The Power of Secrets

Some divide us, but not all secrets are destructive—some even build bonds.

In Loathing Memory

In Loathing Memory
Christopher Griffith
When her 43-year-old husband collapsed and died of an embolism, Julie Metz was devastated. It was so sudden, so unfair, so wrong. They'd been together 16 years and had a 6-year-old daughter.

Seven months after his death, Metz learned that he'd been having affairs.

With one of her friends. And a bicoastal array of strangers. For years.

The proof was in hundreds of emails stored on his computer: "The sex you and I have together is spine-tingling and bone-jarring," Henry had written to Metz's athletic friend Cathy. "And if I have anything to do with it, it will only get better."

What could be worse than the death of a relative or close friend? Perhaps it's learning, as Julie Metz did, that this lost loved one harbored a shocking secret, even lived a double life. And perhaps the only thing worse than being betrayed is being betrayed by someone who can no longer even attempt to make amends. Taken separately, death and betrayal are hard in every sense of the word: Hard to endure. Hard to accept. Hard to understand. But intertwined, they present a complex kind of misery and challenges all their own: Is it possible to punish, forgive, or even come to terms with someone who will never hear you ask: Why did you do this to me? What else don't I know?

Shamefully Surprised

Carole Brody Fleet, author of Widows Wear Stilettos: A Practical and Emotional Guide for the Young Widow, speaks to groups of widows around the country. She's been approached by hundreds of people who have experienced the blow of posthumous revelations. Case in point: a woman whose husband had taken out a second mortgage on their home and amassed over a quarter-million dollars in credit card debt.

People who discover a posthumous shock often engage in self-flagellation, Fleet says, usually in the form of "I am so stupid/dumb/blind. How could I have not known about this?" and "What will happen if/when people find out?" Poring over Henry's passionate missives to other women, "I thought, I did not know this man," Julie Metz says. "I saw only the part of him that he had been willing to show me. I came to realize that our life together was quite limited."

Cadaver feet with Liar tag

Christopher Griffith
Am I Still "Me"?

"When you discover that your partner has been unfaithful, you experience a PTSD-type response that is not simply a loss of trust but a basic loss of self—a disintegration, a shattering," says Janis Abrahms Spring, a Connecticut clinical psychologist and author of books including How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To. "You may have always known yourself as attractive, desirable, competent, funny, and resourceful. When you find out that your partner has had an affair, you lose all of that positive sense and you can't easily recapture it."

One also experiences a loss of a sense of specialness: "You thought you mattered to someone like no one else and now you've discovered that you are replaceable and interchangeable." Then comes a profound loss of faith—in God, in karma, in justice.

And then, while weathering the emotional storm brought on by betrayal, the recipient of a posthumous secret rides the waves of grief: sadness, intense fear about the future, occasional relief, and regret.

Discussing her double trauma now, Julie Metz displays an equanimity that was long in coming and hard-won. Seven summers ago, as detailed in Metz's memoir Perfection, every day brought new layers of rage, shame, and pain.

"People don't always want to admit when they're in a furious rage," Metz muses now. "It doesn't seem like a very honorable emotion."

Yet for many facing postmortem revelations, fury comes first. Fleet calls it "anger at the deceased for the egregious breach of trust, at the inability to confront the deceased, and at themselves for grieving the death of someone who 'doesn't deserve' that kind of emotional investment." It's the primal response to a primal indignity: You lied to me. You tricked me. Charlene Martel felt that deep-down ire while learning at age 16 that the man she'd grown up believing was her father was not.

Martel's mother died unexpectedly in 1989. Two months later, a family friend revealed that Martel's biological father was her mother's long-gone boyfriend; the violent man whom Martel had always called "Dad" was not her blood kin. Her siblings were actually half-siblings.

"I felt that I had lost everything. My family was not exactly my family anymore. My entire family, such as it was, had lied to me my entire life"—especially Martel's mother, "who had always raised me to tell the truth at all costs."

"I honestly thought [it] was some cruel joke-though, realistically, it made sense of a few things, such as why I was never shown my full birth certificate." It also explained the huge age gap between Martel and her closest sister. She had once asked her mother about this gap: "She explained that she had had two boys between us who had died. Now I can't help but wonder if that was just another fabrication to hold together the elaborate deception."

Legally Bitter

Mark Sichel and his father weren't close. In fact, they'd been estranged for many years when Sichel, a New York City psychotherapist and the author of Healing Family Rifts, learned that his father was dying of leukemia.

"I took a risk after much contemplation and went to the hospital to see him," Sichel recalls. "He was very open to reconciliation and actually lived for eight more months, during which I visited him dutifully and was the kind of devoted son a dying person would want. As were my teenage sons," who had never been estranged from their grandfather.

"The last time I visited him, he asked me to eulogize him at his funeral and said for the first time in my life—I was then 59 years old—that he loved me." A few days later, "I delivered a eulogy, as did one of my sons. Both were beautiful."

During their estrangement, Sichel harbored no illusions about inheriting any money from his father. But he thought his sons would be included. They were doting and never disappointed him.

When his father's will was finally revealed, Sichel admits, "I was shocked that he gave everything to my sister. Although I could deal with being disinherited myself, I was enraged about my sons being left out. It was a level of cruelty that I wouldn't have expected, even from him."

Wills are the means by which countless betrayals are perpetrated, after the deaths of those we thought we knew. Their precision, legality, and finality leave little room for pondering, except over whether their omissions and inclusions are the results of oversight or, as Sichel believes was the case with his father, deliberate insult.

Bereavement, Interrupted

By comparison, most posthumous shocks invite endless second-guessing and internal debate—which can block the healing process, says George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University and the author of The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss.

The emotional repertoire of grief we've inherited serves a function, Bonanno says: to help us endure. The sadness associated with loss draws our attention inward so that we can readjust our minds and recalibrate. For a few days or weeks, we stop paying much attention to the world around us and think, I cared about this person and now this person is gone. What is life going to be like without this person?

"But when sadness doesn't run its course, people stay in a state of sadness for a long time. This leads to rumination, which leads to withdrawal, which then spirals downward into depression." Sadness has a harder time doing that job, Bonanno says, when there's a betrayal or information comes to light about that person that you can't believe or can't understand. "You're baffled, and you keep playing things over in your mind trying to figure out why what happened happened. Because it prolongs sadness, rumination becomes pernicious."

Seeing Only the Secret

Although it's normal to feel outraged by a deceased deceiver, says Fleet, "it is far more productive to remember and focus on the life shared and the relationship as a whole, rather than on the unfortunate 'surprise' situation." But this perspective can't be rushed, she admits.

For Karin Evers, it's still too soon.

Growing up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Evers adored her grandmother. "We were inseparable. She was the closest person in the world to me, closer even than my mother."

Having emigrated from Germany in 1957, Evers' grandmother had always professed a hatred for Nazis and Hitler. "My grandmother made a point of instilling strong liberal values in me,"Evers says. "It's because she raised me without bias or prejudice that I've worked all my life on behalf of human rights."

While idly Web-surfing one day this spring, Evers googled the village where her mother was born in 1943. All she knew was its name: Steinhöring.

The first thing that came up in connection with it was "Lebensborn." Unfamiliar with that word, the bilingual Evers read on—learning that it was the name of Heinrich Himmler's maternity-home program for SS wives and unwed Aryan mothers impregnated by "racially pure" males. Steinhöring was its headquarters.

Was Evers' mother a Lebensborn baby? If so, that would explain why relatives had kept so mum about the village. It would explain why Evers' unmet maternal grandfather remained a shadowy figure, said to have married her grandmother after her mother's birth, then promptly divorced her.

"There was no way she could have gained admittance into a Lebensborn home unless she had been a fully active member of the Nazi Party. She had to have been a big player. This blows me away," fumes Evers, now certain that her once-adored grandmother was not the virtuous war-resister she claimed to be.

The Internet's very enormity puts countless secrets at our fingertips. Having unearthed her grandmother's probable history by accident rather than stealth, Evers wishes that she'd been trusted enough to be told.

"It makes me realize that I didn't know my grandmother. I feel tremendous anger toward her, because by keeping her silence she basically lied to me. She put me into the position of having to doubt her now, after her death, when it's too late for her to explain. All I have to work with is the evidence, and right now the evidence isn't looking very good."

"There are always other sides to people that we don't know,"says Bonanno. "The data on secret-keeping reveals that most everyone keeps some secrets."

Learning that a lost loved one didn't tell us everything doesn't mean that we didn't still have a relationship with them, even if it's not entirely the relationship we thought we had, Bonanno says.

Less than a year after receiving her revelation, Charlene Martel left home at age 16. Twenty years later, she still wrestles with questions. "I try to tell myself that my mother had her reasons. I try to tell myself that she didn't mean to harm me. It doesn't ease much of the pain, though."

In Perfection, Metz asks: "What is real? What do I get to keep? The love notes and poems Henry wrote to me? The contents of our photo albums? Did any of it really happen? Does any of it mean anything?"

One-Sided Forgiveness?

Determined to excavate the depth and breadth of Henry's secret life, "sick of feeling like the town idiot," Metz began what she calls a research project. A lifelong practical planner, she "took out a fresh ruled pad from the supply cupboard, made a list, and started calling up the women."

Reaching divorced knitter Christine, S & M edge-walker Eliana, and ad-exec Mandy, Metz asked questions that few of us could even imagine mustering. The answers shone a harsh but somehow healing light on Henry as an attractive, artistic, insecure, insatiably "curious person whose curiosity took him to places that, in the end, caused even more harm to himself than to the ones he loved."

Metz says she has forgiven her cheating spouse. But is it really possible to forgive the dead? Janis Abrahms Spring questions the validity of one-sided forgiveness, in which the person being forgiven can't respond.

True forgiveness can only occur, Spring says, "when the offending party is willing to make meaningful repairs. But in real life, for a lot of people, that isn't always the case. The person who hurt you could be unrepentant or self-righteous. They could be geographically inaccessible. They could have Alzheimer's. They could be dead. In those situations, you have no obligation to forgive them, but you do have an obligation to heal yourself so that you don't stay in a grudge state."

"If forgiveness is to happen, it is a transaction between the two people who are held together by the violation. The offender must step forward with courageous, humble acts of repair. When the offender is dead, I say there is no forgiveness."

But while Spring insists that forgiveness is no longer possible in these situations, most people facing postmortem betrayals pursue a kind of forgiveness and feel that it's a healing step.

Man in body bag giving the finger

Christoper Griffith
Finding Answers and Accepting the Unknown

In her struggles with Henry's untold secrets, Metz received crucial illumination from Henry's therapist, who told Metz that he might have had narcissistic personality disorder.

Metz downloaded articles about this pathological form of self-absorption-and broke down in tears. "I could see my husband standing right in front of me. And that was the beginning of my understanding him, of my having compassion for how lost he had been," she reflects now. "People who have this diagnosis might seem confident, but internally they're suffering. They will do risky things to test the people they love." An element of self-destructiveness, Metz says, led Henry to leave countless clues that she refused to see.

"All people except oneself are to some extent unknowable," she sighs. The story of Henry and all those others whose secrets sting their survivors—"is a bigger mystery," she says—"the final mystery."