Friday, September 04, 2015

Under wraps

"Can you keep a secret?" I type the text message, then pause. I've been told that the news is embargoed until Monday, but I'm eager to tell someone. After staring at the words for a few minutes, I decide not to send and the message just sits there as a draft. There have been a few occasions recently when I have hurt others by revealing secrets that, while having an impact on me, are not mine to tell. I've also experienced that sinking feeling when you realise a trusted friend or family member has told one of your secrets to somebody else.

It got me thinking about secrets, though. There are pieces of juicy gossip, skeletons in the family cupboard, confessions we tell a lover, and those shocking revelations that only come to light after a person dies. These days we think of our society as generally being less secretive than it was even half a century ago. Unwed mothers are no longer sent "down south for a while" in a veil of shame, we don't hide our political beliefs as reticently as our parents did, and people don't disown you if you come out as gay. But there are a lot of things we still like to keep hidden.

I have been thinking lately about mandatory reporting, and the times when there are not just emotional but legal implications of keeping and telling secrets. We are seeing the life-destroying impacts of institutional child sexual abuse coming out of the Royal Commission. And, the continuing theme in those historic incidents was the secrecy surrounding it. Children were encouraged to keep the incidents a secret, and mostly they did - for a very long time. Perhaps they kept quiet under threat of violence, perhaps because they didn't feel they would be believed, or perhaps for fear of what would happen to the perpetrator.

I remember reading the memoire of a woman who had been groomed as a child for a sexual relationship with a much older man. He showed her attention and kindness that other adults didn't, and they increasingly found ways to be alone together. She was eight when the first incident happened, eleven when things got more serious, and eighteen when she began to break away. He died when she was in her early twenties. Writing the memoire many years later, she could reflect on why what he did was wrong, how it impacted her, as well as the circumstances of her life that meant she was particularly vulnerable to the abuse. She had kept the relationship a secret throughout their time together.

The Royal Commission reveals, if nothing else, that child sexual abuse is far more prevalent than any of us could have imagined, and its effects are still strongly felt by survivors half a century later. These are secrets that need to come to light in order to give a sense of justice and closure to survivors.  We need to shift the culture in our institutions from one of turning a blind eye to one of open-ness and of acting swiftly and professionally to address issues before they escalate. We need to send a clear message about what sort of behaviour is appropriate and what is not, especially when it comes to children.

So, I think about the secrets in my life. The ones I've told and the ones I've kept hidden for many years. I'd like to get better at knowing when to tell and when to refrain, who to trust and whose trust I need to earn back. Sometimes the unsolicited sharing of a secret can spell the end of a friendship. Other times it's just a blip in the road. And sometimes telling a long-held secret can be a way to find healing and comfort, and bring two people closer together. 

And as for that embargoed piece of news? Well, I'll tell you on Monday.

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