Secrets & Lies – The Tangled Web of Human Nature


locksMy guest this week, Carol Bodensteiner, offers another thought-provoking perspective on the cost of keeping secrets.


The Lies of a Child  

When I was ten years old, I made a bet with a classmate. The payoff was $1,000,000.  I lost. At ten, I could no more grasp the concept of a million dollars than I could space travel, but I knew two things: 1) I was honor bound by my word to pay the debt, and 2) No one could know I had been so stupid. 

I was about $3.00 into stealing nickels and dimes from my dad’s pants pocket before my horror at being a thief trumped my need to keep my word. It was more than 50 years before I told another living soul about that million-dollar bet.

This was my indoctrination into the dark underworld of secrets. 

Keeping secrets – and telling lies to protect those secrets – is part of human nature. We’ve all felt the thrill of having and keeping a secret. We’ve all seen the devastation that results when a secret is revealed. We may even have felt the pain of having a secret of our own leaked. Secrets make wonderful fodder for novels. 

The Lies of an Adult

As I grew up, so did my secrets. When I learned in the 1970s that my husband was gay, I embarked on a long and elaborate path of keeping that – and my own life – secret. 

The impact of these secrets on me as the secret keeper lingers to this day. 

Initially, I didn’t tell anyone about my gay husband because I feared how others would react, what they would think of me. In the 1970s, it was not unrealistic for my gay husband to fear for his job and possibly his life. It was not unrealistic to believe that people would blame me for his being gay. We had a child. We had jobs. We genuinely loved each other. We agreed not to say anything to anyone. 

Keeping the secret became everything. In the isolation of my own thinking, the secret grew more powerful. My imagination created bigger, more damaging results should anyone find out. Even after my husband and I divorced, I did not tell anyone. After all, it was the past. Why dredge that up again?

What I didn’t realize was that by not saying anything, I was letting the secret define how I thought about myself. No matter the reality, the secret told me I was not a good wife, a good daughter, or a good mother. The conflicts between how I needed to see myself and the other reality of my secret world were huge.

I resolved the conflicts with strict compartmentalization. I was a good wife and mother. I was a good daughter. I was an excellent public relations practitioner (who could be counted on to keep secrets!). I was married to a gay man, but we never talked about that. I coped with my conflicted sense of self as woman and wife in some unhealthy ways, and I most certainly didn’t talk about THAT. As long as I operated within the rules of each compartment, as long as no one ever found out, life was fine.

Keeping secrets requires a tremendous amount of energy. Neuroscientists have found that secrets cause the brain to fight within itself as part of us wants to tell and another part wants to keep it hidden. The result? Huge stress. 

James Pennebraker, a University of Texas psychologist, found that “people hiding traumatic secrets showed more incidents of hypertension, influenza, even cancer.” Pennebraker says, “Keeping a secret often becomes less about protecting people and more about becoming overly preoccupied with the “thing” or maintaining the double, secret life.” 

Hiding my double life was exhausting. But, letting go of the secrets was terrifying. What would everyone really think of me when they knew the truth of who I’d been all those years?

Fifty years after the fact, I wrote about my schoolyard bet in my memoir. I told my mother the story before writing it. She didn’t stop loving me as I’d convinced myself she would. Amazing!

When I finally wrote about the secrets of my first marriage, told trusted friends, and unloaded with a counselor, I received positive, supportive responses. I found others who had experienced some of the same things. I was not rejected. In fact, I found community.

Confession has been good for my soul. Each time I tell the stories, the secrets own a little less of me. Telling makes the events a part of my life, not all of my life. 


BodensteinerC-copy-220x300Carol Bodensteiner is the author of Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl. She finds inspiration in the places, people, culture and history of the Midwest. She blogs about writing, her prairie, gardening, and whatever in life interests her at the moment. 

 Her essays have been published in several anthologies. Her debut novel, historical fiction set during World War I, will be published in 2014.

Carol’s website/blog:

Tweet @CABodensteiner;  LinkedIn 


Quote from James Pennebaker comes from “How can a secret hurt me?” on the website for Discovery Fit & Health

 This blog continues the discussion on themes in my novel.  I welcome comments and guest blogs from my readers based on their own experiences.  Let me know if you’d like to do a guest blog on one or more of the issues relevant to A Fitting Place



  1. What a great idea for blogging, Mary.
    Carol, I continue to admire your writing and your life. What a beautiful post, true to the very bone.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Thanks Shirley … would love to have you join the discussion series one of these days, once you take a breather from the launch of BLUSH!

  2. Thanks for letting me share my secrets and thoughts on secrets here, today, Mary. You’ve been so helpful over the years in my journey to let the secrets go and to accept myself as I am.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Thank you, Carol, for such an honest and penetrating contribution to this series. Our collaborative effort has yielded huge benefits for me as well as for you!

  3. Oh what a great post. Thanks, both of you. Keeping secrets is a killer.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Thanks for dropping in Joan … sounds like you know the challenge of secrets from first hand experience!

  4. Mary: Thank you for this amazing series.
    Carol: Thank you for sharing your story. There but for the grace of a brave boyfriend would have gone I…

    People forget, or don’t realize, that to come out in the 70s virtually always meant being ostracized by friends and family, and a risk to life and limb. At least, it did where I grew up in very rural America, and not enough has changed, there. I might well have ended up marrying my gay boyfriend to keep his secret — a secret he couldn’t trust me or anyone with. In the end, he couldn’t live the lie or bring himself to use me that way, and tried to kill himself. Thankfully, he was found and saved. And he saved me from living that lie, because he truly loved me. I wish you needn’t have lived with the torment of such a secret.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Lindy … sounds you and Carol have shared many of the same difficult and torturous experiences

      I was in New York City in the 1970’s, and for several years shared an apartment with a woman whose male friends were all gay. Gay pride parades in Central Park were just starting. Even so, coming out wasn’t easy even there. I can’t imagine what it was like in rural communities.

  5. Thank you, Shirley. When I started to write about my first marriage, I committed to being honest with every last sordid detail. What a cleansing experience! Which is not to say I’ve stopped feeling guilty or worrying how each new person who learns my secrets will respond. The impact of the secrets on me lives on.

  6. Quite right, Joan. Keep secrets is a killer, figuratively and sometimes literally.

  7. Hi Carol,
    I can really relate to this because I had a gay parent. That plus my adoption…between the 60s-80s…Talk about secrets!

  8. Carol, last summer I became acquainted with a talented local writer and freelance editor and found a small publication on his Amazon page — a published letter to his Christian friends explaining his decision to leave his marriage of 20 years and the church he had pastored to be true to himself — openly gay. The letter focused as much on theology and hypocrisy as personal experience. He does outline the years of prayer, fasting, reprogramming sessions, perhaps even exorcism, none of which worked. Reading between the lines makes it clear that he had a grueling experience. I have to assume, especially in light of their ultra-conservative church affiliation, that his wife shared your experience. For me, your story balances his.

    Hopefully the courage you’ve shown by cracking the egg of that secret will empower others to be open and to think of themselves with more compassion, whether for large secrets or seemingly small ones (the bet) that loom large in memory. Did your mother laugh when you told her about the bet? On the surface it strikes me funny, though I fully appreciate the agony it put you through. I salute your ongoing courage.

  9. Your boyfriend was indeed brave, Lindy. Many gay men – my husband included – really didn’t recognize themselves as gay until they were already married. It was just not an acceptable concept to even consider. We also grew up in rural middle America. Gays were beginning to come out on the coasts but the Midwest was still not open to the idea. I’m am so happy your boyfriend was saved.

  10. Adoption is another area that has historically been wrapped in secrets. Were your parents open with you about your adoption, Paige? There are so many reasons people choose to keep things secret. Yes, there is fear and shame, but there may also be an honest belief they’re doing the right thing for the family/child. Our son became wrapped up in our family secrets and there have been lasting impacts.

  11. Sharon – There have been pastors here in Iowa who have come out as gay even though their church leadership would excommunicate them. To the credit of the congregations, many of the people who know these pastors have continued to support their pastoral positions. Yet even today, some churches maintain they can “pray out the gay.” I am appalled at the damage they do. Up until the early 1970s, the American Psychiatric Assn. classified homosexuality as a mental illness curable by shock treatments. I don’t blame people for keeping their sexuality a secret.

    The memoir I wrote about my first marriage remains on the shelf. Putting it all in writing was the value to me. Talking about it more shares the value with others. My mother’s initial reaction was to be a little stunned. She was religiously straight-laced herself and I think it was a bit of a shock to know that her daughter had been a thief, no matter how briefly. But telling her that story was part of a larger sharing between us that definitely strengthened our relationship. When you can share the little things, you can share the bigger things.

  12. Carol, Even in these more liberal times, it takes guts to expose long-time secrets especially ones you have kept to yourself for decades. I applaud your honesty, and agree on the therapeutic values of opening up about old secrets, which may be easier to do in a memoir. I find it sad that you and many other women married gay men and had to keep their sexual preference a secret. A big load to carry. As for secrets, I learned in AA to share much more than ever before, but there’s one secret that I’ve hugged tightly to myself for half a century, and don’t think I’ll ever open up about it. Thanks for your thoughtful insights on the conflicts and effects of keeping secrets.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Pennie … Thanks for your continuing and thoughtful comments. I’m sorry to hear there is still one secret weighing you down … another memoir or the basis of a novel, perhaps.

  13. Your comment makes me think, Pennie. Does anyone ever share ALL of their secrets? Even though I’ve unburdened myself of the big secrets, I have to admit there are still pieces of of those secrets that I have kept to myself. It’s a continual balancing act – what benefit? what damage? – if we expose the secrets. This discussion has opened up even more nuances to keeping secrets. Thanks for causing me to think about another.

  14. Dear Carol and Mary, I just came across this brave and riveting post about keeping secrets. Thank you for stepping out to share your story, Mary. In doing so, you open up pathways to healing not only for yourself but for others who harbor secrets deep within. I was never very good at keeping secrets and looking back on it, I’m glad I wasn’t. My mom used to tell me, “you have your feelings written all over your face.” As far the secrets of the gay community, I feel relieved that this has changed over the years and people can be more open about who they are. Thanks for a provocative post and discussion.

  15. It is fun/funny to watch little children who just cannot keep a secret. Somehow most of us become acclimated to hiding things, often to our own detriment. It would be an interesting study to learn why some move toward secret lives and some do not.

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