, revelations of insecurity, conversations which are not about intimate things but nonetheless could be considered intimate (take place at night, involve disclosures about beliefs, hopes, worries...) - are automatically understood to be not to be repeated.

(I should say at this juncture that I do get it wrong.  People will tell me things that I don't recognise as such disclosures, and afterward - usually after I've shared them - they turn out to be.)

I am thus extremely surprised when people don't observe these rules; I always imagine that they will be understood by all sensible people.  My sister, for example, simply cannot keep a secret.  It is, in fact, well known in my family that you should never, ever tell her anything private or intimate, because she will blab it to everyone else.  What I didn't know until I was a grown-up, though, is that you can't tell my sister anything.  I mean anything:  if I told her even the most banal fact of my life, she would immediately tell my parents.  This would, logically, be a lesser offence than secret-telling, and it is, but I also think it's an important trait to know about, because it indicates to me that my sister simply doesn't think of anything as unimportant and not worth sharing.  Quotidian detail (I'm an English teacher, you know) or dark secret: she spills them all.  In the end, while my sister and I were speaking, this meant that I had to monitor nearly every word I said - because I didn't know what she might repeat or might not, I could only tell her those things I was sure I wanted my parents to know about. Given my mother's tendency to confront me with anything she's been told I've said or done that she feels is wrong, or that she feels I've represented to her differently, you can see how such conversations involved a good deal of care.

Anyway, in this case the teller of secrets is not my sister, but rather another family member - an aunt. And as I was privileged with this secret, and then participated in the secret agreement not to tell the person whose secret it is that I knew their secret, and then discovered from another family member that other secrets (which, by my rules, had clearly been marked as secrets) had not been understood to be secrets, and so had been revealed, I thought to myself, Surely all families are not like this?  Surely in other families family members don't tell family members secrets about each other, or pass on information with whispered urgings that it is entirely sub rosa?  Or share thoughts and opinions of each other with other family members, but not the member involved? (all of which have happened, one way and another, in my family).  And then I realised that of course they do.  This is how families manage!  Even in my family, when my sister and I had a difficult relationship we still had shared opinions of my mother that we would never share with her.  It is the nature of families, I suppose, to divide into sub-groups and dyads, and to confide within those sub-groups and dyads.

Meanwhile, in other news, at the milonga last night I practised giving more presence and weight, and, since I was dancing with someone near my height, as a result I ended up cheek to cheek with my partner.  This cheek was male; it had stubble; it was resting against mine.  But, dearest reader, it turns out all cheeks are not created equal.  Some cheeks make you feel happy, and some cheeks just make your face itchy.

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