January/February 2014 cover image

Most people have an instinctive sense of what it means to keep personal information private, as opposed to secret. Privacy is motivated by a desire to withhold for oneself; secrecy is motivated by fear of revelation to others. And yet we blur the boundaries: What is the difference between a person who is intensely private and one who is a little bit secretive?

We have language and legalities to enforce state and corporate secrecy, as anyone who’s ever signed an NDA can attest. Certain professions, including many psychologists who post to this site, take professional oaths of confidentiality when dealing with clients.

Yet we have few terms and no clear directives to navigate the secrets that most often torment people. These are questions of identity and aspiration: “The human heart in conflict with itself,” as Faulkner timelessly declared. There is no vocabulary for the myriad ways in which a beloved’s secret can burden the person to whom it is revealed, yet it is this state of affairs that Jane Isay explores with great candor in “The Secret That Became My Life," published online today.

It’s not that labels are the answer. (Though the possibilities are endless and, like many attempts to capture emotional complexity, quite possibly Germanic: Geheimnisaustausch? Stockholm-secret-keeping syndrome?)

But without a more nuanced understanding of how secrets fester under cover of privacy, it’s no wonder acts remain opaque, even to ourselves.

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