As a psychiatrist I find that friends frequently seek me out to discuss problematic events in their
lives; it comes with the territory and I’m usually happy to do it. But I was surprised and shaken to hear from an old friend that her husband of nearly 25 years had long been accruing and hiding from her a huge credit card debt (in the six figures). Even after divulging his secret, the husband had lied about the amount, with the sum increasing every time it was discussed. And right from the start, he refused to document where the money was spent. He left it for his wife to ruminate on, trying to puzzle it out. The disclosure wreaked financial and emotional havoc on their family.
After my initial shock at this unsuspected betrayal, I began to recall patients I had seen whose situations were not that dissimilar. They were people who had suddenly discovered that their life, as they knew it, was based on a long-term falsehood. They were people who might have stumbled across family secrets on the Internet or found old bills from a spouse’s long-hidden liaisons.
This predicament, a sudden revelation of new, pivotal information about one’s life, is the subject of many memoirs: Bliss Broyard, in “One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life — A Story of Race and Family Secrets,” discovers shortly before her father’s death that his family of origin was black and that he had “passed” for white. Katha Pollitt, in “Learning to Drive,” writes about discovering the infidelity of her long-term partner. Geoffrey Wolff, in “The Duke of Deception,” unearths evidence that his father had lied about virtually every aspect of his past: his religion, education, career and military record.
But what if you’re not a writer and don’t have the option of metabolizing this kind of toxic experience through the process of writing? Most of us can’t seize control of the narrative by publishing our side of the story or get the sweet revenge of going public with the other’s misdeeds.
Discoveries of such secrets typically bring on tumultuous crises. Ironically, however, in my clinical experience, it is often the person who lied or cheated who has the easier time. People who transgressed might feel self-loathing, regret or shame. But they have the possibility of change going forward, and their sense of their own narrative, problematic though it may be, is intact. They knew all along what they were doing and made their own decisions. They may have made bad choices, but at least those were their own and under their control. Now they can make new, better choices.
And to an astonishing extent, the social blowback for such miscreants is often transient and relatively minor. They can change! Our culture, in fact, wholeheartedly supports such “new beginnings” — even celebrates them. It has a soft spot for the prodigal sons and daughters who set about repairing their ways, for tales of people starting over: reformed addicts, unfaithful spouses who rededicate themselves to family, convicted felons who find redemption in religion. Talk shows thrive on these tales. Perhaps it’s part of our powerful national belief in self-help and self-creation. It’s never too late to start anew.By ANNA FELS
OCTOBER 5, 2013