We need to tell the truth now, all the time, about everything. Truth-telling, traditionally less cool than its disreputable cousins, lying and secrecy, is finally having its moment. Way back when we didn’t have an internet, I feel like we let someone else take charge of the world because it was just too much damn hard work to do otherwise. When I look around me in 2014 I see people gradually head shaking themselves awake from their hypnotic slumbers and noticing all the crappy things that we sort of knew about and yet we somehow accepted because we thought it had to be that way. Before the internet-fueled flashlight of truth began to shine upon undisturbed corners of the police force, government agencies, big businesses and banks, I think we just left them to get on with things because they probably knew what they were doing. Really? Talk about a rude awakening. So why did we do it? My guess is because it’s easier to let someone else deal with the secrets.
When I was young girl I used to wonder if there was a big secret the grown up world was keeping from us kids. Oh, Santa Claus, I knew about that. But I felt there might be some kind of bigger deal. I asked my mother, who laughed, “There really isn’t” and I felt foolish for asking. I also knew that if there was a big secret, she, being an adult, would be bound by the secret adult code not to tell me.
Some months later I found out that of course there were secrets, secrets that were not to be spoken of, secrets hidden in plain sight and held apart from our mutually agreed view of reality. I was 8 when I discovered that my father smoked.
Dropped off at Brownies on a winter’s evening, I found the session was cancelled and began to walk home. I spotted my father’s car, which had stopped outside the liquor store around the corner (in retrospect the liquor store was also significant). I ran up to the vehicle and peered through the window in the gloom. The unmistakeable white stick of a cigarette was perched, unlit, between my father’s lips. As I gawped he opened the door. “Hi! What happened?” he smiled, leaning over, cigarette mysteriously vanishing with a practiced move. Oh, I thought. We have to pretend I didn’t just see that. “I forgot it was cancelled tonight.” I replied brightly, as I slid into the passenger seat, ears singing numbly with shock.
In some families, father being a secret smoker might not have been such an earth fracturing revelation. In mine, you might as well have told me that the Pope ate babies (that hasn’t happened yet, has it?). And in mine – a family built upon the apparently solid foundations of ‘mutual respect’, ‘reasoned argument’ and ‘politeness’ – there turned out to be a few weaker stones holding up the edifice. The one labelled ‘don’t upset your father’ and another marked ‘don’t ever get too angry’ were particularly wobbly. Disturbing them would lead to some unspeakable horror that would bring the whole thing crashing down around our ears for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate, not even to myself. In any case, Smoking was Wrong, my father was always Reasonable and Right, and therefore my father could not possibly smoke. And yet, he did.
A few weeks later I plucked up the courage to mumble to my mother that I had seen my father smoking. In my imagination – and I had no idea how we would get to this point – I pictured a family scene with us all laughing fondly around the table about my father’s ‘secret habit’ with him bashfully joining in, all tension dissolved. I look back on this as a right impulse. As children our instincts about what should be are seldom wrong. The response from my mother was disappointing. She asked me to please not upset my father by speaking about it. I felt formally invited into the adult castle of secrets and with it, a stone lodged in my belly. My mother did not say what would happen if I did mention it, but it was clearly something catastrophic. Every time I smelt cigarettes on my father’s breath (which was about every day from that point on) the stone flip-flopped in my gut. I hated him for deceiving me. I felt scorn that he thought he could deceive me. I hated myself for never saying anything. And then I swallowed it all down.
I wonder now why we ever choose the decision that feels like a door shutting. If it feels like a door opening, it’s right. Every time. As it was, the door was shut and I was on the inside. Years later when my little sister came running up to me open-mouthed at a campground and breathlessly announced “Dad smokes!” I turned the key in the lock. “Yes I know. And we don’t talk about it.” I told her coolly.
The issue here isn’t smoking and the rights and wrongs thereof, it’s about the wrong-headed instinct to keep secrets and the urge to collude with secrets and the futile attempt to protect ourselves from the unknown. For inevitably, the truth will always out. In the end it transpired that the bigger and more damaging secret in my parents’ marriage – the one that would eventually blow the whole structure apart – was my father’s drinking, which I remained almost willfully blind to for the whole of my childhood and adolescence. I know now that it isn’t normal to keep an empty gin bottle in the pocket of every one of your suit jackets hanging clinking in a row in the closet. I know that my mother’s less than full explanation for this – that my father had an “odd relationship with alcohol” – remained unexamined and unanalyzed in my mind. I had turned over responsibility for the black hole of “not upsetting my father” to my mother at the age of 8 and I wasn’t about to claim it back again, not for a long while.
I wanted my family to stay whole. At some unconscious level I didn’t want to be the one who broke it and let the chaotic truth shine in on us all. Yet at the same time, it is what I longed for. The truth is what all of us long for.
Let us now admit it. We willfully and blindly let the 1% take all the profit. We let the power companies tell us that using up the world’s finite resources were the only ways to survive and we decided to believe them. We let our politicians take us to war and we followed like patriotic sheep. We let the Catholic Church mistreat our vulnerable women and children and we looked away. We still let a handful of historic banking families effectively control our world economy. Now we know better. Let’s keep telling the truth until it spreads around the world like a healthy plague.
It was the wise US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who said “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” He died in 1941. I like to think he would approve of our century’s outbreak of truth.