This was about protecting the new self growing its delicate way within me.
Telling my darkest secret felt like throwing up: the tension just before, the desperation to hold it in, the mess, the shame, the sense of release. One time, after I told it to my fourth therapist, I climbed into my car and turned on heavy metal and cranked the volume up full, acting out the release part. But I’m not going to tell you that secret. You don’t need the burden of knowing, and I don’t need to share. I’ll tell you other secrets in other ways.
really very carefully
Do it again and I won’t see you anymore.
Most of these secrets came from my mother. My father wouldn’t tell me, because he never told me anything, or said anything. Between the two of them there were some things I didn’t hear, like our family medical history, the one secret I could have used.
The not-hearing part went both ways: My parents rarely heard my secrets, and even if they had, they wouldn’t have said much. I know this because of the time they found my weed. I was sixteen and standing in the living room when my father lumbered in, pulled himself up to his full five-foot-eight, and thrust out an open film canister.
“What’s this?” he rumbled.
No point in evading the question. “Pot,” I said, averting my gaze.
My mother said things too, but she talked so much that it’s hard to remember her individual words in response. I do remember there was no shouting, no fists, not even punishment.
My mother wandered the house for an hour, muttering to herself, “My son the pot smoker.” My father gestured to me to sit down and watch the Yankees with him on TV.
They never uttered another word about it. I sat down and stared at the ballgame and nursed an uneasy silence: Relieved I’d escaped consequences, restless with everything left unsaid. Maybe this is why we had so many secrets and whispers. They were the only way anything came out.
Three people know my darkest secret, and I think that’s enough. The second time I told it successfully—after the vomit and heavy metal—there was no retching but no release either. Further confessions would feel like self-flagellation, and nobody needs that.
Most of the time my darkest secret stays invisible, even to me. I can forget about it for weeks on end and just write, do my job, mow the lawn, hug my wife, pet the cat. As if I were a form of myself who didn’t harbor the secret.
Most of the time.
My girl’s name is Janelle.
Our minister had the same name as my parents’ favorite singer, so that probably helped. So did the aura of gentleness and quiet that went with him. Maybe that accounts for the miracle.
I mentioned my father’s chronic silence. In a way, absence is a better word, but not like an absentee dad: The square body was there, the whiskers like needles, the mousy hair, the metal dust ground into his hands. Just no words. I never had a serious conversation with him, and I doubt my sisters did either.
The way the story goes, John Mathis (the reverend, not the singer) dropped in on my family as part of the normal visits ministers paid back then. My father was stationed as always in his colonial rocker. Rev. John sat down to talk with him, and that’s when the miracle happened: My father talked back. Complete sentences. Paragraphs. Emotions, fears, memories, terrors. Secrets my mother and sisters never knew.
They heard all those secrets because they were in the next room, behind the door, hanging on every word. Yes, they were snooping, but it’s hard to blame them. This was their one big chance to get acquainted with the silent man in their house.
They heard all those secrets because they were in the next room, behind the door, hanging on every word.
I wonder if Dad felt like he was throwing up. Probably not. Some secrets are like nausea, but others are like the contents of a balloon: under extreme pressure, just waiting for a pinprick to come rushing out.
If I designed a catharsis I’d make it complete, done, like a balloon with a pinprick, but that’s not what happened with my darkest secret. So occasionally, without warning, it sends a jolt through my body, like the carpal tunnel syndrome in my right arm. The pain takes shape as shame, as fear of exposure, as wondering if we ever get past the secrets we carry, hidden or revealed.
Janelle is different from my darkest secret. That’s what makes her so important: the reminder that not all deep secrets are dark, and that they come out or don’t come out in their own ways.
I wonder how you felt hearing Janelle for the first time. I wonder if you received it the way I meant it—the way, come to think of it, the name was handed to me: as a gift. The gift just appeared in my heart and then in my journal. Janelle. I am Janelle. A different kind of release followed: not vomiting, but levitation, an ecstasy that threatened to carry me away.
Later, Janellebecame a secret until she was ready to come out. For two years, I shielded her, the way you do an ember when you want it to ignite, warming myself by her glow. If I could share only one secret with you, one secret from all the secrets, it would be this kind, because in the sharing we do what humans yearn to do: Keep each other warm.
A spiritual director, nonbinary person, and quasi-hermit, John Backman (she/her/hers) writes about ancient spirituality and the unexpected ways it collides with postmodern life. This includes a book (Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart) and personal essays in Tiferet Journal, Amethyst Review, Evolve, Sufi Journal, The Sunlight Press, and Belmont Story Review, among other places.