Underground Secrets

By Tracy Naschek

This summer I’ve been working with other people’s secrets. Down in the 14th Street subway station it gets as muggy as anywhere else in New York, yet crowds gather to read and participate in Subway Therapy’s latest pop-up installation, #Stickynote Secrets. The installation is simple. A table, chair, black post-it notes, white pens, a small box for the super secrets, and a wall that stretches the length of the passageway from the BDFM line to the 123. Though comprised of a material closer to tile, the phrase “concrete jungle” truly captures the scene of this New York City subway. However, this installation slows down the familiar rush. It piques an interest in passersby, creating a space that has intrinsic value yet is simultaneously rare.

As an intern for Subway Therapy, I have read through many of the secrets. Though no two notes are exactly the same, I have found that the more intimate secrets to which people confess are relatively common. Conversely, the most comical ones are typically also the most unconventional: someone farted on their grandma’s lap; someone else makes a habit of farting into their hands for cathartic reasons. Other people have accepted odd dares for money, like eating an acorn or plunging into a lake, fully clothed.

In general, the intimate secrets fit into two main categories. The first is the category of experiences. This category heavily revolves around sex, relationships and identity: virginity and sex stories, affairs outside of monogamous relationships, childhood or ongoing familial hardship, sex work, concealment of or revealing gender or sexuality identity and sexual assault. Confessions of mental illness are also quite common. There are, of course, many more experience-based secrets beyond this list, but these are the ones that I come across most often.

When the pattern of similarities among secrets emerged, I began to question why some of the most common life experiences were such private secrets. On some level, it is rather obvious: some of these secrets involve trauma and either way people are entitled to their privacy. But another common denominator is that these subjects are all taboo. It seems a striking contradiction that common life experiences are the very stuff of taboos. Can you not relate to at least one, two or even three of the aforementioned life experiences, even if they are more relevant to someone you love rather than yourself? 

To some extent, the question above varies by gender and sexual identity. Virginity and sex are certainly more taboo and thus more private topics for women. Folks in the LGBTQ+ community are likely familiar with a stigma that entails rejection, homophobia, and denial. Additionally, there are higher rates of sexual assault among women, trans and non-binary folks, especially those of color, and sex workers of the same demographics are more likely to experience sexual violence. Mental illness does not stratify as neatly along the gender binary, although members of the LGBTQ+ community certainly experience higher rates.

The second category of intimate secrets suggests a related reason why these experiences become necessary to conceal. The second category is one of emotions. This category contains common confessions of shame, guilt, unannounced desire, pain, fear and loneliness. It is this second category that makes me wonder what ultimately causes more pain: the fear and shame around discussing our true lives, however socially unacceptable, or the actual experiences themselves. Though many of these secrets are inextricable from trauma, the shame and stigma that renders them necessary to conceal does its own additional damage. In fact, research has shown that, in addition to loneliness and the other emotions to which participants have confessed, the negative effects associated with concealing a secret include depression, anxiety, low relationship quality, fatigue and poor health symptomatology.  

The research bolsters what our minds and bodies already know: concealing a secret harms us as much as it may protect us. I often overhear participants sigh, smile or yelp with relief after writing down their secret, releasing some of its burden. I write a secret each time as well, so I too benefit from the relief the installation cultivates. Though it is a unique space, #Stickynote Secrets is an installation, which elucidates that some of what makes a secret so confidential is the taboo that prevents a discussion around it and thus reminds us of the importance of creating space to foster difficult conversations.

Shame researcher Brené Brown suggests that vulnerability is the “gooey center” of the secret emotions I’ve encountered such as shame, grief, fear, anxiety and uncertainty. Simultaneously, she posits that vulnerability is “the birthplace of love, belonging, and joy.” To be clear, she defines vulnerability as “the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.” In other words, make the brave choice without knowing if you will succeed or fail. While she warns that if you are, indeed, brave with your life, failure is as certain as success, vulnerability also allows the possibility of love, belonging and joy, which decision is more hopeful than the certainty, albeit safety, of remaining immobilized by fear and shame.  

In terms of taboo secrets, I understand the pursuit of a life with more love, joy and belonging as motivation for replacing vulnerability with the safety of secrecy. Not because we won’t encounter people who will judge or hate us for our truth, but because we may also meet the people who will listen to and accept our whole selves and because we deserve to become and to love our whole selves. As psychologist and psychiatrist, Carl Jung, writes, “Loneliness does not come from having no people around, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.” 

Significantly, Brené Brown specifies that vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability, meaning that there is a difference between keeping a secret for the sake of privacy and concealing a secret as a result of shame. Thus, the goal is not to share the intimate details of our lives with everyone we meet (unless we want to), but to liberate ourselves from the additional weight of concealment by telling those whom we wish we could but feel we cannot.

While we may challenge ourselves to embrace vulnerability and courage regarding our secrets, we must also challenge ourselves to act with sympathy or empathy when someone else is vulnerable with us. In The Empathy Exams: Essays, Leslie Jamison writes, “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.” Her definition contrasts the notion that empathy and sympathy arise without intention. Instead, embracing these attitudes is an active decision.

Vulnerability and empathy have the potential to profoundly affect our personal lives. The current taboo and shame around certain secrets impede our ability to share our experiences, sometimes even with loved ones, maybe especially with them. Vulnerability and empathy can change that. However, they also have wider social implications than our personal lives. It takes both vulnerability and empathy to foster conversations about the secrets in our lives, so that, as exemplified in the #MeToo movement, people affected feel empowered to reveal their truth and liberate themselves from the weight of concealment. Vulnerability is how we hold the right people accountable. Sometimes that is ourselves, but a lot of times it is the people who have hurt us in shameful and thus silenced ways. Brené Brown explains that much-needed conversations in the workplace and in the world about gender, race and immigration cannot occur without the willingness to be vulnerable. In this case, vulnerability refers to a willingness to reveal one’s personal ignorance but simultaneous desire to learn more about unfamiliar topics or people who experience the world differently.

While I strongly believe in the power of vulnerability and empathy, some of the #Stickynote Secrets have severe consequences. For example, the consequences of some confessions include prison time or job loss. Additionally, the solutions to some secrets are policy change, money or medication and therapy. While vulnerability and empathy foster important dialogue, they don’t necessarily provide the redemption we desire or the ultimate solution we seek. However, we cannot begin to heal from the trauma we’ve experienced or begin a productive conversation about change without speaking the truth about our lives and challenging the stigma that makes silence safer than the truth.