Thursday, July 5, 2012

Oasis Feature: Re-post Self-disclosure and Honesty

How do you react when someone "over" shares?

Though I no longer live in the country, I think this post invites relevant introspection about our sharing boundaries.
Yes, it's true, I have lots of it! least three bags in the bedroom. See, it's been raining on the weekends and I wash all of my dirty clothes outside in the sun. Why? Yes, I have had modern conveniences but whenever they break, I take a break from the 21st century. Washing clothes outside reminds me of women washing by the river; I feel connected to the past and linked to an unbroken chain of peasant womanhood. Of course, women still wash clothes outside by a water source in many countries. (And, yes, it seems to be gender specific.) I look at this washing as my karma yoga, for all of you (sparse!) yogi bloggers out there. I kind of imagine myself out in another country, say India, next to the spiritually renown and polluted Ganges or in Peru, next to the Parana infested mystical water of the Amazon. Or on a Caribbean island, Antigua say, where author Jamaica Kincaid describes her childhood as she was growing up in the 1950's and I see her mother's pile of bleaching stones. I also see myself: There I am washing, and lifting the wet clothes. I swat them at the stones, breaking the clinging mud from its hold on the once lovely soft fabric. Rinse in the cool flowing water. I carefully spread the white clothes on the pile of bleaching rocks and allow the sun to bear down into the fabric until it is white again. If you do feel inspired to wash clothes outside and do your bit to save the planet, you should keep the weather report close at hand! Still, I'm not talking about that kind of dirty laundry.

I'm talking about the kind of secrets that people are not suppose to say unless there is a significant degree of real intimacy in the relationship. I was trying to come up with a list of socially taboo subjects...

  • physical and mental disabilities

  • same-sex gender preferences

  • terminated pregnancies

  • a murder in the family

  • financial problems

  • unmarried parents

  • bodily functions

  • criminal record
I know these are not all of the potentially "forbidden" subjects, but I think the above list is enough. Notice when someone begins to reveal something personal from the above list there can be a kind of moral physical retraction and the accompanying emotional feeling, 'Oh no, over-share! Make-it-stop. We want to know secrets and we don't want to know secrets. Why else would we avidly read about celebrities infidelities, and other domestic and personal indiscretions? Why would office gossip be so popular? Maybe we just don't want direct contact with those who tell their own secrets? What makes something wrong to share? How did we make these rules?


I've been thinking about this disclosure issue because some of you know that my mother was murdered. Whenever, I share this fact, it's a risk. Some people just want to run from this sort of bare fact. I've noticed the same concern addressed in other confessional modes. Consider, the Twelve-step Program which is designed to help people confront the desire to deny and soften the truth by beginning every testimonial with, "Hello, I'm (insert name here) and I'm an (insert condition here)." Why would people judge you when you tell them the biographical detail of your life? I've read many autobiographies and several of the classics which are titled, Confessions. (Rousseau, Leo Tolstoy and St. Augustine.) I've noticed that what was private has changed over time.(The three "Confessions are from the more recent past and go back to the 1600's) Also, I have worked for a number of years in counselor type positions (military, prison, and college). From these various experiences, I can assure you of what you must already know, people are not really so different. Everyone has secrets. My own dear grandmother would not talk about her missing father. I don't know if he was really 'killed in the war.' Were her parents really married? Did she feel shame? I would like to know. I'm sure you also have some family secrets you would like to know. Many of our questions remain unanswered, either they are buried in silence or buried underground. We just have to accept the fact that we will never know. It's a secret.
We assert or reveal who we are or what our values are through 
personal sharing.
In our time, I think we should pave the way of connecting by honestly (and without pressure)sharing our own life experience. And if someone shares with us through our everyday interaction or through the blogosphere, I think we should say (or at least think) in a nod to the sixties:
Let it all hang out!
Right on, baby!

You tell it like it is!

We should let those brave people who risk self-disclosure know that what they have shared has been honorably received. We should embrace them in an accepting atmosphere. I say this because recently, I've read some confessions in blogland and the commenter(s) seem to be frightened away. Sigh. I wonder why? I think our lack of response is interpreted as society's voice echoing the familiar warning:
Don't go airing your dirty laundry out in public.
Here's a quirky little video, I thought you might enjoy. Also, it makes me think of my mom's positive vision. I see her on her motorcycle. (Like other trail blazing women of her day, she was a proud trophy carrying member of the Motor Maids, Inc.) This is for you, "Mama Sue."

More about my clean laundry:

If you would like to know more about my mother's story, click on the highlighted links. Also, there is a documentary film that is being made by Brian Alexander about the life and death of my mother and her partner, Christine, just click here.

 photo credit


  1. Very thoughtful post on what is probably considered by many to be prickly. I follow your view that we would become a better place to exist if we felt free to share. You mention your mother having been murdered, and there are those who have lost members of family to suicide, also a traumatic end to life.If people could share when they feel the need, then they (who are also victims of trauma) could express their true selves. Feeling free to share releases the person from the clutches of whatever it is that has imprisoned them - the actions of others; substance abuse by family or friends; abusive relationships; the frailty of being human; or... maybe just openly making it known that they are a member of this huge planet full of people and are lonely... perhaps being real, saying what is real, is now sometimes also very unsophisticated to say to strangers.

  2. Thank you for your reflective comment, Nicole. We certainly share the view that revealing our humanity when we feel the need moves us forward toward greater connection and that it's good to express our humanity in this way. Thank you again for your input on this topic and your open-mindedness.

  3. My mother had a need to talk to everyone, especially sales clerks. For teenagers, this exposè of even the most mundane events to strangers is embarrassing. I suppose we are embarrassed by our parents because we realize that when they talk about us to strangers, the person is probably being polite and is not interested. We retaliated against my other by doing -bizarre things to keep her at a distance. One of my sisters and I would pull our t-shirts over our heads and my mother was suddently the one who was embarrassed and trying to act as if she didn´t know us.
    With her own children my mother had used her sorrows to manipulate. She wanted love, pity, and intimacy with her children, but was unaware that a ten-year-old boy may not be ready to hear about the death of his grnadmother when his mother was four, the death of her father when she was fifteen (both from cancer) and the death of her dog. Along with this was her memory of her father weeping for the two days the coffin rested in their house. There were also stories of her step-mother who bit her, beat her with clothes hangers and had fits of rage. Later there was the story of how the step-mother through the influence of her father got a judge to award her payments for the two children she adopted so that whatever money was coming to them would be hers by the time they were adults. The last revelations came after it became "popular" for people to reveal sex abuse. Her stepmother and her soon-to-be husband would take her with them to a Lake Huron cottage as cover for their adulterous affair and even invite her into the bed. My mother couldn't stop telling these stories and as children we became tired of hearing them.
    One looks to a parent for protection, but my mother showed how weak and vulnerable she was. She obsessed about her past. It always surprised me how hard she tried to gain her stepmother's affection, and we were also subjected to this woman´s crazy cruelty. She had gotten gonorhea from her first husband before there was penicillin and later it caused spells of insanity. The man, whom she had saved with my mother's and uncle's inheritance, remained faithful to her as far as I know.

  4. My father who had been raised on an unsuccessful farm, was worried about not appearing middle-class. Throughout my life, he revealed secrets that were not to be told to others. He had bedbugs as a child. His father had been committed to a mental hospital in South Dakato because he was a religious fanatic. (Now in South Dakota not being one seems to be grounds for suspicion.) This revelation about my grandfather came after he had been dead for over 40 years. My father's justification for telling us was that it was better that we didn't find it out from strnagers. I'm sure that he warned my mother about revealing these secrets. But thanks to Donahue and Oprah, even he came to believe that you are only as worthy and interesting as your life is lurid and depressing. And my mother had medical reasons for her lack of discretion. She had Lyme's disease. She had a concussion in a car accident in which my father was at fault.
    I have been reading a lot of theory about identity. We manage our identities by our public actions, by the stories we tell, by the groups we join or the informal ones which we claim to belong to or lead others to believe we belong to, and by our appearance. I suppose television has done a lot to define what all of this means. I just wish that it had not encouraged my mother to see herself as a victim. Telling stories about victimhood and defining yourself as a victim leaves you with a good excuse for the failures in life, but does not help you in improving your situation.
    Comments on blogs always seem to be a bit rough. I am not in favor of "spilling your guts," to strangers. That puts a lot of burden on your listener. However, I think my father in many ways tried to isolate and dominate my mother and my mother's way of rebelling was her public confessions. But since this is "rough", I will have to think about it more.

  5. Hi Mark, thanks for the thoughtful comments here. I imagine your mother was confused, angry and needed healthy affection but was unable to receive it.

    Events from childhood seem to shape how we see ourselves and our place the world.

    Your father kept secrets and hid his shame but that just made the secret more powerful. By the time he started telling forbidden family stories, it might have been too late to relieve the stress of maintaining secrets.

    You make a good point about how sharing private information should be age appropriate. Compulsive sharers may not notice the impact that their comments have on others.

    A child has the right to a childhood. It's unfortunate and harsh to ask a young person to carry an adult's burden. I imagine that knowing about private adult matters, jealousy, sexual abuse and loss were just too much for a 10 year old. I'm sorry you had that experience.


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