Privacy, Secrecy, Discretion, and Whose Story Is Whose

A conversation today highlighted something I have often thought about.

I have always been someone who errs on the side of giving unnecessary information. It has always been easy for me to spill my guts, to tell the story in great detail, to spin out the yarn. My friend Eileen says that I am one of these people who, when you ask them what time it is, they tell you how to build a watch. I can’t deny it. (I do think that some people err on the side of giving inadequate information. I’m sure that the number of people who are truly balanced on the matter of precisely how much to say is limited.)

I’ve been a writer since I was a teenager, and I’ve been aware not only from my own experience but also from the testimony of other writers that the people who are close to writers inevitably wind up in whatever their beloved writers are putting out. Their spouses and children just get used to it eventually, I suppose. And I suppose that it is worse for the loved ones of non-fiction writers such as I since we don’t change the names of our characters to protect the innocent the way novelists do.

I have had a lot of people be afraid to come into my close circle because they have been afraid that since my life is an open book, I will make theirs an open book, too. There is a fairly common piece of folk wisdom that people such as I can’t be trusted with confidences, and some people have avoided getting close to me because they believe it.

Today my husband (see, I just invoked a loved one in my writing) told me a fact about a friend of ours by saying, “It’s her story to tell, so I won’t tell it, but…” and then he synopsized her story in a short sentence. Her privacy was intact.

Over the years I have come to appreciate the imagery of stories to tell, of books that we open. I have come to appreciate a distinction between privacy and secrecy. I am not a particularly private person, but I do  have my private moments. No, you may not see into my bedroom with my husband, no matter how badly you may want to judge gay people’s sex lives. It’s no secret that I am married to a man–it’s perfectly legal in the US and it’s a matter of public record.

I think that a lot of the people who are scared of how private I am not are themselves secretive, and they confuse secrecy with privacy. A lot of people who have nothing to hide want to hide it anyway. No doubt it has to do with shame. I don’t know; along with being open, I am also, in large part, unashamed of who I am. At least these days I am. My teen years and early adulthood are something else.

I have a degree from a theological school, where I studied with dozens of people who went on to become parish ministers. As part of our training, we had to consider the boundaries of discretion, the implications of the statement that what gets said in this room doesn’t leave this room. We had to form in ourselves standards of confidence, so that those who confided in us could feel safe that they were confiding only in us, that we would take their confidences to our graves—whether we thought such confidences were worth being kept secret or not. It was a matter of privacy, and we didn’t get to judge.

I have read many books in my life, and while the story of my life is pretty much open for scrutiny by my own choice, it is the only one that is my business to tell. The fact that I may know your story in detail does not mean that it is mine to tell. I may tell my own story in detail, and I frequently do. But mine is mine, and yours is yours. It’s not my business to tell others’ stories, and the older I have become, the less I have done so.


"Artists are here to disturb the peace." —James Baldwin. Please lesave a comment!

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