As a journalist, I saw secrets as gold, glittering with the allure of a good story. I was always on the lookout for other people’s secrets, ready to ferret them out, wanting to shine a light on what was hidden. Working in Russia, I trafficked in secrets about atrocities committed during World War II and buried in a Polish forest, or Soviet secrets hidden in KGB archives and revealed only after the fall of communism.
One of the biggest political secrets I uncovered as a reporter in Moscow came when we learned that a fanatical ultra-nationalist and virulently anti-Semitic politician named Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who had been gaining wide notoriety in Moscow, had in fact been concealing his own Jewish roots. When we confronted him, he responded with anger and denial. I quickly saw that those he targeted with anti-Semitic vitriol would get little comfort from the revelation. The hatred he hurled their way was really more about his own insecurity and self-loathing than anything else.
After years of reporting, I noticed that what we hide and keep secret is usually that which we can’t accept about ourselves. Many people find ways to lash out at external manifestations of those dark internal shadows. In most cases, what is hidden, whether in one’s own psyche or in collective lies that are told about a crime, festers and germinates trouble until it is brought out in the open. Secrets can ruin families and communities and poison relationships.
Yet when we hear about them, they tantalize us. They provide tempting fodder for stories and gossip.
After I left journalism and became a psychotherapist, I waded into people’s individual secrets and found that the same principles applied. What is hidden and secret quietly erodes mental health and trust and connection. Only once secrets are acknowledged and brought into the open can healing begin.
In the new tweet-before-you-think world, where many people over-share details of their lives on social media, we have to ask ourselves: Are we going too far in the other direction? Must all our secrets be exposed?
When I studied the Russian language years ago at Duke, I learned there was no word for privacy. It is a concept we seem to be losing in American culture now, too. I have come to believe that there is an important difference between secrecy and privacy, though. Secrecy involves hiding; it hurts us. Privacy involves conscious shielding; it protects us.
As a journalist, I relished discovering secrets and delighted in exposing them. In pursuing the truth, and amplifying it as much as possible, I felt I was serving the greater good. In many cases, I was.
Now as a therapist, I see secrets in a different light. Exposing them is a path to healing, rather than just a path to an attention-getting story. My challenge now is distinguishing between the dark secrets that need to be brought into the open and those private matters that are best left unsaid.
Darrow ’81 is a former CNN correspondent and the author of Flirting With Danger: Confessions of a Reluctant War Reporter.