The Burden of Keeping a Secret (Interview)

From Minnesota Public Radio

If you need to keep a big secret, here’s a tip: Invent an alternate story to tell, and tell it so often that you believe it yourself.

That’s one of the strategies identified by author Jane Isay, who lived for years with a whopper of a secret: that her husband was gay. The couple kept the truth from family, friends — even from their own children.

The toll that a years-long deception can take led Isay to write a book, “Secrets and Lies: Surviving the Truths That Change Our Lives,” in which she chronicles what happened when her husband of 15 years told her the truth about his sexuality.

Through experience and research, Isay has learned why brain science argues against the ability to balance a secret and an open life at the same time.


When my husband’s secret became my own, I learned the slow torment (and occasional titillation) of the secret keeper. In maintaining our decades-long deception, I grew to understand—and ultimately overcome—the identity-warping nature of secrets and lies.

Discovering that someone you love has lied to you and kept a secret feels like being hit by a bolt of lightning. Such is the circumstance of the finder, the person to whom the truth is revealed. The arc of your life is altered in an instant. Suddenly the present makes no sense and the future is impossible to picture.

Read the rest of the Psychology Today January cover story here.





How A Mother’s Shame Can Morph Over Time

As I walked out of my mother’s room in Mt. Sinai hospital that summer day in 1982, I ran into my cousin, who was a surgical resident on her floor. My mother was recovering from the second surgery in six months. The cancer could not be stopped.

“How’s Mom doing?

He shook his head. “She will get out of the hospital this time, but she won’t go home the next time.”

My father left her room and came out into the corridor. Dad and I were on our way out to dinner together. We stepped into the elevator, eyes facing the closing doors.

“What did Charlie tell you?”

“He said, it’s curtains for Rosie.”

Neither of us took our eyes from the elevator door, but we leaned toward each other. I was relieved to know the truth from Charlie, and my dad was relieved not to have to deliver the news to me. We jumped into a cab and headed for a Chinese restaurant on 86th Street.

“Your mother lived a long life,” Dad said as the drinks were served. I nodded vehemently. She had lived an amazing life.

“Longer than you know.” I looked up. “She lied about her age. She’s really 77.”

I was also glad to know that she got all the way to 77. Seventy-three seemed awfully young to die.

“There’s more you need to know, and I want your advice,” my father said as the food was delivered. He had my attention. We both were eating the diced food with our chopsticks as we talked. Small pieces are easier to swallow when you are holding back tears.

“When Rosie was in graduate school, she got pregnant. Columbia would have thrown her out of the Ph.D program if she were having a baby, and you know what her degree meant to your mom. We decided on an abortion.” This was in 1934. Abortions were illegal, but their good friend, an OB/GYN, performed it at home — on my father’s giant desk. They covered the desk with a thick layer of newspaper. I gulped.

“How does that make you feel?” I was fine. “You know, Dad, you and Mom were bound to have only two children, and if she had carried that baby, I wouldn’t be here talking to you. So it’s more than OK.” At that time, over 30 years ago, I didn’t consider the impact that abortion might have had on their attitude toward my brother, who was born two years later. In some way he must have been a replacement child. That might help to explain some of the expectations they had for their son.

There was more to this. My father and mother were struggling over whether to leave that episode in the autobiography my mother was writing. She had become very close to some high-ranking members of the Catholic Church through her devotion to Girls’ Town of Italy, and whenever they visited Rome, they had an audience with the Pope. Now she wanted to keep the story of her abortion secret. A long-ago decision, seemingly made easily, was causing her shame a half-century later.

My dad, an ardent feminist, wanted her to include the story of her abortion in the book. He wanted women who faced the same dilemma to get courage from my mother’s story. He was not at all attached to her friends in the Church. Maybe this was his way to separate her from then. What did I think?

I was torn. As a feminist, I agreed with my father. But as an editor, I have always believed that the writer should make her own decision. I followed the editor’s Hippocratic oath: Do no harm. Including the story in her book would have made my mother uncomfortable. That is the last thing she needed at the time, and so that’s what I told my father. He listened to me. He never bothered her about it again. She didn’t live long enough to finish the book, and it was never published. (Her written legacy was 25 years’ worth of advice columns published in the New York Post under her married name, Dr. Rose N. Franzblau, and it resides in the library at Columbia.)

I can tell this story now, because my parents and my mother’s dear friend the Monseigneur are long dead. The lesson I take from it today is that shame, the great maker of secrets, can morph over time. I think she was fine with these events until she found a group that might judge her, and then she wanted nothing to do with the incident. I can understand that completely. It’s a good lesson to learn. Everybody struggles with revelation and secrecy. Changes in the values of the culture are central to what make something worthy of suppressing.

So what do I think about that sad Chinese dinner in 1982? I stand by my advice. We have a right to our privacy, which is a different thing from a secret withheld from family members. Mom and Dad made that decision together, and they didn’t hide the truth from each other. A woman born in 1902 was not about to tell her children about this, and we all survived.

Finding out the truth about her age was a wonderful surprise. We had always mistrusted what she said about her date of birth. The stories of her childhood and the historical facts never jibed. My kids used to search through her drawers looking for evidence of her true age. They never found it.

When I shared this secret with them, we loved her more. They were pleased to know that their suspicions were valid. And we all got to know here a little better. She was vain, and she was strong, and she lived the life she wanted.

When Siblings Work Together, They may Stay Together

My neighbor here at the beach is a wise woman. A single mother with four kids, she developed strategies to deal with the fights between them. “Let me know when you’ve settled it,” she would say as she walked out of the room. Eventually they did. She had of course set rules about physical and emotional abuse, but within those parameters, she let them alone.

Her second terrific strategy took place at the dinner table. She and the kids sat together to make the family decisions. The five of them would come up with a solution that they all could pretty much live with. The kids developed a sense of fairness and the ability to negotiate, which has served them well.

When people worry about the fights between their kids, they are tempted to intercede and have a say in the outcome. But my research into siblings has taught me that, with some guidance and some limits, kids do better as adults if they learn to settle things between themselves. I also found that kids who are given joint projects—and the dinner-table decisions were joint projects—form better relationships in adulthood. This kind of cooperation lasts a lifetime and the habit of working together turns out to be useful when the parents begin to age and need their children’s help.

When I was a kid, we spent our summers in a cottage on a lake. There was electricity, but no running water. We had a pump, and the ice man delivered great chunks of ice every week or so. We bathed in the lake and used the two-seater outhouse. My mother and our friend managed to cook us three meals a day on a hotplate and large electric roaster.

Michael and I had the responsibility for the dishes. This was complicated. We had to pump the water, heat the kettle on the hotplate, and pour the water into the large tubs, one for washing and one for rinsing. We fought over who got to dry, but that was nothing compared to the fun we had, composing little skits of rebellion over the dishes or making up our own lyrics to show tunes, to let the adults know how hard our job was. With dishtowels appropriately draped, we two performed songs of protest long before the Civil Rights movement.

My brother and I have had our ups and downs, like every other pair of siblings, but the memory of washing and rinsing, drying and singing is a bond that has lasted us a lifetime.

The Way of the Will

When a man I know disinherited his daughter because she married out of the faith (forty years earlier), he gave her what he thought she deserved, a slap in the face. What he could not have anticipated was the impact of this decision on his other children. Her two brothers fought: one wanted to contest the will and divide the estate evenly, and the other wanted to follow their father’s wishes (and not give up a penny of his inheritance). They never spoke again.

People have every right to leave their money however they like, and to whomever they choose. But an unequally divided estate can permanently harm relationships in the next generation.

Competition between siblings, for the parent’s love and money begins in the nursery and lasts a lifetime. One woman told me that her sister counted out the number of potato chips their mom put on their plates, to be sure their portions were equal. Another complains that she got a scholarship to college, while her parents shelled out the money for her brother’s schooling. She’s thinking about demanding reparations. Cars, privileges, tuition, and wedding size, all turn up on the list of who-got-what. I think that before some genius invented spreadsheets, kids had little cells in their brains, computing parents’ time, money, attention, and of course potato chips. I think the question behind all the comparing and calculating is, “How much do I count?”

Parents need to be aware of this when they are making their wills, especially if they want their legacy to include the continuation of the family and its values. Here are some considerations.

Choosing a favorite child to get more than the others will make the others hate the favorite, instead of resenting your decision.

Disinheriting a child will make the others feel conflicted and guilty about their right to their share. They will find ways to fight and separate.

Leaving a business to one child without making the estate even for the rest will breed dissension and envy.

One man I know, after hearing his  father’s divisive will, asked the lawyer, if he knew the damage the document would wreak on him and his brothers. The lawyer shrugged—he was following the old man’s wishes.

So if you’re thinking that you can right the wrongs done you through your will, think again. These decisions may have terrible unintended consequences.

No More Jokes about the Mother-in-Law, Please

We think we know everything about mothers-in-law, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I never found mother-in-law jokes funny, because I know how hard so many women work to keep things warm and easy between generations.

One woman I know praised her mother-in-law to the skies. She and her husband lived next door to his parents, and her mother-in-law never uttered a harsh word, took the kids in after school, and was always helpful. This woman’s own mother was a nightmare of criticism and control. Even into her 90’s, she would call her daughter to tell her when to get a haircut and when the weather was too dangerous to drive. Her grandkids loved her, but they adored their dad’s mom.

Another woman I know has three sons, and she gets along with two of the wives. They appreciate the time she takes with the grandkids—she loves being with them, even when she is exhausted. But the third daughter-in-law has always been tough. My friend can’t seem to get it right with her, and some of the angry words have concerned how she mistreated her son when he was a child. This daughter-in-law believes, I’m sure, that in rejecting her mother-in-law, she’s standing up for her guy. So things just are never easy. When my friend tells her daughter-in-law what a good mother she is, the words are greeted with a shrug of disbelief. She arrives with gifts for the kids, which are rejected as being too fancy; she plays with them and hugs them, and is told she’s spoiling them. I am sure that my friend can be annoying, just as you and I can be, but since she has good relationships with the other daughters-in-law, she thinks that something beyond her control may be going on. Sometimes chemistry and history work against the best of intentions.

As Mother’s Day approaches, how about declaring a 24-hour amnesty with the one you’re tense about. Take a moment to declare a mental truce: think of her good qualities—there have to be some. After all, she loves your son, which shows good taste. After all, she gave birth to the man you love, and that should count for something. Maybe when your heart softens a little bit, so will hers, and perhaps you can find a way to make a lasting truce.

If this sounds wildly optimistic, you may be right. But since you’re just sitting down by yourself and thinking about it, there’s no harm in trying.

Banning Best Friends

I was concerned when I read in the New York Times that some schools and camps are discouraging kids from having best friends as a way to keep them from being exclusive and hurting each other’s feelings. Having worked as an editor with Mary Pipher on Reviving Ophelia and with Rachel Simmons on Odd Girl Out and The Curse of the Good Girl, I am aware of how cruel kids can be and how hard it is to negotiate the complexities of the social environment. Schools and camps are right to be vigilant about bullying and cruelty in all its forms, but kids also need to experience the ups and downs of powerful relationships, even if sometimes they are painful. Banning close friendships, which are part of growing up, may be more dangerous than it seems. We all need to experience the full range of emotions and passions in order to grow our souls.

It is almost impossible to watch children fighting and hurting each other’s feelings. Even worse is when they gang up. Our instinct is to intercede, settle the conflict and send them out to play. Not so fast. It’s impossible to stamp out conflict, and I think it is not such a good idea, anyway. Of course we try to set limits, so that they don’t harm each other, physically or emotionally, but those are the boundaries, not the playing field.

I think that conflict serves many purposes. At home, brothers and sisters teach each other important lessons about handling their feelings, and getting used to the fact that life isn’t always fair. Living in an emotional bubble, free of conflict, hurt, and tears, doesn’t help us grow up.

We are born with a range of powerful emotions, which over time we experience, process, and manage. Educating our emotions and managing our passions is as much a part of growing up as learning to walk. Parents know that toddlers trying to walk need to fall down time after time. It’s the only way they’ll learn. In the same way, brothers and sisters first build their skills in dealing with conflict when they settle their arguments themselves. Home is the staging site for life. But this education continues in school.

If we keep our kid’s relationships nice and clean, they will stay on the surface. If we insist on only surface relationships in school and camp, where are kids going to learn to deal with their strong feelings? Where will they develop an inner life? How will they manage the complexity of intimate relationships? We have to experience this all, over and over again. You can’t walk without falling, and you can’t be close without sometimes hurting.

Banning best friends might seem like a good way to keep kids from being exclusive and hurting each other’s feelings. But that first love for another child is a building block of intimacy. Can we afford to eliminate it?

The American Family Diaspora

On a radio call-in show recently, I heard from a man whose parents had immigrated before he was born. In his big family, everybody is always in touch-the grandparents, the siblings, the aunts, the uncles, the cousins and the grandkids. They look out for one another. Always. If the caller is in a city where one of his cousins lives and he doesn’t have time to visit, he’ll still phone to say hello. The distance between many American family members puzzled him. He wondered what was wrong with American families.

There’s nothing wrong with American families. But there are at least two distinctive family styles. In the “regular” American family, relatives live all over the country; they love each other but don’t yearn for each other’s company. They meet on family occasions, and keep in touch, but they aren’t comfortable with the intensity that intimacy brings. They believe they couldn’t survive in the same town as their family.

Read the rest of the article here