[Paleopsych] NYT: The Secret Lives of Just About Everybody

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The Secret Lives of Just About Everybody
NYT January 11, 2005

One mislaid credit card bill or a single dangling e-mail
message on the home computer would have ended everything:
the marriage, the big-time career, the reputation for
decency he had built over a lifetime.

So for more than 10 years, he ruthlessly kept his two
identities apart: one lived in a Westchester hamlet and
worked in a New York office, and the other operated mainly
in clubs, airport bars and brothels. One warmly greeted
clients and waved to neighbors, sometimes only hours after
the other had stumbled back from a "work" meeting with
prostitutes or cocaine dealers.

In the end, it was a harmless computer pop-up advertisement
for security software, claiming that his online life was
being "continually monitored," that sent this New York real
estate developer into a panic and to a therapist.

The man's double life is an extreme example of how mental
anguish can cleave an identity into pieces, said his
psychiatrist, Dr. Jay S. Kwawer, director of clinical
education at the William Alanson White Institute in New
York, who discussed the case at a recent conference.

But psychologists say that most normal adults are well
equipped to start a secret life, if not to sustain it. The
ability to hold a secret is fundamental to healthy social
development, they say, and the desire to sample other
identities - to reinvent oneself, to pretend - can last
well into adulthood. And in recent years researchers have
found that some of the same psychological skills that help
many people avoid mental distress can also put them at
heightened risk for prolonging covert activities.

"In a very deep sense, you don't have a self unless you
have a secret, and we all have moments throughout our lives
when we feel we're losing ourselves in our social group, or
work or marriage, and it feels good to grab for a secret,
or some subterfuge, to reassert our identity as somebody
apart," said Dr. Daniel M. Wegner, a professor of
psychology at Harvard. He added, "And we are now learning
that some people are better at doing this than others."

Although the best-known covert lives are the most
spectacular - the architect Louis Kahn had three lives;
Charles Lindbergh reportedly had two - these are
exaggerated examples of a far more common and various
behavior, psychologists say. Some people gamble on the sly,
or sample drugs. Others try music lessons. Still others
join a religious group. They keep mum for different

And there are thousands of people - gay men and women who
stay in heterosexual marriages, for example - whose shame
over or denial of their elemental needs has set them up for
secretive excursions into other worlds. Whether a secret
life is ultimately destructive, experts find, depends both
on the nature of the secret and on the psychological makeup
of the individual.

Psychologists have long considered the ability to keep
secrets as central to healthy development. Children as
young as 6 or 7 learn to stay quiet about their mother's
birthday present. In adolescence and adulthood, a fluency
with small social lies is associated with good mental
health. And researchers have confirmed that secrecy can
enhance attraction, or as Oscar Wilde put it, "The
commonest thing is delightful if only one hides it."

In one study, men and women living in Texas reported that
the past relationships they continued to think about were
most often secret ones. In another, psychologists at
Harvard found that they could increase the attraction
between male and female strangers simply by encouraging
them to play footsie as part of a lab experiment.

The urge to act out an entirely different persona is widely
shared across cultures as well, social scientists say, and
may be motivated by curiosity, mischief or earnest
soul-searching. Certainly, it is a familiar tug in the
breast of almost anyone who has stepped out of his or her
daily life for a time, whether for vacation, for business
or to live in another country.

"It used to be you'd go away for the summer and be someone
else, go away to camp and be someone else, or maybe to
Europe and be someone else" in a spirit of healthy
experimentation, said Dr. Sherry Turkle, a sociologist at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now, she said,
people regularly assume several aliases on the Internet,
without ever leaving their armchair: the clerk next door
might sign on as bill at aol.com but also cruise chat rooms as
Armaniguy, Cool Breeze and Thunderboy.

Most recently, Dr. Turkle has studied the use of online
interactive games like Sims Online, where people set up
families and communities. She has conducted detailed
interviews with some 200 regular or occasional players, and
says many people use the games as a way to set up families
they wish they had, or at least play out alternative
versions of their own lives.

One 16-year-old girl who lives with an abusive father has
simulated her relationship to him in Sims Online by
changing herself, variously, into a 16-year-old boy, a
bigger, stronger girl and a more assertive personality,
among other identities. It was as a more forceful daughter,
Dr. Turkle said, that the girl discovered she could forgive
her father, if not change him.

"I think what people are doing on the Internet now," she
said, "has deep psychological meaning in terms of how
they're using identities to express problems and
potentially solve them in what is a relatively
consequence-free zone."

Yet out in the world, a consequence-rich zone, studies find
that most people find it mentally exhausting to hold onto
inflammatory secrets - much less lives - for long. The very
act of trying to suppress the information creates a kind of
rebound effect, causing thoughts of an affair, late-night
excursions or an undisclosed debt to flood the
consciousness, especially when a person who would be harmed
by disclosure of the secret is nearby. Like a television
set in a crowded bar, the concealed episode seems to play
on in the mind, attracting attention despite conscious
efforts to turn away. The suppressed thoughts even recur in
dreams, according to a study published last summer.

The strength of this effect undoubtedly varies from person
to person, psychiatrists say. In rare cases, when people
are pathologically remorseless, they do not care about or
even perceive the potential impact of a secret on others,
and therefore do not feel the tension of keeping it. And
those who are paid to live secret lives, like intelligence
agents, at least know what they have signed up for and have
clear guidelines to tell them how much they can reveal to

But in a series of experiments over the past decade,
psychologists have identified a larger group they call
repressors, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the
population, who are adept at ignoring or suppressing
information that is embarrassing to them and thus well
equipped to keep secrets, some psychologists say.

Repressors score low on questionnaires that measure anxiety
and defensiveness - reporting, for example, that they are
rarely resentful, worried about money, or troubled by
nightmares and headaches. They think well of themselves and
don't sweat the small stuff.

Although little is known about the mental development of
such people, some psychologists believe they have learned
to block distressing thoughts by distracting themselves
with good memories. Over time - with practice, in effect -
this may become habitual, blunting their access to
potentially humiliating or threatening memories and

"This talent is likely to serve them well in the daily
struggle to avoid unwanted thoughts of all kinds, including
unwanted thoughts that arise from attempts to suppress
secrets in the presence of others," Dr. Wegner, of Harvard,
said in an e-mail message.

The easier it is to silence those thoughts and the longer
the covert activity can go on, the harder it may be to
confess later on.

In some cases, far stronger forces are at work in shaping
secret lives. Many gay men and some lesbians marry
heterosexual partners before working out their sexual
identity, or in defiance of it. The aim is to please
parents, to cover their own shame or to become more
acceptable to themselves and society at large, said Dr.
Richard A. Isay, a psychiatrist at Cornell University who
has provided therapy to many closeted gay men.

Very often, he said, these men struggle not to act on their
desires, and they begin secret lives in desperation. This
eventually forces agonizing decisions about how to live
with, or separate from, families they love.

"I know that I did not pursue the orientation that I have,
and know that I have always been as I am now," one man
wrote in a letter published in Dr. Isay's book "Becoming
Gay." "I know that it becomes more difficult to live in the
lonely shell that I do now, but can see no way out of it."

When exposure of a secret life will destroy or forever
poison the public one, people must either come clean and
choose, or risk mental breakdown, many therapists say.

Dr. Seth M. Aronson, an assistant professor of psychiatry
at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has treated a
pediatrician with a small child and a wife at home who was
sneaking off at night to bars, visiting prostitutes and
even fighting with some of the women's pimps.

At one session, the man was so drunk he passed out; at
another, he brought a prostitute with him. "It was one of
those classic splits, where the wife was perfect and
wonderful but he was demeaning these other women," and the
two lives could not coexist for long, Dr. Aronson said.

In a famous paper on the subject of double lives, published
in 1960, the English analyst Dr. Donald W. Winnicott argued
that a false self emerged in particular households where
children are raised to be so exquisitely tuned to the
expectations of others that they become deaf to their own
longings and needs.

"In effect, they bury a part of themselves alive," said Dr.
Kwawer of the White Institute.

The pediatrician treated by Dr. Aronson, for example, grew
up in a fundamentalist Christian household in which his
mother frequently and disapprovingly compared him to his
uncle, who was a rogue and a drinker. Dr. Kwawer's patient,
the real estate developer, had parents who frowned on
almost any expression of appetite, and imprinted their son
with a strong sense of upholding the family image. He
married young, in part to please his parents.

Both men are still getting psychotherapy but now live one
life apiece, their therapists say. The pediatrician has
curtailed his extracurricular activities, returned home
mentally and confessed some of his troubles to his wife.
The real estate developer has separated from his wife, but
lives close by and helps with the children. The break
caused a period of depression for everyone involved, Dr.
Kwawer said, but the man now has renewed energy at work,
and has reconnected with friends and his children. The
secret trysts have stopped, as has the drug use, and he
feels he has his life back.

"Contrary to what many people assume," Dr. Kwawer said,
"quite often a secret life can bring a more lively, more
intimate, more energized part of themselves out of the


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