Keeping Secrets


I am delighted to welcome, as my guest today,  Debra Engle and her musing on the barriers that secrets impose on connecting with those who matter in our life.  She has graciously offered to give a copy of her new book “The Only Little Prayer You Need” to one of the people (drawn at random) who leave a comment on this blog. 



Keeping SecretsIn my imagination, I have appeared on Oprah dozens of times. I am always scintillating, well-groomed, and wearing three-inch heels that would immediately topple me in real life.

During one of these imaginary appearances, Oprah asked me about the subject of lying.

“I used to lie all the time,” I said. “I lied when I was nine years old and told my mom I was wearing a slip when I wasn’t. I lied about wanting to marry my ex-husband.

“I lied to protect people. I kept secrets to protect myself. I didn’t even think it was wrong, because I always had what I thought were good intentions.

“Besides,” I said, “when it came to being honest with myself, I didn’t know what that meant.”

In my imagination, Oprah gave me one of her big girlfriend smiles, leaned forward, and asked, “So what did you learn?”

I thought for a minute, then answered. “I look back sometimes,” I said, “and think how much faster I could have moved through my life. Being dishonest with myself has been like constantly keeping my foot on the brake.”

This subject of honesty—of lying and keeping secrets—has been on my mind lately, both in real life and in my imagination. I’m at the fish-or-cut-bait stage of life, when I’m finally willing to disappoint other people rather than sacrifice myself.

Now when I write and speak and mentor, my question is not, “What do others want to hear?” It’s “What am I uniquely called to say?” That question comes with an initial dose of fear-based thinking, knowing I’m risking disapproval and criticism. What if someone challenges my beliefs? What if people leave the room shaking their head in disagreement? What if…gasp! … someone doesn’t LIKE me?

It took me a lifetime to be willing to take that risk, reminding me of a news magazine program I watched years ago. The program featured a World War II veteran who had kept a secret ever since his years in the service. Throughout the hour-long interview, the veteran talked with sadness about how much his hidden story had haunted him and shaped his life. Clearly ashamed of what he had done, this fine, caring man had been constantly companioned by his secret.

It built a wall between him and his family, convinced him that he was a disappointment and a coward, and sapped every bit of joy out of his life.

Finally, at the end of the program, the veteran agreed to tell his secret. With great effort and enormous shame, he revealed the story he had kept to himself for at least 50 years:

During a major battle, he had hidden beneath a fellow soldier’s body to keep himself from being killed.

That was it. He’d practiced the same act of self-defense that any of us would have in the same situation. But he’d condemned himself for it for half a century.

My heart hurt for this man, who clearly had lost his life not to bullets during the war, but to his own fear that he had committed the ultimate act of cowardice. The secret didn’t take his life, but the self-judgment behind the secret did.

That’s the secret about secrets. When they’re finally brought to light, we can see them as the imposters they are—illusions that we imbue with powers they don’t deserve. They slow us down, hold us ransom with fear and, like the veteran who couldn’t forgive himself, keep us from being the magnificent mortals everyone knows we are anyway.

So, this is my new story on another self-imagined Oprah: No more secrets. I’m off to write, to think, to dream. And to chuck the imaginary three-inch heels so I can put my foot squarely on the accelerator of life.


Deb Engle secrets 1Debra Landwehr Engle is the author of The Only Little Prayer You Need: The Shortest Route to a Life of Joy, Abundance and Peace of Mind, a brand new release from Hampton Roads that features a foreword by the Dalai Lama.

She is the co-founder and facilitator of Tending Your Inner Garden®, a program of creativity and personal growth for women. In addition, Deb teaches classes in A Course in Miracles and offers mentoring in writing, publishing and life skills. You can learn more at

Secrets Unravelled

My blog this week offers a very different perspective on secrets. My guest, Philipa Rees, offers the view that some secrets are well-kept and may be a source of strength.

Marna 001Phillipa’s Story

Secrets are of many kinds, some buried beneath a significant event, some like fungi that spore underground and mushroom when the light is right to poison the unwary. On the surface my family seemed to have no secrets. That was the doing of ‘Marna’, my galleon grandmother, whose high disdain and certainty of her natural superiority sailed the high seas of our misfortunes, trimming her sails to every wind, and charting our independent course of proud poverty.

It was only after her death that I learned her secret, which explained everything. Triumphing over the secret was, I now see, her raison d’être.  It’s why independence of mind and courage was all she fostered and cared about, why we were all shaped by that ancestral thorn.

Thinking about this guest blog, it occurred to me that secrets are usually thought to be destructive. In her case, by contrast, I see the transformative potential of a closely guarded secret. I suspect without her secret to stiffen her spine, my grandmother, an educated woman with little to do but to direct African maids and entertain tedious Colonial grandees, would have sagged under the weight of boredom.

The secret? Her mother was murdered, stabbed to death as she slept, though she must have struggled before the gruesome end. That explosion of violence was witnessed by a small boy of three, my grandmother’s son, in the corner of a dark room, clinging to the bars of his cot. As the two Zulus who committed the act turned to leave, they caught sight of him, wide-eyed with terror. One said, ‘Now we must kill him too.’

‘I can never kill a child’ said the other. Putting down a bloody knife, he placed the small boy on his back, covering him with a blanket. ‘Sleep gently little master’ he said.

I can already hear you saying ‘Now we are into fiction, how could she know that?’ I know because that child was my uncle and it was his testimony that hanged the two murderers.  He was the youngest witness ever to send men to the gallows. Zulu was his first language, but after the trial he never spoke of it again, and nor did my grandmother.

I learned the facts, twenty years after my grandmother’s death, from a stranger passing through a Wiltshire village pub. An extraordinary synchrony, it seemed we were plucked like migrating birds, perched momentarily together to complete each other’s memories. He was a rural post boy, detained at every doorway to hear the details of torture. Not just the murder, but the torture of my grandmother, beaten as a toddler on the soles of her feet with thorn branches, or tied to a chair with cotton thread for hours.  Both the murder and my unlikely hearing of it convinced me that everything has its deep thread of purpose.

So, it turned out that this murder liberated my grandmother from a deeply sadistic mother. For her, God had intervened. The murderers, farm workers who came to kill their torturer, had come for nothing but a sacrificial service. To save the other farm workers cowed by the mistress of their lives, they had drawn the short straws round a kraal fire, saviours for the rest.

That harrowing liberation had certainly traumatised her small son and bonded a relationship no one else could share. Marna’s first husband, more interested in flying than farming, flew away (literally, in a canvas biplane sewn on her Singer), leaving her free to marry Heli, my grandfather. Heli was an educational missionary who escaped the social prison of Northern working-class Britain. From a dutiful Methodism and a clerical desk, he set sail for Natal, to ride through hills of grass, master Zulu, and take upon himself the untapped field of African education.

Oh, brave new world.

My grandmother was at home in the world he sought to make his own, with nothing but a joyful and supportive liberty to invest. Her small son took Heli’s name; the births of my mother and my aunt soon followed. Photographs reveal that the sails of my grandmother filled, and floated above everything thereafter. She had a unique perspective on both life and death; nothing small ever mattered, not money, not clothes, and least of all the opinions of others. Conformity had no place in anything she did: on a beach, this grand Victorian stripped to a petticoat; at pompous gatherings she dissolved with laughter.

As an only child with a bereft and hard working mother, I saw Marna as the early centre of my existence. I adored her constant irreverence. There was nothing she feared, except that her children would settle for less than confident liberty. Something deep and constant lay at the root of what she gave to us—the permission to be exactly what we were, without apology. I am sure that was her dark secret translated into strength and celebration.

From her I learned almost everything I still value. Her maverick genius for finding the unique and amusing has sharpened all the characters I like to spend time with as a writer. My characters are all solitaries; even when, historically, they were famous and important. I have chosen to seat them with the monosyllabic labourer, just as she would have done.


_Phillipa ReesPhilippa’s early life was spent in remote parts of Southern Africa, often on safari. At University, she studied science, theology and literature and graduated in Psychology and Zoology under the seminal palaeontologist Raymond Dart and the father of Embryology B.I Balinsky.

She has recently published the ‘book that wrote the life’. Involution-An Odyssey (Reconciling Science to God) retakes the  journey of Western thought to discover an alternative to Darwin’s evolution. Her other published work is a poetic evocation of the sixties ‘A Shadow in Yucatan’

 Writing apart, she has lectured to University students, built a music centre, and raised four daughters. She lives in barns she converted in Somerset, England.

 Her blog can be found at

She would welcome contact at or through Twitter @PhilippaRees1



If you are interested in participating in this discussion about themes in my novel, A Fitting Place, please check out the guest blog guidelines here.

Dad’s Dilemmas


In the ongoing discussion of themes from A Fitting Place, another perspective on keeping secrets comes from Paige Adams Strickland, an author and teacher, who writes about a father and daughter, each struggling to come to terms with a secret.

Paige’s story:

Sisyphean toilWhile I was growing up, my father was loving but always conflicted about everything.  

His work life was love-hate.  He enjoyed sales and marveled in new technologies that would change the world, but was annoyed by the stodgy, old cronies who made the rules and the young university grads who, having dodged Vietnam, still landed executive positions right out of college. 

At home, he hated religious dogma and hypocrisy but worried what would the neighbors think. He conformed to the norms, but grumbled at the phoniness. He enjoyed the arts, and swore that all sports were rigged. He had little faith in doctors and the clergy, but was intrigued by aliens, horoscopes and other unexplained phenomena. 

At first, we thought Dad was just quirky and unpredictable. And then we learned that he had two unresolved “secret” issues. One he gradually accepted and embraced.  The other embraced him. 

When he was 60, Dad finally came out as gay. He lived in an era when it was forbidden in his corporate lifestyle. Once he retired and moved to Florida, 1,000 miles away from most of the rules that had governed his reputation, he slowly stepped away from his closet of conflict and shame. 

He hid it from his family for a while longer in fear that we’d not only lack understanding but also completely reject him. It took years to convince him that the only reason we kids were upset was because he did the one thing he insisted we never do: lie. 

Dad was very much a fan of “be yourself,” but he struggled to follow his own advice.  

That hypocrisy drove me crazy. During this time, I was also “coming out” as a once ashamed adoptee and decided to search for the truth about my birth family and circumstances surrounding my adoption. I could not lie about who I was to my friends or myself any longer, and it was a huge relief when my dad began to open up about his need to follow his instinct and pursue a lifestyle in which he could find peace and pleasure. When he stopped lying and pretending, we found common ground where we could share jokes and more meaningful discussions without barriers and secrets.

His second issue was alcohol. It’s hard to know if it was a result of his angst as a gay man in conservative, upper-middle class society or if the alcoholism would have been present regardless. He’d built his professional success over martini lunches with bigwig clients and company vice-presidents. He was reared in a culture where drinking made him more of a man and enhanced his competitiveness. Alcohol allowed him to win deals and land contracts. 

He didn’t drink for pleasure and fun. He did it to earn a better living, impress people and divert their attention away from his “gay” mannerisms and preferences. Sadly, coming to terms with his new identity and finding a partner who brought him happiness and acceptance did not stop the excessive consumption of hard liquor.

He was still my dad:  The guy who loved making chocolate fudge on autumn Saturday afternoons and riding big roller coasters in June, who took us swimming and shell-hunting at the beach, cussed a blue streak if we made a mess in his car, grilled the world’s best hot dogs on Labor Day and cheered the loudest at band concerts and plays. 

He loved music and art, cried at movies and when the first Space Shuttle launched. He provided well for his family, in a Walter Mitty kind of way because he feared he had a better chance if he could hide his reality behind liquor and the illusion that his lifestyle was straight.

Dad’s been gone since 1996, but it still feels like yesterday. I wish he could have met all his grandkids and been able to ride a few coasters, swim a few swims and grill a few ‘dogs for them. He’d give standing ovations for all of their plays and recitals and dance like a fool at their weddings. 

My dad was a smart man of mixed messages but forward thinking in a time when people weren’t ready.

Conflicts and all though, I wish he were here. 


Paige StricklandPaige Adams Strickland lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is married with two daughters. Her first book, Akin to the Truth: A Memoir of Adoption and Identity, is about growing up adopted in the 1960s-80s (Baby-Scoop Era) and searching for her first identity. It is also the story of her adoptive family and in particular her father’s struggles to figure out his place in the world while Paige strives to find hers as a young adult. After hours she enjoys spending time with her family and friends, her pets, reading, writing, teaching Zumba ™ Fitness, gardening and baseball games.

Links for Paige:






If you’d like to join the discussion about themes from A Fitting Place, please contact me here.


Old Bones: The Cost of Keeping Secrets


The cost of keeping secrets is the focus of my blog this week. This discussion has been contributed by historian and writer Frances Susanne Brown, who explores the impact of secrets for those who do not know quite what the secret is.


Skeletons in the Closet

SecretsThe phrase came into use in 19th Century England and originally referred to hereditary or contagious disease. Folks whose families suffered or even died from an illness preferred to keep the information private, lest they be shunned or judged in social circles.

From this, the idea of a hidden body found its way into Gothic fiction, such as in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Black Cat. Author William Makepeace Thackeray used the exact phrase “skeletons in closets” in his novel, The Newcomes: Memoirs of a most respectable family (1855). Occasionally, the skeletons of unwanted infants are still found hidden behind the walls of old houses.

Notice here the emphasis on the social repercussions associated with keeping secrets. The basis for keeping certain information out of the public eye seems directly linked to the notion that it will preserve a family’s reputation, or their status in society.  

But keeping secrets has a cost. Like rotting corpses, these secrets fester, lingering as never-healing wounds. And secrets, we all know, seldom stay confined to one person. If they are shared with other family members, particularly children, the repercussions multiply exponentially.

In January of 2013, Psychology Today published an article entitled “Keeping Secrets” by Frederic Neuman, M.D., Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center in White Plains, N.Y.  He found that phobias in adults are commonly traced to a secret their parents told them to keep. These range from the trivial – we have wine in the house – to the more profound – don’t tell anyone Daddy has been treated for alcoholism. Dr. Neuman claims that by telling our children to keep secrets, we teach them shame, inferiority, vulnerability, and fear.

Other research reveals that a secret represents an actual, physical load we bear. In May 2012, Tufts University psychology researcher Michael Slepian concluded, “The more psychologically burdened the participants were, the more physical burden they experienced.” This study was based on cognition, the theory that the body and mind work together to process information. Slepian asked participants to recall a secret – either big or small – and then presented them with a picture of a hill. Those with big secrets perceived the hill as much steeper than those whose secrets were, in their own opinion, of minor importance.

Don’t Tell Anyone 

These three little words can actually affect our health, and make our everyday physical tasks more difficult. They can shape—or warp—a personality, cause phobias, and, ironically, impose as much damage on family members as the original public judgment or scorn they were trying to avoid. A particularly frightening realization is that a family “skeleton” can be passed down, like a genetic defect, even if the actual secret is never disclosed. 

How do I know this? I have lived it.

I grew up with a crippling lack of self-confidence and a poor body image, perpetually plagued by a fear of failure. It was as though a huge chunk of me was missing or inferior. Although I had no physical deformity, I felt emotionally disabled. It was not until I was in my fifties, had raised a family and buried both parents that I discovered the cause. My mother’s birth certificate, which I had never seen, allowed me to embark on an ancestry search. 

The secret I uncovered has explained me to me. My mother’s “skeleton” wasn’t even her own – it was my Grandma who said don’t tell anyone. I believe her family secret made my mother timid, self-conscious, and afraid to assert her independence. She never shared the secret with me, and tried all through her life to protect me from knowledge that she felt would be harmful.  Evens so, its effects, like the miasma of a rotting corpse, clung to her. Unintentionally, she passed those damaging effects on to me.

Every family tree is partially constructed of skeletons. We teach our children to treat others with honesty, respect, and acceptance, but how can they go out into the world and embody these concepts if we have also taught them secrecy? How can we hope for them to enjoy full, happy, loving lives if they secretly harbor shame, guilt, and fear?

The cost of keeping secrets can be profound, and can affect future generations, even if we believe the skeleton is safely, and permanently, hidden in the closet.


Frances.S.BrownFrances Susanne Brown grew up in New York State, earned her MFA from Lesley University, and presently resides in Massachusetts. Her historical articles have appeared in Herb Quarterly, the Family Chronicle, and Renaissance Magazine. 

 Her memoir, Maternal Threads, is due out in 2014 from High Hill Press. You can find her on Twitter @francessbrown, on Facebook, at and

 Herewith, we resume the series of blog discussion on key themes from my upcoming novel, A Fitting Place. If you’d like to join the discussion, please contact me here.