When we were in our mid-thirties, my cousin wrote me and asked if we could get together for dinner the next time I came home for a visit.
We grew up more like sisters than cousins, and as children, she knew me better than anyone else.
Her request to meet seemed a bit odd, though, because we had drifted apart after high school.
Now she was in therapy and had some questions for me. Her childhood memories were fuzzy and had some blank spaces; she hoped I would be able to bring clarity to her murkiness and fill in some of the blanks.
At dinner, she asked about one of our uncles. I shuddered.
“If we had known of ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch,’” she said, “he would have been a bad-touch uncle.” I agreed.
As far back as I could remember, I had tried to avoid this uncle, who liked to bounce me on his lap and “tickle” my still-undeveloped breasts. She confided that she, too, had learned to give him a wide berth.
Even at a young age we both knew that other adults saw anything wrong in what he did to us, and no one would stop him.
“What about us?” my cousin asked. “Why didn’t anyone protect us? Why were we left to feel shame for something he did?”
The memory of that dinner with my cousin thirty years ago resurfaced recently.
Lately, I seem to be tuned into the secrets people keep. In novels—where more is left unsaid than shared—and television detective stories—where people withhold facts from the police—what goes unsaid has been catching my attention.
Why the hesitation? The resistance? Why not tell all?
The answer frequently is the desire to protect someone.
Perhaps novelists and screenwriters are emphasizing the things people don’t say as a way of pointing out how common the practice is. Perhaps they are using their craft to nudge people into greater honesty because they know how harmful secrets can be, how damaging it is to protect people who are abusing their power.
Maybe I am more aware of the destructiveness of keeping secrets and protecting people because of what is happening in my church. Those in power seem to be willing to do anything to hold onto their power, covering up egregious acts and maintaining a code of silence. Or maybe it is because of politicians and celebrities demanding loyalty or paying hush money to keep their secrets.
Other than that dinner with my cousin, I have not talked about my uncle and the impact his actions had on me.
One thing I can see clearly, though, is how this early lesson helped shape my sense of “loyalty” and my understanding of the need to protect people who have something to lose—be it their reputation, job or family.
In the end, the truth usually comes out. And it often turns out that people already knew, or at least had an inkling, of the truth.