Privacy, Secrets and Shame–Part II: Liesel and Family, ct’d–The Secret and the Damage Done

Posted on December 15, 2011 by

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It’s not the place here to go back and examine Manfred’s issues with sexuality, and his self-conviction that if he just tried marriage, all would be well. What does matter, ultimately, is the secret Manfred kept, and how damaging it was to himself and to those he loved–as all too often secrets can be.

The short form of Manfred’s story is that he realized quite soon into the marriage that his longing for men overpowered any love he felt for Uta, and, while claiming to have an interest in movies, he would go out cruising at night, and had been involved in a large number of short-term homosexual affairs.

Assuredly, the secret was eating away at Manfred, and he suffered from his conflicted emotions.  But meanwhile, the secret was wreaking its own havoc on Uta. Women: consider yourself in a situation where your husband, a generally kind man, has withdrawn from you sexually—completely—with no explanation, and withdrawn from you emotionally, as well.

Honestly, what would be your first instinct here? You know it: “It’s my fault he’s not interested.” So, first, Uta felt something was wrong with her. She worked to lose weight, underwent beauty treatments [perhaps the third set of highlighgts would really capture his fancy], and changed her wardrobe repeatedly. In essence, Manfred’s secret unwittingly tore at the very fabric of Uta’s self-esteem, and undercut her own sense of her womanhood.

The next thing Uta tried, not irrationally, was marital therapy.  Manfred had to be pushed and prodded into it, claiming nothing was wrong, and he was notably unforthcoming in sessions. The went through several short bouts therapy as the marriage progressed, until finally, one therapist, getting to the crux of the matter, recommended sexual counseling.

Manfred, not the biggest fan of the idea, for reasons we can well imagine, decided he’d better put forth some better effort on the conjugal front, if just to keep his drama safely playing out. And it’s at this point that the secret Manfred so desperately wanted kept could have actually killed Uta. For by now Manfred had been diagnosed with AIDS, and the couple’s rather fumbling attempts at intercourse might very well have yielded Liesel a second parent with a deathly, sexually-transmitted illness.

The story ends rather abruptly when the couple finally winds up in that clinic for sexual counseling (a victory for Uta, she believes), and Manfred finally, less than a year before his death, can expose his secret, as he does to the counselor he’s assigned to before the couple meets again together. The gig is up, then, and Manfred is forced to tell Uta—who keeps it secret from Liesel for a while longer, until she decides she must tell Gretel, who does a little investigating into the scenario and finds the whole situation little short of a nightmare.

Knowing what you do about Uta, you might have thought that Uta’s shame at her situation would have caused her to perpetuate the secret even further after this point. But Uta had an interesting response to the outing of the secret. Relieved of the idea that she was to blame for a failed marriage, Uta was more than willing to explain her un-part in the fiasco that was their relationship. Even the embarrassing truth was better than living with the pain of the unknown secret.

And let’s think about Manfred himself, and what the secret had cost him, by this point–before it possibly cost him his life.  Why, oh why, didn’t he just come out and leave Uta, so he could live a life where he fit in and felt satisfied? His secret began with shame, and the secret behavior demanded by the secret yielded more shame, until it was a vicious cycle in which Manfred he had been caught, with the secret was devouring him piece by piece in its web.

But to leave it there would be to forget about Liesel. Liesel of course recovered from the ‘shock and awe’ that was her father’s coming out in a rather dramatic way. Or, rather, she recovered on many fronts. But secrets have lives of their own, and can be transmitted throughout generations in a family. Liesel was now no longer living with a man with a secret; she was a young woman living with her own secret, the secret of her father’s homosexuality and death. When I worked with Liesel in her early twenties, she was dating a man she truly felt was right for her. He was compassionate, masculine, didn’t care about her adolescent escapades—and seemed to value Liesel for the person she was. She felt he was the ideal marriage partner. But Liesel was hamstrung—she felt she could never bring herself to tell her boyfriend what had happened with her father. The shame—that power-tool of secrets—was too great—and what if her boyfriend wouldn’t love or accept her after she told him?

And there, with that last question, we have a snapshot of the very reason that so many people—even those who want to share their secrets and stop hiding—keep their corrupted confidences, more afraid of what the secret might do, than of its current corrosive action within.