This morning while rinsing out my hair color, the 1957 commercial for Clairol home hair dye sang into my imagination’s ear: “Does She or Doesn’t She? Only her hair dresser knows for sure.” The urgency of keeping hair color a secret remained a powerful message during my young years. In 1970 Clairol repeated the same line in an updated commercial, this one showing a more “modern” woman with long, free flowing hair–blond, unlike the tightly coifed model of 1957–who also had to keep her nonblond original color a secret.
There were rules about secrets that baby boomers understood. Don’t discuss money (probably a class message), don’t ask why someone was in the hospital, don’t tell anyone (including the adoptee) if a child was adopted. Don’t ask abut a young woman who “went away” for a few months. When I was old enough to be in on this one, I learned the woman had an “illegitimate” child, which she gave up for adoption before she re-entered the hush world of the post-war middle class.
If you couldn’t reveal your dark or grey hair roots, you certainly didn’t mention seeing a psychotherapist, or having a relative who suicided. A close friend recently told me so was so ashamed that her parents were divorced, that, never mentioning a dad, she let others think he was dead. They knew not to ask, in the same way we all knew. Gay? Lesbian? When parents visited, the partners assumed separate bedrooms, consisted with the “roommate” cover story. Down’s Syndrome child? Rape? Impotency? Schizophrenia? Bankruptcy? Prison? Never for middle class white folks.
The secrets of my family’s life were sickness and death. My maternal grandfather disappeared from our lives in 1955. He was never mentioned, so, of course, we didn’t visit. Nor did we hear of a funeral. The few drips of information I later accumulated indicated he had presenile dementia.
That was merely a warmup for the catastrophic secret: My father’s cancer. At age 36, he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus and stomach.
According to my mother’s story years later, the diagnosis was kept secret from my Dad, leaving Mom–his wife– to decide amongst the 2 treatment “options”:certain death without surgery or a 90% chance of death on the operating table followed by a life expectancy of 3 months if he survived. At no time during the remaining years of life did his doctor openly reveal the diagnosis to the patient. Unable to move due to the painful operation, Dad slyly asked a nurse to pilfer his records from the foot of the bed (interesting place to store secrets!). He knew, and she knew, but they didn’t discuss it with each other–and never with us.
My younger sister–2 years behind but much savier than I)–recently reminded me of the movie we were taken to see at the Science and Industry Museum in Chicago. The “movie” was, like the filmstrips we were exposed to in elementary school, a brief illustrated message: “Fight cancer with a checkup and a check.” I have forgotten all but one of its 7 cancer warning signs: a persistent cough. Although of course we were years too young to be in museum alone, no one sat with us during the 10 or so minutes of this early infomercial.
I didn’t catch the hidden meaning of the movie, so I wasn’t prepared when, 3 long lonely months after his surgery, I got some information: Daddy’s coming home! Of course, I expected him to walk through the door; I was 7 years old. Looking out the window from his bedroom, I saw an ambulance pull up. HIs delivery by stretcher wasn’t really a secret, but it was never mentioned.
My father died in 1957–the year Clairol told us how easy it was to keep a secret. We had to live through 20 more years of hidden misery when shame controlled our lives. And even then, the door opened every so slightly, and only for those who could afford the risk.
How daring was Betty Ford, publicly disclosing her breast cancer in 1974–when no one mentioned either “breast” or “cancer,” even to friends and family. She did a repeat in 1978, sharing her alcoholism with the world. Kudos to her husband, the president, as well. Although Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997, it was 2014–17 years later–when Tim Cook opened his secret, becoming the first openly gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
Living now in a tell-all world, it’s hard to discern the skinny line between secrecy (which is most often repressive and damaging) and privacy (which preserves dignity and honors intimacy). I’ll be following up next week with some thoughts on the distinction.