We are only as sick as our secrets

Secrets have been on my mind for the past year, ever since my mother revealed a secret she had been keeping for almost fifty years—which sparked my own awareness of a secret I had been keeping even longer.


Since then, I seem to be very aware of others’ secrets and how often people shade the truth or tell half-truths to frame things in a different light.

For example, I recently attended a talk about Etty Hillesum, a woman who lived in Amsterdam during World War II. The speaker talked of Etty’s affair with her professor but failed to mention that Etty had had an abortion. I wondered why. Etty wrote about the abortion; it was not a secret, yet this person recalling Etty’s life left out this detail.

Was she trying to protect Etty by not talking about the abortion? Did she have feelings of shame around abortion that led her to omit it? This presentation was at a Catholic retreat center, and I wondered if the setting and the audience prompted this omission. But why did she include the details of the affair? It was all a mystery to me.  


Secrets abound in the British detective tv shows I watch. Often, some secret is being kept which is key to solving the mystery.  “Why didn’t you tell us?” the detective asks in exasperation when the secret finally comes out. The detective doesn’t care that the grandfather had a child with the maid or that the mother had a wild past or that the children have squandered their inheritance. The detective just wants the facts and not an edited version of history.

It seems that we can be our own worst judges when it comes to our secrets, believing that the worst will happen if our secrets are revealed.

The truth is that we are the same people we were before our secrets were revealed, and those who love us will continue to love us once they know our secrets.

People may be surprised or even shocked to learn of some traumatic event in our past. They may have to adjust their image of us. They may review the relationship in light of new information, but if they really love us, they will get over their shock and adjust their image. They will remember that we are the same person we were before they knew our secrets.

I have always been open about being a rape survivor, but not everyone in my life knows about it, mostly because it does not come up in everyday conversation and because I have moved around a lot. The “getting to know you” phase of new friendships don’t usually include talk of rape or other traumas, so while my history is not a secret for me, it usually doesn’t come up until a relationship is established.

My goal is to have nothing to fear, nothing to prove and nothing to hide. I desire to live transparently, holding nothing back and keeping no secrets.


6 thoughts on “We are only as sick as our secrets

  1. Ms. Liz

    Yes I’ve thought a bit about secrets since you’ve posted about the topic. My family story that I told you, I’ve a cousin about my age and although I didn’t know it, he’d never been told ~fortunately I never referenced it but he found out as an adult when a relative who thought he already knew mentioned it. Upsetting situation. Other people’s secrets can make you feel like you’re walking through a minefield! Another example was a conservative-evangelical relative.. she never knew her only son was in a committed gay relationship ~she loved him dearly and everyone knew she’d be shattered to know the truth so no-one let on. It’s sobering actually, to think how much we potentially *don’t* know about other people and what they might be actively hiding from us, or even shielding us from due to our sensitivities.

    1. Madeline Bialecki Post author

      Thanks, Liz, for sharing. I think that one of the greatest threats about keeping secrets is that when the person being “protected” learns of the secret, there is a double betrayal–first whatever the secret was and then the holding back.

  2. Rosaliene Bacchus

    Madeline, as I’m now only getting to know you, I appreciate learning that you are a rape survivor. My mother, too, guarded a lot of family secrets, as did my father. I believe that, whatever our origin, we humans are all survivors of the circumstances of our lives.


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