The Secret Lives of Just About Everybody

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Tue Jan 11 09:34:16 PST 2005


The New York Times

January 11, 2005

The Secret Lives of Just About Everybody

One mislaid credit card bill or a single dangling e-mail message on the
home computer would have ended everything: the marriage, the big-time
career, the reputation for decency he had built over a lifetime.

So for more than 10 years, he ruthlessly kept his two identities apart: one
lived in a Westchester hamlet and worked in a New York office, and the
other operated mainly in clubs, airport bars and brothels. One warmly
greeted clients and waved to neighbors, sometimes only hours after the
other had stumbled back from a "work" meeting with prostitutes or cocaine

In the end, it was a harmless computer pop-up advertisement for security
software, claiming that his online life was being "continually monitored,"
that sent this New York real estate developer into a panic and to a

The man's double life is an extreme example of how mental anguish can
cleave an identity into pieces, said his psychiatrist, Dr. Jay S. Kwawer,
director of clinical education at the William Alanson White Institute in
New York, who discussed the case at a recent conference.

 But psychologists say that most normal adults are well equipped to start a
secret life, if not to sustain it. The ability to hold a secret is
fundamental to healthy social development, they say, and the desire to
sample other identities - to reinvent oneself, to pretend - can last well
into adulthood. And in recent years researchers have found that some of the
same psychological skills that help many people avoid mental distress can
also put them at heightened risk for prolonging covert activities.

"In a very deep sense, you don't have a self unless you have a secret, and
we all have moments throughout our lives when we feel we're losing
ourselves in our social group, or work or marriage, and it feels good to
grab for a secret, or some subterfuge, to reassert our identity as somebody
apart," said Dr. Daniel M. Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard. He
added, "And we are now learning that some people are better at doing this
than others."

Although the best-known covert lives are the most spectacular - the
architect Louis Kahn had three lives; Charles Lindbergh reportedly had two
- these are exaggerated examples of a far more common and various behavior,
psychologists say. Some people gamble on the sly, or sample drugs. Others
try music lessons. Still others join a religious group. They keep mum for
different reasons.

 And there are thousands of people - gay men and women who stay in
heterosexual marriages, for example - whose shame over or denial of their
elemental needs has set them up for secretive excursions into other worlds.
Whether a secret life is ultimately destructive, experts find, depends both
on the nature of the secret and on the psychological makeup of the

Psychologists have long considered the ability to keep secrets as central
to healthy development. Children as young as 6 or 7 learn to stay quiet
about their mother's birthday present. In adolescence and adulthood, a
fluency with small social lies is associated with good mental health. And
researchers have confirmed that secrecy can enhance attraction, or as Oscar
Wilde put it, "The commonest thing is delightful if only one hides it."

 In one study, men and women living in Texas reported that the past
relationships they continued to think about were most often secret ones. In
another, psychologists at Harvard found that they could increase the
attraction between male and female strangers simply by encouraging them to
play footsie as part of a lab experiment.

 The urge to act out an entirely different persona is widely shared across
cultures as well, social scientists say, and may be motivated by curiosity,
mischief or earnest soul-searching. Certainly, it is a familiar tug in the
breast of almost anyone who has stepped out of his or her daily life for a
time, whether for vacation, for business or to live in another country.

 "It used to be you'd go away for the summer and be someone else, go away
to camp and be someone else, or maybe to Europe and be someone else" in a
spirit of healthy experimentation, said Dr. Sherry Turkle, a sociologist at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now, she said, people regularly
assume several aliases on the Internet, without ever leaving their
armchair: the clerk next door might sign on as bill at but also cruise
chat rooms as Armaniguy, Cool Breeze and Thunderboy.

 Most recently, Dr. Turkle has studied the use of online interactive games
like Sims Online, where people set up families and communities. She has
conducted detailed interviews with some 200 regular or occasional players,
and says many people use the games as a way to set up families they wish
they had, or at least play out alternative versions of their own lives.

 One 16-year-old girl who lives with an abusive father has simulated her
relationship to him in Sims Online by changing herself, variously, into a
16-year-old boy, a bigger, stronger girl and a more assertive personality,
among other identities. It was as a more forceful daughter, Dr. Turkle
said, that the girl discovered she could forgive her father, if not change

 "I think what people are doing on the Internet now," she said, "has deep
psychological meaning in terms of how they're using identities to express
problems and potentially solve them in what is a relatively
consequence-free zone."

Yet out in the world, a consequence-rich zone, studies find that most
people find it mentally exhausting to hold onto inflammatory secrets - much
less lives - for long. The very act of trying to suppress the information
creates a kind of rebound effect, causing thoughts of an affair, late-night
excursions or an undisclosed debt to flood the consciousness, especially
when a person who would be harmed by disclosure of the secret is nearby.
Like a television set in a crowded bar, the concealed episode seems to play
on in the mind, attracting attention despite conscious efforts to turn
away. The suppressed thoughts even recur in dreams, according to a study
published last summer.

 The strength of this effect undoubtedly varies from person to person,
psychiatrists say. In rare cases, when people are pathologically
remorseless, they do not care about or even perceive the potential impact
of a secret on others, and therefore do not feel the tension of keeping it.
And those who are paid to live secret lives, like intelligence agents, at
least know what they have signed up for and have clear guidelines to tell
them how much they can reveal to whom.

But in a series of experiments over the past decade, psychologists have
identified a larger group they call repressors, an estimated 10 to 15
percent of the population, who are adept at ignoring or suppressing
information that is embarrassing to them and thus well equipped to keep
secrets, some psychologists say.

 Repressors score low on questionnaires that measure anxiety and
defensiveness - reporting, for example, that they are rarely resentful,
worried about money, or troubled by nightmares and headaches. They think
well of themselves and don't sweat the small stuff.

Although little is known about the mental development of such people, some
psychologists believe they have learned to block distressing thoughts by
distracting themselves with good memories. Over time - with practice, in
effect - this may become habitual, blunting their access to potentially
humiliating or threatening memories and secrets.

 "This talent is likely to serve them well in the daily struggle to avoid
unwanted thoughts of all kinds, including unwanted thoughts that arise from
attempts to suppress secrets in the presence of others," Dr. Wegner, of
Harvard, said in an e-mail message.

 The easier it is to silence those thoughts and the longer the covert
activity can go on, the harder it may be to confess later on.

In some cases, far stronger forces are at work in shaping secret lives.
Many gay men and some lesbians marry heterosexual partners before working
out their sexual identity, or in defiance of it. The aim is to please
parents, to cover their own shame or to become more acceptable to
themselves and society at large, said Dr. Richard A. Isay, a psychiatrist
at Cornell University who has provided therapy to many closeted gay men.

 Very often, he said, these men struggle not to act on their desires, and
they begin secret lives in desperation. This eventually forces agonizing
decisions about how to live with, or separate from, families they love.

 "I know that I did not pursue the orientation that I have, and know that I
have always been as I am now," one man wrote in a letter published in Dr.
Isay's book "Becoming Gay." "I know that it becomes more difficult to live
in the lonely shell that I do now, but can see no way out of it."

When exposure of a secret life will destroy or forever poison the public
one, people must either come clean and choose, or risk mental breakdown,
many therapists say.

 Dr. Seth M. Aronson, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai
School of Medicine, has treated a pediatrician with a small child and a
wife at home who was sneaking off at night to bars, visiting prostitutes
and even fighting with some of the women's pimps.

 At one session, the man was so drunk he passed out; at another, he brought
a prostitute with him. "It was one of those classic splits, where the wife
was perfect and wonderful but he was demeaning these other women," and the
two lives could not coexist for long, Dr. Aronson said.

 In a famous paper on the subject of double lives, published in 1960, the
English analyst Dr. Donald W. Winnicott argued that a false self emerged in
particular households where children are raised to be so exquisitely tuned
to the expectations of others that they become deaf to their own longings
and needs.

 "In effect, they bury a part of themselves alive," said Dr. Kwawer of the
White Institute.

 The pediatrician treated by Dr. Aronson, for example, grew up in a
fundamentalist Christian household in which his mother frequently and
disapprovingly compared him to his uncle, who was a rogue and a drinker.
Dr. Kwawer's patient, the real estate developer, had parents who frowned on
almost any expression of appetite, and imprinted their son with a strong
sense of upholding the family image. He married young, in part to please
his parents.

 Both men are still getting psychotherapy but now live one life apiece,
their therapists say. The pediatrician has curtailed his extracurricular
activities, returned home mentally and confessed some of his troubles to
his wife. The real estate developer has separated from his wife, but lives
close by and helps with the children. The break caused a period of
depression for everyone involved, Dr. Kwawer said, but the man now has
renewed energy at work, and has reconnected with friends and his children.
The secret trysts have stopped, as has the drug use, and he feels he has
his life back.

 "Contrary to what many people assume," Dr. Kwawer said, "quite often a
secret life can bring a more lively, more intimate, more energized part of
themselves out of the dark."

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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