A Secret History of You.
I wrote elsewhere on Medium (What is History For?) that just as towns or countries have historians and histories, just so individuals have histories, and are their own historians.
What does this mean?
It means that narratives about ourselves circulate, within our family, within our company, our town, and our various communities, as well as in our own heads: Jimmy’s always been so stressed, it’s who he is, or: Manuela is an angel. She carries her whole family.
The better you know people, the more elaborate and detailed these histories become. Just as only serious historians can create in-depth histories of, say, the Roman Empire, only our intimates and even we, can create detailed narratives about our lives. And we — and they — do.
But just like histories of famous people or nations, our personal histories are flawed — mostly by our own inability to see ourselves. Our own histories of ourselves might indeed tell truths about us, but often not the ones we think we are telling.
“I found Rome a city of bricks, and left it a city of Marble,” said the emperor Augustus. Now sure, he presided over the Pax Romana, a period of considerable economic growth for the luckiest of Romans. But what this quote, which he had etched into stone (or was it marble?) tells us is more about his overwhelming sense of power, accomplishment, egoism.
Our histories tell us about how we see ourselves, not how we are. Just so, those narratives constructed by our friends and family only get at some of the truth, instead they tell us more about them than about us, according to the general principle that “what Peter tells us about Paul tells us more about Peter than Paul.” And this is the case with History in general.
To get at the “truth,” just as historians seek to debunk myths, we need to access our “secret histories,” go beyond the official versions, these are the things about us which on some level we know to be true, but cannot — or will not — share with others. Or admit to ourselves.
Our secret histories hide behind public facades. Only intimate knowledge of someone can unearth a secret history — a history behind the façade. And only brutal honesty, or effective therapy can lay bare our public narratives to ourselves, force us to give voice to that which we fear — fear because it contradicts the public narrative, demands real emotional work, and calls for transparency and honesty.
Couples are a good place to start when conceiving secret histories, for just as there are secret histories of individuals, our relationships have their own myths and public facades. Starting with wedding speeches, and continuing through anniversary celebrations, and ending I guess in funerals, a public narrative runs through the life of individuals and couples — the official history.
Now anniversaries and funerals are not necessarily the place to let the secret histories out of the box. Celebrations and eulogies are not the place for truth, they are the place for rhetoric. Histories are secret for a reason — I’ll get to that. But in these kinds of life mile-markers we see the public history being written, the history for general consumption – and these are to a large extent based on mendacity.
In stark terms, this is what a public facade looks like when stripped back to its secret history:
Such an amazing marriage they had! Forty years! And all those kids! They loved each other through thick and thin, and came out of it stronger than when they went in. Talk about soul mates!
Now, I’m certainly not suggesting such a scenario is impossible. I’m aiming for it myself, and realize it takes work and imagination. But relationships are tough. Everybody has issues. Many of them cause considerable suffering. Rose beds exist in fairy tales — they are goals, ideals, chimeras.
The story above, however, does not preclude the rough stuff, per se. It just leaves it out.
To parse the story, then: “They were married for 40 years. They had a bunch of kids. They stayed together, it strengthened them. Soul mates? Well, you’d have to believe in that, as in have faith that such a thing exists. Or be speaking metaphorically. Most of these other assertions, however, are value-neutral. Except the last one: Whether or not their marriage left them stronger is subjective. Arguably, forty years of being tested might leave you stronger. But forty years in general will leave you weaker.
The secret history, however, unearthed by anyone who digs a little, like a sleuth historian checking documents recently unclassified, might tell a tale more along the lines of:
“That was a hard slog. Did you know that he cheated on her, several times? They went through a few years when he was barely at home, when the kids were small. The whole thing was on the point of collapse. Somehow they managed to make it to the finish line, but it was no bed of roses. The problem was that he was a narcissist, and she was a prima donna. She needed far more than he was willing to give, but they were not willing to break the whole thing apart and go it alone. It would have been too shameful.”
At my mother’s funeral some years ago I gave the eulogy. I tried to stay away from saying things about her marriage to my dad which I felt were not true. Instead I talked about her best features, her strengths, knowing that the friends and family in attendance would recognize them, and we could grieve as one.
I knew the public history of their marriage. The bare fact that they had been married some fifty years meant that almost everyone saw the marriage as a resounding success.
I also knew at least some of the secret history. But at my mother’s funeral there was no room, and most of their friends would not have countenanced the narratives, for talk of these problems. Her years of depression and migraines; her sense of captivity — marrying at 21 to someone 9 years her senior, and living amongst his friends and associates, who arguably were not to her taste; never finding fulfilment in a career or activities outside the home, until much later in life; possibly finding solace/escape with other men; having to live her life by the rhythm of a somewhat domineering and self-aggrandizing man. And then her long years with a dormant cancer which no one really acknowledged, until it switched on in her sixties and carried her away within a year.
My point is not that marriages are either black or white. They are in fact multi-faceted, multi-colored, just as individuals are. Narcissism exists on a spectrum, just as does arrogance, jealousy, hypocrisy, fidelity. And while we may be narcissistic, selfish, lazy, we may also be loving, entertaining and generous. While our marriage might lack in some qualities, it may compensate with others, and the result may be a net positive, for the challenges of a relationship or marriage are like those of the political leader, according to the variously attributed saying, “you can please some of the people all of the time or all of the people some of the time…”
The trick is to read the narrative along the fault lines of nuance. This is where the humanity lives. And humanity is what secret histories reveal. The other histories, the public facades, cliched stereotypes, do not. What they reveal are the extent to which society needs lies, avoidance and euphemism in order to maintain the status quo and avoid rocking the boat. The pity, then, of the ubiquitous secret histories is that they rob us of our humanity on a profound level. They bow to social pressure, the pressure not to be a failure or an outcast, and this leads many of us to living life in the shadows, unable to share, or even admit the truth.
Now its a major challenge to bring out a secret history, on the order of coming out as gay. But most of us choose not to do it, and instead skulk around the shadows, pretending everything is alright, at some cost.
What’s your secret history?
Note: For more on the different roles History plays more generally, see What is History For?