Throughout the years I have dealt with secrets in many forms and permutations. The issue must be addressed, of course, of the difference between privacy and secrecy, for everyone deserves their privacy. But secrecy, I have learned well, often involves shame and deception. And, safe as we might try to keep secrets, their existence seems to always be in peril, and, more often than not, others’ discovery of the secret, if the secret-keeper doesn’t tell, is devastating to all the parties involved.
The story of the Bergners* is a good place to start, for it leaves no ambiguity about the difference between something private—and a secret that had to be told. One case became a model for me of the layers of secret-keeping, and the damage secrets can do, to those who keep the secret–and to those who live life surrounded by another’s secret. Enter Ludwig, now 20.
Ludwig always thought of his childhood as, well, happy enough, although his mother seemed sad in certain ways, and his father was remote. Manfred was always gentle He just wasn’t like his friends’ fathers, particularly—not the type who coached soccer, ran with the local running club, or drove way over the speed limit and wove in and out of lanes to show off. He was generous, and took an interest in Ludwig’s academic performance and his friendships.
Ludwig suspected that his parents might not have the happiest marriage, and when they, from time-to-time, went off to what they called ‘couple meetings,’ he had a feeling those ‘meetings’ had to do with what other, more modern families, called ‘therapy.’ The years passed with Uta and Manfred spending less time together. Dad went out most evenings.
By adolescence Ludwig had developed some acting out behaviors—really not all that egregious on the scale of relativity, but clearly on the verge of–if not having crossed it. A few drinking episodes, an unfortunate time when he tried pot and the principal of the high school—well, it doesn’t require dwelling upon. But the family dealt with it in its own way—which was not dwell too much upon it, act as if it wasn’t happening. Talking about problems was not the Bergner way.
Until a family friend arrived from out of town. It took only 3 days for her to insist: “this family needs a family meeting—and fast.” Soon had Uta and Manfred suddenly rushed themselves to find the most convenient date, Ludwig sensed all was not well in the Bergner home.
“Is it about me? Swear to me again it’s not about me,” Ludwig begged the friend. “Are my parents getting a divorce? Is my father having a child by another woman?” “For Christ’s sake, just tell me. it’s not as if my father has AIDS or something.”
And thus we come—not to the end of the Bergner story—but to the end of Manfred’s secret—and to the beginning of the tale of the damage it had done.
**As with all characters in my blog posts, there is no real Bergner family, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy. They are teaching characters, composed of bits and pieces from real life humans plus details from my imagination which make the story more interesting and, hopefully, instructive.