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I Can Keep a Secret, Can You?

09/13/2014 10:41 EDT | Updated 11/13/2014 05:59 EST
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I want to tell you a secret. But you need to promise not to tell. Look me in the eyes and swear on your grandmother's grave.

There's something deliciously titillating about a secret.

The great Gabriel García Márquez once quipped that "People have their public lives, their private lives and their secret lives."

My secret life is different than your secret life; although I guess I'll never know for sure. I carry a legacy of untold stories (I am sure you do too), a treasure trove that I began compiling as a child, as early as I could understand the notion of boundaries, privacy and what it meant to confide.

As a girl, a wise woman told me my eyes would elicit people's secrets throughout my life. I took her words to heart. From that day forward, I resolved to be a gatekeeper not a gossiper, and in some mystical way, like a magnetic field, her prophecy came true.

I wear my ability to bear secrets like a badge of honour; not because I am proud, but because I feel like we live in a time when secrets have lost their sanctity; a time when our "tell all" society has made the notion of boundaries irrelevant, erasing the threshold between private and public.

We live in an era when I can turn on the Internet and "know" more about "Kim and Kanye" and "Beyonce and Jay Z" than my dearest friends; a time when the masses can relish in the acerbic perfume the Germans called schadenfreude, knowing that Mrs. X is leaving her husband for Mr. Y; that Ms. S. was sacked from her job; and that Mr. F is being charged with fraud. And did you not hear about the brute who had the chutzpah to reveal the Bachelorette's "shocking sexual secret" on national TV?! No shame, right?

And so the story goes: the public becomes outraged when, ironically, people who are making a mockery of privacy push the boundaries too far. And in the confines of our cozy living rooms, we are lapping it up like emaciated hounds, crying foul as we eat bonbons. No shame, right?

A few years ago, a dear friend named Shana bought me a gift I could not put down. I read it voraciously from cover to cover. It was called PostSecret. It started as a mail art project where people wrote down their darkest secrets, and anonymously sent them to a P.O. Box where a man named Frank Warren collected and published them.

PostSecret has since exploded in popularity, becoming the mother load of untold confessions; giving the Vatican a run for its money. PostSecret empowers you to enter the private, subversive world of strangers, all of whom are sharing secrets they have never uttered before.

Voyeuristic? Clearly. But stand back cynics: Frank Warren claims the postcards are inspirational to those who read them, have healing powers for those who write them, give hope to people who identify with them, and create an anonymous community of acceptance. I can't find fault with this.

And I must admit, I devoured Warren's books (all five volumes), touched as much by the poignancy, pain and humour of the secrets as the splendour of the handmade postcards themselves, little works of genius created by adults at their most childlike. I would be deceiving you if I said there was no element of voyeurism in reading PostSecret, but my reaction, nine times out of 10, was empathy, not judgement.

What lies behind our magnetic attraction to secrets?

We live in a society where so many people lay it on the line everyday: where people tweet to breakup and makeup, where social media has become a technological confessional. Where voyeurism has been elevated to a form of mass entertainment through the ravenous tentacles of cyberspace. I call it Voyeurism 2.0.

But the truth is that a lot of the "reality" we consume online and in print is, quite frankly, not real; it's part art, mostly artifice. It's deceptive. Make believe. Fiction in the guise of fact. In a word, it's entertainment. And well, the reality is that people hunger for content that is authentic. They want the real goods. This is PostSecret's value proposition: the secrets are true.

My skeptical side tells the uglier side of the story: we love secrets because, well, schadenfreude is deliciously comforting to some. Who likes the high and mighty? The secret cannot coexist with the high horse. Just ask Pygmalion and Eliza Dolittle.

But here's the thing: Secrets aren't always destructive -- sometimes they have the power to heal, unite and save, as Frank Warren rightly points out.

I remember the day vividly: I was 10, playing dodgeball in the gym at Westpark School in Montreal. My classmate, a girl with whom I had barely ever exchanged a word, whispered in my ear after the teacher called a time out: Can I tell you a secret? I nodded. She confessed her uncle was sexually molesting her since the age of five. She had never told a soul.

The weight of what she told me still bears down on me today, over 20 years later. I am not sure my heart has every buoyed back to its elevation of innocence. Picturing the white linoleum halls, I see us walking hand in hand for help. It was the day I realized that secrets can make you vulnerable to the point of ruining your life. "Andrea has a secret she needs to tell you," I said, squeezing her hand for support, as we walked into the principal's office.

Sometimes, secrets are too destructive to keep. As children, we often know instinctively when the secret must be set free. But for some reason we often lose sight of which secrets we should guard as we grow up. As adults, we share secrets for the right reasons -- they will hurt people if they go unspoken; and sometimes we share them for the wrong reasons -- out of spite, jealousy, fear, anger, malice, shame or for sheer entertainment.

I have been thinking about secrets a lot lately. Mine and others. Why I hold them, with whom I share them, how they keep me vulnerable and how, simultaneously, they make me strong.

As I contemplate the place of secrets, I won't turn to philosophy, theology or psychology for answers. I will turn in deference to my ten year old self, knowing she would like that I'm going to take a page from her playbook. The point, my friends, is that it's all rather simple; nothing complicated, ontological or overly philosophical.

And here it is: let's uphold the sanctity of secrets that are meant for our ears only with a ferocious integrity, and let us cultivate the boldfaced courage to speak up when we hold a secret that may injure the bearer or someone else -- a loved one, an enemy or a stranger.

Cross your heart and hope to die.