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Privacy, Shame and Secrets: Hidden in Plain Sight

“Brilliant!” Harry whispered. “If everyone knows, no one will suspect it’s a secret!”

No, it isn’t really “the Harry” that we’ve come to know and love via Ms. Rowling. It’s rather from a takeoff of the Potter series, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Less Wrong. [Feel free to see http://m.fanfiction.net/s/5782108/12/ if this idea appeals to you enough to want to read the chapter from which the quote’s taken. I myself am happy with my selection.]

I’d like for a moment to address a peculiar type of secret I’ve come across, and, oddly enough, have found very hard to penetrate. That is the secret, with so many of the components of secrecy–the shame, the silence, the odd alliances–that is actually in plain sight.

The wife, a beautiful and elegantly-dressed woman, had a completely disfigured hand–shriveled, scarred, twisted; it hardly resembled the appendage it was, and was completely useless for any fine motor activities. And never did anyone, whether the woman herself, her husband, or any of the children, ever, of their own volition, mention anything about the mother’s obvious disfigurement.

Then there was Jennifer.* Jennifer had bone cancer, and was sick the entire time I knew her. Although in between bouts of pain, suffering and surgery we accomplished significant work together, over the course of treatment she had many many setbacks, and I utilized biofeedback, visualization, and hypnotherapy to ease the ravages of the illness.  This part of her story is, sadly, not unusual.  It is another part of her history that surprised me.

Rather, Jennifer told me her name was Jennifer Sing. She had four siblings, all younger–and all with the last name Summer. And, as you might figure, her parents were named Summer, too. It was never once mentioned in her house that Jennifer had a different name than any other family member.  There must have been a moment when Jennifer–and sibs, too–must have realized that Sing was not precisely the same name as Summer, even if they both do begin with “S.” But that realization was kept completely quiet, and, although Jennifer has since passed on, and although I can hypothesize any number of reasons for the odd reality of the name incongruity, as far as I know, no one to this day has actually explained why Jennifer was a Sing in a family of Summers.

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Then there was a prominent Chicago couple, on the boards of charities and schools, with five children, active in the community. The grandmother and the  was constantly in and out of the couple’s house, taking great joy in spending time with her daughter, and even more joy, if truth be told, in spending time with the grandchildren. Well-dressed, gregarious, sociable–and with a lot of free time–Molly was known–and liked–by all. The father was never seen.

Max* was a Holocaust survivor. Max dressed like a homeless person–in the same button down shirt with holes in the seams. It was unclear what color the shirt had been, but it was now gray from washing and over-wear. His pants were the same over-washed grey, had holes in each knee that Molly and painstakingly patched, having learned from experience that purchasing a new pair of pants for Max would get her nowhere. He wore a colorful blue belt to hitch them up over the small mound that was his belly, and fastened the belt in that male netherland somewhere between navel and nipple. He carried a bag that had been given away at some supermarket [where he was, of course, at 12:00 AM], encouraging shoppers to reduce, re-use, and recycle. It bore the name “Klein’s” on it, although the stitched-on “L” had dropped off; his wife had patched the seams of the straps repeatedly, having long-since given up the battle to get Max to carry a briefcase, or at least a new bag.

Max and his oddities, or Miriam’s ‘missing dad,’ were the not-so-secret secret. Until the day of Miriam’s son’s bar mitzvah, when Miriam felt there would be less to hide.

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**As with all characters in my blog posts, there is no real Jennifer or Max, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy.  They are teaching characters, composed of bits and pieces from real life humans plus details from my imagination which make the story more interesting and, hopefully, instructive.

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