BEHIND THE MASK
By NANCY PATRICK
Many years ago during an especially bad period of depression (a condition that has plagued me my entire life), I went to a therapist for some guidance. She introduced me to the concept of co-dependency, an unconscious psychological game in which family members involve each other in emotional blackmail that holds them hostage to each other’s needs.
Many of these unhealthy behaviors stem from secrets, sins, and lies that only a few people know. Because family members sense tension among themselves, they ignore ugly past events rather than face an unpleasant or confrontational situation. My family wore several masks, all designed to hide our secret family problems.
One of my mother’s often quoted phrases, not to “air our dirty laundry” to the neighbors, usually meant to keep quiet about my mother’s episodes of depression, anger, abuse, or suicidal tendencies. My sister and I lived under the cloud of family embarrassment or shame that our mother’s behavior could reflect badly on us.
When a junior at Abilene High School, I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter along with most other high school juniors in America. The book possessed my mind as I read of Hester Prynne, her estranged husband Roger Chllingworth, and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. I empathized in horror as the Puritans of Salem pilloried Hester, forcing her to hold her illegitimate baby and wear the scarlet “A” to brand her as an adulterer.
I had nightmares about all my own sins being on display for all to see. The horror of public humiliation terrified me. I had committed many sins: lust, envy, pride, ungratefulness, and mean thoughts about others, among them. In the nightmare, I brought shame on my family, resulting in shunning and persecution. My racing heart would wake me up those mornings.
Having now lived almost seventy years, I have discovered that I share a sinful nature with the rest of humanity. Pretending that my past shameful behavior did not happen wastes time and energy. In spite of that fact, many people live their lives based on secrets and lies they have attempted to hide.
These secret keepers infect their families with an emotional illness that connects them in a psychological conspiracy. Therapists often say that families are as sick as their secrets. Deception involves pulling others into the lie: “Don’t tell anyone I drank, used drugs, had an affair, lied to someone, stole, had an abortion, put a child up for adoption, cheated on my income tax, watched pornography,” and on the list goes.
In my own extended family, I know of affairs, differing sexual orientations, abortions (both illegal and legal), alcoholism, drug addiction, pedophilia, tax fraud, and suicide. These “secrets” resulted in superficial, artificial, and deceptive relationships among the family members.
Regardless of the longevity of the secret, in all likelihood, someone from the past knows the truth. That person may decide to reveal the information to select family members at some point, resulting in a conflagration of suspicion and distrust. The liar feels compelled to maintain the “cover” story created in the past, thus forcing family members to choose whom to believe.
BBC has produced three series of a program entitled Unforgotten. Each series begins with the discovery of a historical murder case. The detectives’ work begins with the search for the victim’s identity. These cold cases require a thorough investigation, resulting in the detectives’ digging until they discover most of the people who knew the victim. As clues appear, former personal and professional relationships lay the foundation for building a murder case.
As layers of relationships unfold, detectives reveal the disparity between people’s current and past lives. As with most young people, these people had done stupid, mean, immoral, and even illegal acts decades earlier. Many had built their new lives on the secrets of the past, not telling even their closest relationships about their histories.
As the detectives discover the secrets of suspects’ pasts, those involved try everything they can to deny the truths of their history. Their shame causes excruciating pain as they continue their denials, but all must finally confront their pasts and own their deeds as their families learn their secrets.
These stories reveal the underlying truth that people share a common sinful nature. Even though transparency and honesty may result in embarrassment or shame, surely that causes less trauma than the humiliating revelations long after the events. Although honesty may hurt, removing our masks reveals humility that allows others to appreciate and accept people in their humanity.
To this day, I try to live by Hawthorne’s clearly stated theme near the end of his novel: “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” Not all secrets require the same level of transparency, but those that affect others demand honesty to ensure an authentic relationship.
Hawthorne also admonishes, “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” Truth, honesty, and integrity along with transparency in character make life much easier than wearing a mask that grows heavier with each passing year. Indeed, pretense and hypocrisy are exhausting and futile.
Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing.