By Maryann Gray.
I was 13, in 8th grade, and my mother had enrolled me in the John Roberts School of Charm, which was around the corner from the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Every Saturday, I rode the train by myself from Scarsdale to Grand Central Station, took the Madison Avenue bus uptown to 59th street, and devoted the hours of 9:00 a.m. to noon to classes on make-up (called “make-down” in JRP), wardrobe, figure control, and something called “poise and personality.” After, I went to lunch with the girls in my class and then we wandered around the Upper East Side until it was time to go home.
There was something about the ride from Grand Central back to Scarsdale that brought out the melancholy in me. The train started in a long black tunnel, and then emerged into daylight somewhere in Harlem to roll by tenements and housing projects. They were so close to the tracks I could see anemic houseplants reaching for sun on fire escape landings and window curtains fluttering in the breeze. There was something pathetic and brave about these small efforts to prettify urban grit. Gradually the city gave way to the Westchester suburbs, where I could catch glimpses of a stream running alongside the tracks and see the back sides of houses, with their swing sets and cement patios. They were further away from the tracks than the tenements but close enough that train noise had to be a fact of life. I felt sorry for those families – the only houses they could afford were the ones that no one really wanted. The closer we got to Scarsdale, the denser the trees alongside the tracks became.
The train ride home was both comforting and lonely. My day had been devoted to the hope, or maybe fantasy is a better word, that I could be beautiful, self-assured, and popular. Now I was returning to my real life, uncomfortably aware that charm school was not going to fix me. I stared out the window and wrapped myself in depression like a big cozy blanket.
I carried a notebook with me on these days, so I could take notes at JRP. Moisturize before applying foundation, I wrote. Use a sponge. Always stroke upwards. I made shopping lists — eyelash curler, lip liner, good tweezers, natural bristle brushes, a magnifying mirror. I recorded my homework assignments. Walk with a book on my head for ten minutes every day. Do twenty side bends, twenty toe-touches, and twenty twists every other day. Once a week, apply an egg facial. Let the egg come to room temperature. Separate the white from the yolk. Smear the yolk all over your face, except the eyes and lips. Don’t forget under the chin. When it dries, apply the egg white right over the yolk. When that dries, gently wash your face. Pat dry, never rub.
On one of those rides home, tired and morose, I tore a corner off a page in the notebook, and in neat rounded letters wrote, “Help me please.” I folded the scrap, then folded it again, and slipped it in the thin crack between the window and the metal frame.
Even as I did it, I knew I was being adolescent and overwrought. I hadn’t been kidnapped and held as some maniac’s sex slave. I wasn’t dying a tragic death from a rare and painful disease. I was healthy, loved, and heading home to Scarsdale, where my mother would pick me up at the train station and take me to Lord and Taylor, so we could buy eyeliner and maybe a sweater.
But as soon as I tucked that note into the window frame, I longed for someone to find it. I wanted them to wonder about the girl who left it there (they’d think “girl” because my handwriting was pretty obviously feminine). Maybe it would be the conductor, cleaning up the train at the end of the line, a couple of hours away in Connecticut. Maybe he would read the note and remember the quiet girl in the blue dress, and maybe he would be extra nice to me the next time I rode the train. Or perhaps somebody’s father would read it, a businessman on his way home from work. He would feel badly for the mysterious unhappy girl and wish he could find her and give her a hug. Or maybe another girl about my own age would read it, and she would understand. “Help me, too,” she might write before slipping the note back where she found it. Or maybe some cute boy would find it and feel touched by the note’s raw vulnerability. He might start riding in that carriage every Saturday afternoon, studying the passengers until he noticed me and knew right away that I was the author. Maybe someone, an old lady perhaps, would find the note and call the conductor over. “Do you think we should call the police?” she might ask. “Someone on this train needed help.”
What was most likely, I knew, was that no one read it. It probably got plucked from the window and tossed in the trash, along with gum wrappers, cigarette butts, soda cans, food bags, and other notes from other lonely girls.
But it was at least possible that someone read it, and that was enough. The note became my precious secret. I thought about it all the time – while waiting to be excused from the dinner table at home, struggling with pre-algebra homework, and watching other kids flirt on the playground while I sat on the bleachers and pretended to read.
I thought about leaving a note on the train every week, but that first one said it all. I had written down my prayer, although I didn’t call it that at the time, and sent it into the universe.
A few months after graduating from JRP, I made up a boyfriend. That summer, instead of going back to sleep-away camp in Maine, I signed up for a teen tour and spent six weeks traveling across country with 30 girls and 5 chaperones. We started in Denver, made our way west, drove up the California coast, and then flew to Hawaii. We stayed in luxury hotels and traveled to fancy restaurants in a fleet of limousines. We had to wear dresses, and we weren’t allowed to chew gum or date. Everyone complained about missing McDonalds, but I only pretended to miss it because I’d never been permitted to eat there.
The cliques formed quickly. There were the losers – the girl with the badly repaired harelip, the one who was maybe just a little bit retarded. There were the sophisticates – an impossibly thin girl who hid from the sun because a tan would hinder her modeling career, a girl whose last name placed her in one of the wealthiest families in the world, a girl who was going to boarding school in France after the teen tour. Then there were the girls with attitude. They couldn’t believe they had to wear a pastel dress and spring coat to sit in a box seat at the Hollywood Bowl and listen to stupid classical music while their friends back east were on their way to a rock concert somewhere in upstate New York. They sneaked onto their hotel balconies late at night to smoke joints that they scored from boys on the street. They scowled at the chaperones, broke the rules every chance they got, and were staunchly unimpressed by things like museums or even the marble bathrooms in the I. Magnin department store in Beverly Hills. They preferred to hang out by the pool and flirt with boys.
Iris Bishop was the center of this clique. She had long red hair and big breasts. She was as sultry as a 15-year old can be. Everyone knew that Iris had a boyfriend back home in Philadelphia. He sent letters to each hotel on our itinerary, and she was constantly bumming stamps for letters and postcards back to him.
I wanted to hang out with Iris and her clique. I wanted to be one of them, unafraid of adult condemnation, a little contemptuous, ready for adventure. At first, they wanted nothing to do with me. My clothes were too conservative, my manners too deferential. I was a goody-goody, afraid of breaking the rules. To solve this problem, I invented a boyfriend, telling Iris all about him on one long bus ride from Denver to Aspen. His name was Robbie, he was three years older than me, and I met him through my cousin. We had to sneak around because his parents were poor and mine were rich. We hadn’t gone all the way, but we had made out on the bed with most of our clothes off. I loved him, but had broken it off just before the summer because I was going to college and he wasn’t, so we really had no future together.
Iris became my friend. We spent hours trading stories about our boyfriends, and she picked me to be her roommate at each hotel. Under her tutelage, I learned to ignore instructions from the chaperones and flirt with boys just for the heck of it (because I was still in love with Robbie and not ready for another relationship. In Hawaii, I stole a golf cart one evening and we careened around the resort grounds laughing hysterically until hotel security stopped us and the chaperones threatened to send us home. It was the highlight of the entire trip, much better than the 17-mile Drive or Hearst Castle. On the last night of the trip, Iris and I vowed to stay friends forever. “I used to think you were so straight, but that was before I knew about Robbie,” she said, and we both laughed and laughed.
I never told anyone that I lied to her. It was my secret, private information. I didn’t feel guilty about it; if anything I was proud of the way I’d figured out how to make friends. The girl who was in a passionate but troubled relationship with Robbie felt more like the real me than the girl who took notes on make-up techniques at the John Robert School of Charm, spent her weekend evenings baby-sitting for the neighbors, and had never been kissed. She was the false self, all wrapped in anxiety and ambivalence. The real me was bold and sexy, and she would emerge as soon as I shed the cocoon of family and childhood that still encased me.
I had another secret that summer, too. The secret was that I couldn’t stop thinking about killing myself. I had no intention of actually doing it. When Iris and I paraded to the beach in our bikinis, shared tokes off a joint after escaping the chaperones, or traded stories about our boyfriends, I felt happy. But as soon as I was alone for any period of time, my thoughts turned to death, specifically suicide. Often this occurred on our bus or car rides, when I felt the same sad sense of dislocation that came over me on the train. A few years later, when I read about anomie in sociology class, I had a label for what I felt, a dull depression that put me at a distance from everyone and everything. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to cry as that it seemed like my smile muscles were permanently frozen.
In Los Angeles, I dared myself, knowing I’d never do it, to fling open the door of the limousine carrying us to Universal Studios and jump out onto the freeway. A few days later, as we drove up the Pacific Coast Highway in a chartered bus, I tuned out the chaperone’s lecture on Cannery Row and wondered what it would feel like to run to the edge of a cliff and jump. Would I reach the water, or land on the rocks below? Would I be scared? Would it kill me? During our surfing lesson in Hawaii, I had the strongest urge to just keep paddling out to sea, until I was out of sight of our group and the shoreline receded and all I could see was water.
I had these impulses everywhere we went. But then I’d hear Iris’ throaty laugh, or someone would poke me or ask me a question, or the chaperones would hand out treats, and just like that it was over. I could smile, I could talk, I was a normal girl again.
Months after the teen tour had ended, my sister eavesdropped on a telephone call I had with Iris. “I heard you,” she said as soon as I hung up with phone. “You made up a boyfriend, didn’t you? That’s so pathetic.”
I hated my sister that day, for listening in and discovering my secret and then for exposing me. Most of all, I hated her for confronting me with my lies. I wasn’t the person that Iris thought I was, or the person that I could believe myself to be when I was with her. I was just me, flushed with shame and full of impotent anger.
When I was 22 years old and had largely but not entirely quit making up lies, I accidentally killed an 8-year old boy named Brian who darted in front of my car. News about the accident spread rapidly in the small Ohio college town. The son of one of my professors played on the same little league team with the boy who died; the department secretary belonged to their church. The local newspaper ran a story about the accident including my name and address. For months, I couldn’t not talk about it. The accident totally dominated my attention; it was all I had room for. I told the story over and over again, to friends, to my therapist, to the lawyer, to the insurance agent. It was an edited story, though, a story that left out some details. I didn’t do this as part of some master plan. I simply had no vocabulary for certain aspects of the experience.
I didn’t tell anyone, including my therapist, that I had a short but complete break with reality after I hit the boy. It lasted somewhere between 2 and 10 minutes. I remembered seeing the little boy fly up into the air, but I couldn’t remember pulling over alongside a little side street, shoving my car into “park” and setting the hand brake, jumping out, and running across the main road. I found myself crouched down behind a bush in someone’s front lawn, screaming in short breathy bursts, hoarse and high pitched. “Who is making that horrible noise?” I thought, and then I realized it was me and shut up.
I never told anyone that, when I tried to drive after my car came back from the body shop, I kept thinking I saw people in the road and slammed on my brakes in the middle of traffic. Instead, I just stopped driving. I didn’t tell anyone that I heard a voice announce that my punishment for taking a child from his mother was that I would never have my own children. I didn’t talk about how images of the accident played in a continuous loop in my mind. If the accident occurred today, when it seems like half the population has PTSD for one reason or other, I would be asked about these symptoms and reassured that they are “normal reactions to an abnormal situation.” But back in 1977, they just seemed bizarre and disturbing and ultimately beside the point.
Two years later, when I moved to California to attend graduate school, the accident still dominated my thoughts and memories, but I was done talking about it. No one knew, so what was the point of bringing it up? Let my new friends and professors think of me as the smart girl with a promising future, not the one draped in tragedy. I also felt there was something self-indulgent in talking about the accident, a cry for sympathy and attention, as well as some drama – “look how much I’ve suffered.” Benefiting from the accident in this way was unseemly. It demeaned the whole experience.
But I didn’t realize how toxic this secret would become. For one thing, alone with my thoughts and memories, logic folded beneath the weight of self-condemnation and fear. It would have been so helpful if someone had said, “That idea about how you can’t have kids is crazy – you know that, right?” But no one said that because no one knew, and the idea grew deep roots.
I used the secret as a weapon – one I turned on myself most often, but also turned on others. Because I was keeping such a huge secret, I felt like that no one in California really knew me. Sometimes, this fed the loneliness and anomie that I still carried around, even though adolescence was long over. Often, however, because I was not especially well-liked, this was a comfort. For instance, one of the most popular graduate students was a guy named Greg. He spent his mornings surfing, joked around with professors as if they were peers, and lived with his pretty girlfriend in an old Airstream trailer parked near campus. He was smart and good looking, but mostly he was cool. He ignored me for a few years, but stopped by my office one day to criticize me about some student politics. At my advisor’s recommendation, the faculty had placed me on a committee as a graduate student representative. I appreciated the recognition and was glad to have another line to add to my cv, but Greg thought I should have declined the offer and let the graduate students decide who should represent us. He was right, but I couldn’t imagine backing out. I’d have to tell my advisor that I’d changed my mind and that he had made a mistake in recommending me. Today, it seems like such an easy conversation to have, but at the time it was overwhelming. I told Greg I was staying on the committee, and he walked out of my office in disgust. I was scared he was going to make a big deal about it in our department, but he never bothered. Still, the conversation troubled me for months. Guys like Greg never liked me. His disdain for me hurt, but what he was asking me to do was beyond my ability.
In such moments, my secret became both offense and defense. Greg assumed he knew all about me, I told myself. He looked at me and saw a Jewish American Princess, a spoiled young woman eager for approval, lacking authenticity, overly ambitious. If he only knew the truth – that I was carrying the weight of Real Tragedy around with me – he’d change his mind. He’d feel guilty for judging me, too. I used to think you were so shallow, he’d say to me. I didn’t realize how much you’ve been through.
But my punishment to us both – and you can swell the music here – was that I’d never, ever show him who I really was. Let him spend decades in his misguided state. Let him assume whatever he wanted to assume. He didn’t deserve to know the truth about me. And I didn’t deserve his kindness.
One of the best parts of having secrets is sharing them, but the accident wasn’t a fun secret to confide. The reality never lived up to the fantasy. I longed for someone to love me because I’d had such a terrible experience. I wanted my suffering to be rewarded with love, admiration, and comfort. I imagined a guy holding me as we lay together in the dark, letting me cry or talk. He would assure me that I was not to blame, that I had a beautiful soul, and that he admired my strength. Sharing the secret would bring us closer.
It never worked out that way. I picked crappy times to confess, often right after sex, when all the guy wanted to do was sleep, or maybe on a day when I knew I was irritating him or missed his affection for one reason or another. “There’s something I want to tell you,” I’d start, and I could feel whoever-it-was go on high alert.
The reactions were tepid. “Wow, that really sucks.” Or just, “Wow.” The men I dated didn’t ask questions. They didn’t hold me closer. They changed the subject.
Mostly such disappointments didn’t much matter, since these relationships were not going anywhere anyway. But when I started to date Glen, I knew we had a chance. He wasn’t an unemployed aspiring screenwriter like Nick, recovering from a recent nasty divorce like Bill, a cocaine addict like Peter, or an alcoholic like Tom, Phil, or John. Glen was solid. He smelled delicious, like sun and ginger cookies. I’d nestle close to him in bed just to take deep whiffs of his skin. We were both social scientists, both worked in universities. We liked to do the same things. We didn’t run out of things to talk about. Glen wasn’t exactly a modern, sensitive guy. Although he did make me pancakes on Sunday mornings, he didn’t share his feelings, and when I cried because my father died, he held me stiffly, as if he’d read what to do in a magazine. But he also drove me to the airport, called me every night, and was waiting at the gate for me when I returned.
As the months passed, it became more and more difficult to tell Glen about the accident. Somehow without my noticing, we passed the point where we spent weekend evenings engaged in intense conversation in quiet restaurants; instead, we went to the movies or ordered pizza and watched television at home. It was weird, to be some close to him in some ways but to have this huge secret he knew nothing about. He didn’t know I thought about the accident every day and that I felt guilty for being so happy when Brian, the boy I killed, would never have the chance to fall in love. I actually argued with myself about whether to tell Glen. Why should I burden Glen with my sorrows? But we were good together. I wanted this relationship to deepen and to last.
I could never find the right time to tell Glen. Should I mention it when we passed an accident scene on the freeway? “By the way, speaking of ambulances, did I ever tell you what happened to me?” Should I bring it up when we stopped at a crosswalk? “Did you ever wonder what would happen if you hit a pedestrian? I happen to know something about that.” What about when we were admiring a friend’s infant son? “Gee, I sure hope this kid lives long enough to see adulthood.”
I tried to bring up the subject a few times. “Did you ever have a car accident?” I asked him once. We were stuck in traffic at rush hour and wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while.
“When I first came to California, I bought an orange fiat. A few years later, some guy rear-ended me at a red light. The car was totaled. It just crumpled up like an old tin can. The insurance agent couldn’t believe I walked away without a scratch.”
“What happened after that? Were you scared to drive?”
“I wasn’t about to buy another Fiat, that’s for sure.”
I waited for him to say, “What about you? Did you ever have an accident?” but he didn’t.
During our third year together, I asked Glen to marry me and he accepted. I would have preferred things the other way around, but I’d gotten tired of waiting for him to propose. Neither of us wanted a big party. We made plans for a private wedding in Hawaii in the spring of 1993.
Now I had to tell him. I would not start married life with such a big secret. I finally did it a few weeks before the wedding. We were in bed together, in the interlude between sex and sleep, but I couldn’t relax. While Glen lay on his back, I turned on my side and rested my head on his chest. We couldn’t make eye contact in this position, which made it easier to tell him.
“Are you awake?”
“Sort of.” That was his way of telling me he’d been asleep.
“I have to tell you something.”
“Remember I told you how much I hated living in Ohio?”
“Yes.” He had a way of dragging out the word, turning it into a question, but the kind of question one doesn’t really want the answer to.
I told him what happened and could feel his shoulders tighten. “That’s why I’m a nervous driver,” I said. That’s why I like it better when you drive.
“I like it better when I drive, too.”
“I just thought you should know.” My voice was tight but I refused to cry. Glen hated tears.
“Do you want to ask me anything about it?” I said.
“It’s not necessary,” he said.
Neither of us said anything about our conversation the next morning. I wondered if he even remembered it or if it seemed like a dream to him, but I let it go. The secret was out, and I told myself that I loved Glen a little more for respecting my privacy.
I don’t have many secrets today. Certainly not the accident. I’ve talked about it on NPR, written op-eds, and maintain a website all about it. I do keep secrets from my family, especially my mother, though. I especially don’t want her to know about the weekends and holidays I spend alone. I don’t want to expose myself to her judgment or her pity.
My mother has all kinds of secrets. It doesn’t surprise me that she’s never told anyone outside the immediate family about my car accident. I have rarely seen her as angry as she was on the day she discovered I had confided in my friend Julie, who happened to be the daughter of one of her friends. I had recently moved to California and, although I had resolved to keep the past in the past, I made an exception for Julie when she came to Newport Beach for a conference. Julie was part of the past. She had nothing to do with the fresh start I was trying so hard to sustain. It was a relief to score some sympathy.
“Why on earth did you tell Julie Feldman?” my mother snapped. “What were you thinking?” Over the telephone, I could hear her voice vibrating with rage.
“She’s a friend,” I said. “I wanted her to know.”
“Well, you can tell your friends whatever you want, but I’ll thank you not to tell anyone I know,” my mother said. “I almost died when Rita called me. She just couldn’t wait to tell me how sorry she was. I bet she’s told half of Scarsdale by now.”
“So what?” I felt like saying but I didn’t. I understood that my parents had devoted themselves to making us look like a happy family, and anyone who knew what I did would know we weren’t happy any more. Instead of the lucky family with the successful father, beautiful mother and promising daughters, we’d be the family touched by grief and shame, the family with a fragile daughter who might be screwed up forever by what happened. Much better not to talk about it.
Years later, when I told my mother I’d be reading a short essay I wrote about the accident on the radio, she refused to even listen.
But she’s also never told her friends, even close friends that she speaks to by phone every day, that she once starred in a Broadway play and modeled for Eileen Ford. They don’t know that photographs of her were in Vogue or that the Chicago Tribune fashion section ran a special feature on her. When I ask her why, she says, “Don’t you believe in privacy? It’s none of their business.”
There was a time when sharing secrets brought my mother and me closer. Only we knew about the time we got so lost on the way to Connecticut that we ended up in Pennsylvania. We vowed never to tell another soul about how we switched the belts on two skirts in Macy’s. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m worried about your sister,” my mother would say to me fairly regularly, followed by something like, “She doesn’t seem to have any friends.” Or, “I won’t say a word to anyone other than you, but I’m not so crazy about your cousin’s fiancé.” Or, “I think your father’s depressed. See if you can cheer him up, but don’t let on that you know anything’s wrong.”
Such secrets used to make me feel special. That was before I realized she told secrets about me too. She was probably whispering to my sister, “Don’t tell Maryann, but I’m worried about her weight,” or “I’ll never admit this to another soul, but poor Maryann will never be the kind of student you are.”
Even though she assigns a high value to privacy, even though she’s a woman of many secrets, I know too much about my mother. I wish she never told me that my father fell asleep instead of making love to her on their wedding night. I wish I didn’t know at age 11 that her real love, Robert, died in a hotel fire, and that she married my father on the rebound. I wish she never told me that she went to see the movie Deep Throat with another man, because my father didn’t want to see it. I wish she didn’t show me the copy of Screw magazine that this same man sent her, because, she said, she had expressed interest in learning about pornography.
As a child, I knew her body almost as well as I knew my own, from the way her wrist bones jutted out to the delicate line of her calf, from the strawberry birth mark on her chest to her springy tuft of pubic hair. As often as she’d let me, I’d keep her company while she bathed, sitting on the toilet and watching as she lazily ran the soap under her arms and over her chest, then dipped under the water to rinse. I’d kneel next to the tub and scrub her back with the washcloth, while she leaned forward and sighed in pleasure.
Today, my mother won’t let me see her naked body. “I’m too ugly,” she said a few months ago, when I was visiting and offered to help her bathe. Five minutes later, she told me in detail about how a few nights earlier she couldn’t make it to the bathroom and had diarrhea all over her nightgown and sheets. I offered to call the nurse or doctor and discuss her situation. Maybe they could change her medication or at least order a commode we could place by her bed. “No way,” my mother snapped. “That’s strictly private.” The boundaries are unpredictable, inconsistent, and irrational. I don’t know if it’s a sign of age, or if she’s always been that way and it took me 60 years to figure it out.
I harbor small secrets – that a co-worker annoys me by taking forever to get to the point, that I sometimes eat a pint of ice cream or box of licorice for dinner, that I wish I didn’t have to attend my cousin’s wedding, that there are days I close the door to my office and read a novel instead of work.
But if shame is the signpost to secrets, and I believe it is, then my deepest secrets revolve around sex. It’s nothing awful, like being a rape survivor or trading sex for crack. My secret is that, even though I’m 60 years old, with sagging breasts and belly, I still long for a man to find me beautiful and desirable. I still want to be adored.
I caught a glimpse of my hips and thighs in the mirror the other day as I dressed, and for a few seconds I couldn’t believe they were mine. They were the thighs of an old lady — my mother or even my grandmother — wide and loose and kind of wrinkly. How could they belong to me? When did that happen? How could a woman with those thighs lie in bed and fantasize… well, that really is a secret.
Maryann Gray, Ph.D. is a social psychologist currently serving as Assistant Provost at UCLA. Her work has been featured on NPR and has run in the Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, Jewish Journal, and a variety of websites.