I have been intrigued about personal and family secrets since I was a young boy. Even as a preschooler, I had observed a dissociation between how most people behaved in their private lives and the way they presented themselves to the public, at least in the Bible-belt. Shakespeare expressed it this way, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” While he was writing about the stages of life, you can apply those words to the idea that when we are in public, we are on a stage, doing our best to perform according to society’s expectations. Social media has transformed the grand, live stages into little puppet theaters, where pretense is even easier.
Even authentic people have secrets that no one else knows, and in most cases, there is nothing wrong with that. To prove my point, meditate for a minute about your greatest secrets, things that even your own spouse doesn’t know. It could be as insignificant as how you pick your nose and what you do with your findings. But often there is something in your past, or present, that is in that vault. Often those secrets have no reason to see the light of day. But occasionally, they do. Each person will be the judge of their own secrets. Charles Dickens (one of my favorite writers) wrote about these very private secrets in the beginning of the third chapter of A Tale of Two Cities (below).
A Wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbour is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life’s end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them?
I suspect that one reason this issue has been so interesting to me is the fact that I was lucky enough to have had a mother who was profoundly authentic. No filter whatsoever. I think the reason she was that way was she grew up in an isolated life in a Tennessee holler and was forced to drop out of school at age twelve and become a mother to her three brothers. She was socially isolated and never learned the process of performance persona, which is readily taught—by default—on the middle school playground. She never saw the list of social rules, what you can say and what you shouldn’t.
Here’s an example of my mother. I brought a friend home from high school and he had a terrible acne problem. My mother said to him (and she had never met him before), “Honey, your face looks horrible. You need to see a doctor about your pimples because girls aren’t going to want to date you looking like that and the doctor can help you.” Now, of course my friend was greatly embarrassed as was I. However, he was not angry at my mother because he realized that she said what she said because she honestly cared about him. Imagine Dolly Parton with black hair, that was my mother’s persona … hard not to like.
My mother was a reference point to what authenticity looked like and the rest of society, juxtaposed with her character, made pretentiousness stand out to me. I just don’t like it in myself or others. It intrigued me so much, that I got a degree in psychology, and even doubled majored in sociology for a while, just to try to make sense of it.
I would like to explore this idea through several posts. From where I’m sitting now, I see three parts to this issue:
- Personal secrets, which most of the time are insignificant. They can become significant like when they are used to hide destructive behaviors.
- Pretentiousness, where we pretend that we are as good as we wish we were. This might be just a matter of taste. I don’t like it in myself or others, but by itself, it may be harmless.
- Being an avatar is when someone creates such a performance persona that they start to believe in the performance themselves. Caulfield, in the Catcher in the Rye, saw most of society in this light. The term he used was “phonies.”
In 1990, I started a grand experiment. I found myself living within a profoundly pretentious society, “avatarian” in nature. At that juncture, I made a decision to pursue authenticity at all costs. It has been costly, and I’ve failed at this many times.
Where am I going with this thread? One reason is that I’m starting to write three novels. Only one will survive to publication, if any. The one that is lead at this juncture is one about family secrets as many novels are. This novel is set in my boyhood home and draws a lot from my experiences. I am drawing from real life, but to make it a readable novel I have to fictionize the events … but not by much.
Certainly, I am not writing this series of blog posts as a critique of society. I do think a perfect society would not have avatars or even the pretentious, while personal secrets may not be avoidable. But I will discuss situations where even those that are unhealthy. You are welcome to contribute to this conversation.
Mike, Still the Hermit @ Loch Eyre
I received my monthly labs tonight and my cancer markers are once normal. One, called the M-spike (the clearest marker for Multiple Myeloma) has disappeared. This means if I presented in my doctors office today, they would not diagnose me as having Multiple Myeloma. While that might sound like a cure, it is not. MM is very devious and could look like it is gone, but then suddenly reappears. But I am happy with that.
The new chemo program is still kicking my butt. I struggle with fatigue and chills. My anemia keeps me breathless with more than a little exertion. I’m happy with how my cancer has responded. My prayer is that if I continue with such a good remission, they would drop the drug that is causing most of my side effects.
One response to “Secrets and Avatars, Part I”
I am looking forwArd to your new novel(s). I have always struggled with people who are unauthentic and tend to avoid them.