Monday, January 28, 2013

Privacy Versus Secrecy

Milwaukee, WI January 2012
I write memoir. It’s kind of my thing, has been for a few years now. I am a pretty public person, willing to talk with most folks about private issues, though I am discrete, or like to think of myself that way – trying not to over share, to have boundaries. Sometimes my wife has to remind me to speak quietly in a public place while having an intimate conversation on my cell phone.

I am very careful about confidentiality with my students, and set limits as to what gets shared about my own life with others, asking for confidentiality for myself. But now that some essays are getting published – on elephant journal, in the anthology Trans-Kin, I am beginning to realize what I have set up for myself here – a life of a writer sharing her life with everyone who will read it.

In an interview with Natalie Goldberg and Susan Piver, the two point out how hard it was to “become famous” based on their writing. They discuss other people assuming that they know them, assuming intimacy based on readership, and learning to set boundaries/get some distance. Now, I am far from famous, but just getting feedback on the essays and blogs I am starting to get a feel for what they are saying. And in my critique group, re-working portions of My Bermuda Triangles memoir, I am starting to understand just how vulnerable one has to be in order for memoir to really work (see memoir mind for some more formal discussions of this).

One of the things I’ve been ruminating a lot on lately is the relationship between privacy and secrecy. For the sake of clarification, I’ll define them according to how I perceive them, what I associate with each word:
Privacy = Discretion, boundaries, not over sharing, communicating only what’s needed unless the situation is very intimate and safe and anything goes.
Secrecy = Hiding information, on purpose or out of shame, from others or even from oneself.

For instance:
I was sexually abused as a child. For a long time I didn’t share that information (privacy) but I also didn’t do any internal processing and felt really ashamed of it (secrecy). When my abuser broke the silence (privacy) I still felt pretty secretive of it. Then I began sharing it a lot, perhaps too much, because privacy felt like secrecy to me – something that perpetuated shame. Now, I don’t share it often unless it fits the context, but it is something that appears in the Bermuda Triangles memoir. I certainly think that secrecy is dangerous/shame building in regards to trauma and abuse, however, privacy is still an ok thing.

I think this is up to individuals to decide – there is no universal law of the distinction, and for a lot of us it’s a felt sense of which is privacy and which is secrecy (or both). I certainly know plenty of private people who are not trucking in secrets and plenty of private people who say they are private but I would more call them secretive or even hiding something. 

What is the distinction for you? How do you know when you are preserving privacy and when the guise of privacy is making something secretive or shameful for you?

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