Sunday, April 13, 2008

Those Deep Dark Secrets 1

I am a lover of HBO's now famous, if not infamous, TV series The Sopranos - one might even say that I am an addict of the series, truth to tell.  My brother Pat and I have bought all six or seven seasons of this series.  In episode 71 news breaks about Vito Spatafore's secret life. At an AA meeting, an acquaintance from Yonkers spots Christopher and tells him someone saw Vito at a gay bar. When Christopher announces this to Tony and the others, no one can believe it. Tony and Silvio try to track Vito down to get to the bottom of it. "Enough with the rush to judgment," warns Tony.

Anyway, Vito Spatafore, a mob captain in Tony Soprano's crew, takes a gun to a remote motel, giving the impression he might kill himself. The reason for this impression is that Vito, long known to regular viewers as a closet homosexual, has been spotted at a gay club in full Village People regalia. Vito flees to New Hampshire, visibly shaken, while his colleagues decide whether he can live on the lam or has to die. (Allowing him to return unscathed would be an affront to their machismo; plus Vito's construction staff will no longer work for him.) In New Hampshire's more accepting environs — where, as Vito sees, a gay couple is only teased for ordering the same breakfast — he begins to believe in a world where he, and his secret, can coexist in full disclosure.  If you have not seen this series and are not acquainted with its characters it is also important to point out that this Vito Spatafore is married with two children.  Vito, then, lives with a very dark secret indeed and is living a double life.  He is plagued with guilt and fear and neuroses.

Indeed one of the reasons for my love of this series is the fact that it deals with many psychological and psychiatric complaints in a very mature and precise manner.  In fact many programmes are quite frankly based on Freudian psychoanalytical concepts.  Indeed the main character, Tony Soprano is himself in analysis with Dr Melfi.  At Melfi's office, Tony vents about Vito being gay-and the pressure of his top earner losing everyone's respect. Melfi points out that many in his circle have done jail time and can't be strangers to "male-male contact." Later in this particular programme Angie and Carmela gossip about Vito, Meadow walks in and spills her own secret about Vito: "Finn saw him giving a guy a blow job." Tony drags Finn into the Pork Store back room to tell what he saw. Paulie, who'd been defending Vito against the "slander," now wants his head. Tony still wants to think about it.

The power of openness is a theory that has, in the past two decades, earned laboratory validity in attempting to explain the effect keeping or not keeping secrets has on us. "Freud's Fundamental Rule of Psychoanalysis was for patients to be completely open with a therapist no matter how silly or embarrassing the thought," says Anita Kelly, a researcher at the University of Notre Dame who published one of the first books on the formal study of secrets, The Psychology of Secrets,(Springer, 2002).  Kelly has focused her recent work on the role of confidants in the process of disclosure. She created a simple diagram advising self-concealers when they should, and when they should not, reveal a secret. On one hand, if the secret does not cause mental or physical stress, it should be kept, to provide a sense of personal boundary and avoid unnecessary social conflict. If it does cause anguish, the secret-keeper must then evaluate whether he or she has a worthy confidant, someone willing to work toward a cathartic insight. When such a confidant is not available, the person should write down his or her thoughts and feelings.  This, I feel, is good and sound advice.

Eric Jaffe, a writer in Washington, D.C., has this to say in an a research article called, "The Science Behind Secrets" :

But in 1998 she [Kelly] did a study asking patients about their relationships with their therapists. She found that 40 percent of them were keeping a secret, but generally felt no stress as a result. Kelly began to believe that some secrets can be kept successfully, and that, in some scenarios, disclosing a secret could cause more problems than it solves. Psychologists, she felt, were not paying enough attention to the situations in which disclosure should occur — only that it did. "The essence of the problem with revealing personal information is that revealers may come to see themselves in undesirable ways if others know their stigmatizing secrets," she wrote in the 1999 paper.

John Caughlin, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has studied secrets, agrees that sometimes openness is not the best policy. "People are so accustomed to saying an open relationship is a good one, that if they have secrets it can make them feel that something's wrong," he said recently. In 2005, Caughlin published a paper in Personal Relationships suggesting that people have a poor ability to forecast how they will feel after revealing a secret, and how another person will respond to hearing it. "I'm not touting that people should keep a lot of secrets," he said, "but I don't think people should assume it's bad, and I think they do." In her new book, Anatomy of a Secret Life, published in April, Gail Saltz, a professor of psychiatry at Cornell Medical School, referred to secrets as "benign" or "malignant," depending on the scenario. "In teenagers, having secret identities is normal, healthy separation from parents and needs to go on," said Saltz recently.

Keeping secrets, then, in certain cases is healthy while in others it can cause neuroses of many kinds and not a little pain. Knowing which secrets to share is a work of discernment much to recommended for our healthy growth to the fullest experience of personhood. This is a topic which I will continue into my next post.

Above, I have uploaded a picture of Freud's famous couch.

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