So many of us carry secrets — some heavy, some light. Some that mean nothing, and some that change everything. Six writers tell stories of secrets kept, shared, and revealed
Dare to Tell the Truth
By Tammy Rose
his was a mistake. I knew this would be a mistake. Too many people, too much noise. Too much. Too much. My eyes darted nervously around the room.
Everyone seemed to be having a good time. The annual neighborhood carnival that raised money for the local special needs school was always popular.
My girls had begged to go, so here we were. But this was going to be a disaster.
“Ooooh, look, Mommy! They have purple cotton candy!” Miri yanked on my sleeve. “Can we have?? Please?!”
Sure. Sugar high. Food coloring. Might as well start with a bang. I moved Ari’s carriage toward the cotton candy booth. But as usual, Yehudah was faster.
Gone! He was gone, slithering through the crowds, hitting the cotton candy booth and climbing onto the table to grab the sticky strands wafting from the machine. There was a shriek from the high school girl manning the machine, a groan from Chaya at my side. “Get him down from there!” she hissed.
With hyperfocus, nothing in my peripheral vision, I abandoned Ari’s carriage and leaped forward, tackling Yehudah midair like a professional linebacker. I grabbed him around his midriff and dragged him away from his goal.
He shrieked, kicking, slapping his sticky hands, making a mess of my sheitel. But I was no novice and hung on tight. I used his momentum to clear a path back to where I‘d left Ari.
Miri was crying. “We can’t go anywhere with him!” she wailed. “Everyone’s looking at us.”
“Here.” I drew out a 20-dollar bill. Miri’s eyes narrowed; she sensed the bribe coming. “You can go to as many booths as you want. Yehudah and I are going outside to the moonwalks.” And after purchasing $20 worth of harmony, I abandoned any pretense of a family bonding day and moved outside.
Sure enough, Yehudah brightened at the sight of the huge jumping castles and leaped onto the first one.
Finally. I exhaled. He’d be fine here, and I’d have 20 seconds to catch my breath.
My respite lasted barely that long. A shrill cry pierced the air, and years of experience had me racing to the moonwalk. A little girl had fallen over, and Yehudah, laughing like a hyena, was jumping manically near her, as her prone body flew up and down on the inflated floor. I didn’t think he was the one who’d knocked her over. But the sight of her flipping up and down sent him into a frenzy. Once again Ari was abandoned as I tried climbing onto the moonwalk. A man standing there was faster and caught Yehudah in a tight grip.
“Whose son is this?” he demanded.
The million-dollar question. Do I claim parentage, or do I beg the earth to swallow me up?
“I got him,” I squeaked. “I’m sorry, he gets very excited on moonwalks.”
“Then he shouldn’t be allowed on there!” A woman stuck her face into mine, the small girl now sobbing on her shoulder. “If you can’t control your son, he can’t play here, he could’ve hurt someone. Besides, this carnival is hosting a lot of special needs kids. What if he really hurt someone like that?”
But my son is also— The words stalled.
There — in that crowd, where everyone would have understood me — I still couldn’t say the words.
I left the girls with a neighbor and returned home with Ari and a very overstimulated Yehudah.
I knew I shouldn’t cry — the tears do no good and the pain wrenches me open. But it was a losing battle. I sat on the couch, rocking back and forth, a harsh sound punctuating my sobs.
Yehudah meanwhile had gravitated to one of his favorite places: the fish tank, where he was trying to catch a fish. We only owned guppies so I knew he couldn’t succeed, but this always kept him busy and calm.
I looked at him through my swollen eyes. His stunning, gorgeous face with solemn puppy eyes, long lashes, platinum- blond hair. He could be a model for healthychildhood.com. But behind the adorable facade lay a mess: convoluted brain wiring, explosions, meltdowns, physical attacks, chaos.
And no one knew.
Beyond my husband, my therapist, and our doctor, no one knew what we were dealing with. Not my neighbors, not my friends. Even my parents, who’d made aliyah five years before with my only brother — no one knew.
That’s how it had to be.
“What about shidduchim?” my husband would ask. “Do we want to take out a full-page ad in the newspaper? Why air our dirty laundry to all our neighbors — that nebach we’re the ones with the crazy kid?”
Didn’t sound so bad to me. We were the ones with the crazy kid. But this was so important to my husband that I went along with it.
I became as much a social outcast as Yehudah. He was bused to school in a neighboring city that had a better program for children with autism. His teachers were great. At least there I had a support system. I was one of those weird mothers who looked forward to PTA. At least I could discuss Yehudah with people who understood.
But at home, I became more and more of a recluse. I dropped my job and began working remotely. We couldn’t invite company. We couldn’t go out to the park. We couldn’t even attend hakafos on Simchas Torah. Yehudah was spiraling out of control as the years went by. Someone, something had to give — and I was afraid it would be me.
Then my father passed away suddenly. I flew to Eretz Yisrael in a haze, shocked. I stood at the levayah, tears streaming down my face, unable to believe that my father was gone, felled in his prime by a massive coronary.
I felt so very alone sitting shivah in my parents’ apartment. While the visitors were my brother’s and parents’ friends, they weren’t mine. I sat, numb, when suddenly it hit me.
Abba now knew about Yehudah! In the Olam Ha’emes, Abba now knew all the difficulties, all the nisyonos I was dealing with. All those years of platitudes, of “having some issues with Yehudah” were now stripped away. Abba knew the truth.
Like a geyser, the emotions flooded. I began sobbing, not for the father I’d lost, but for the relief in the supporting father I’d now found, who knew my truth.
I could talk to Abba about Yehudah.
I spent the week of aveilus in my own world. Talking to my father — and my Father. And when I got up from shivah, still shaky, I calmly confronted my husband, “I’m telling Ima and my brother about Yehudah.”
The first supper after shivah, we were all drained. My timing was terrible. But I knew that if I didn’t get the words out of my mouth now, I’d lose them forever.
“Ima, David… ” I paused, took a breath. “Ima, David. I want you to know that Yehudah is autistic.”
The words were out. They hovered in the air, smothering me with their truth.
Then my mother leaned over and hugged me. “I knew something was the matter. I’m so glad you trusted us to tell us.”
David cleared his throat. “Why didn’t you tell us until now?”
I couldn’t answer. Couldn’t explain, the rules, the ruse, the ridiculousness of the charades.
“I’m telling you now. And I thank you for your support.”
That was ten years ago. Since then I’ve started my own support group for moms of ASD kids and even speak on the subject. I offer advice, networking, and a plain old shoulder for people to cry on.
No one seemed shocked at the truth. No one avoided me, pitied me, or ridiculed me. And when my children entered shidduchim, lo and behold, people thought we were a family worth marrying into.
But despite all that progress, I can never erase the weight and the shame of all those years spent living a life based on falsehood.
As Paul Tournier wrote, “Nothing makes us as lonely as our secrets.”
By Russy Tendler
a routine doctor’s appointment, my sister mentioned to the nurse that my mother was her high school principal.
“Your principal?” the nurse cried with horror, as she closed the Velcro of the blood pressure strap around my sister’s arm. “That’s almost as bad as being the preacher’s daughter!”
My sister laughed and assured her that it was just as bad, since her father was also the rabbi of the community. The nurse couldn’t contain both her pity and surprise.
Growing up as the children of the pulpit rabbi and the girls’ high school principal put my siblings and me in an unusual position. We were privy to many a private matter, with events or meetings often occurring in our own living room, but of course, we were expected not to share any of that information with the broader public (i.e., our friends).
An arbitrary knock on the door during a Friday night meal wasn’t unusual, and from a young age, we knew to hold back from craning our necks around the doorframe to see who it was. My father would leave the table and return as if nothing had happened. We knew not to ask, though we became very skilled at piecing bits of information together until we happened upon some “juicy” tidbits — which, of course, my parents never confirmed and we were, in any case, forbidden to repeat.
At the end of a long and busy day of my father’s, I’d ask him what he did that day. “You wouldn’t believe what happened today,” he’d answer dramatically. “But I can’t tell you.”
It was a running joke with us kids.
Sometimes, my father would share some anecdotes or unusual situations in which he was involved. Often they were funny, always interesting, and sometimes heartbreaking.
“You’re so lucky,” I once told him. “You get to know all the interesting stuff in this community.”
“I’m not lucky at all,” he responded. “These aren’t the kinds of things I’m happy to know.” In those words, I felt the burden he shouldered.
I remember the night he came home and mentioned to me that he’d just returned from meeting with a couple. He was distressed. The husband no longer wanted to be frum, and the couple was grappling with what that meant for them.
The next day, a girl passed me in the hallway at school. She told me she’d seen my father last night. “He came over to the Golds*,” she shared innocently. “They went into the living room to meet while I watched the kids.”
I didn’t say a word, but my heart broke putting two and two together and knowing the couple was struggling so deeply.
There was the time I woke up to find a newly married man in our kitchen. It was the day after his wedding, and he came right into our house to talk to my parents, unconcerned that there were children around. Although we were shepherded out of the room, I gathered he wanted a divorce. I remember the confusion and disappointment that filled my young mind. And I remember that as he sat down at the kitchen table, the wooden chair collapsed beneath him. The mirroring of the reality of his relationship wasn’t lost on me.
While my mother’s discretion kept much of the “juicy details” from us, watching her dedication and her complete investment in the school and the growth of her students felt like a special secret that only my siblings and I were in on. Although her students surely recognized her effort, we felt that no one could ever fully understand what it took from her to create what she did.
Being the Secret Keeper made it so that I’ll never be able to view community work in the way a “regular” member of the community may see it. I’ve seen firsthand how many people suffer and in how many different ways: how families grow and marriages struggle, how the community asks its leaders to shoulder that struggle, and yet how they may not even be aware of how heavy it weighs on those same leaders.
By Barbara Bensoussan
ears ago, when Mishpacha was still a newish-Jewish publication, I was asked to write a piece for the Purim edition. It was intended as a cautionary tale about the horrors of alcoholism. I was supposed to interview someone who’d been an alcoholic or been married to one and write it up in the first person, in an “as-told-to” style.
After much networking I was given a number, through a Jewish addictions program, of a woman who agreed to speak to me only if I never learned her name. Fair enough. I reached out and over the course of two lengthy phone calls, got the story of her harrowing years of living with her husband’s addiction. It was an enormous challenge, with a frequently inebriated husband, for her to give her children any semblance of a normal frum life — get her sons to shul, create an upbeat Shabbos ambience. They had money problems because he spent every spare cent on liquor, and even when she devised what she thought were clever, foolproof ways to hide her cash (such as inside her sheitel head), he always managed to ferret it out.
A lesser woman, I imagine, would have booted her husband out. But by the time we spoke he was in treatment, and she had chosen to support him and do her utmost to keep the family intact.
I did my best to listen with the empathy she so richly deserved, and apparently, after so many hours speaking together, she decided she could trust me. As we approached the end of the last call, she suddenly burst out, “Actually, you know who I am. I’ve met you at PTA. Our children are in school together, I’m ___’s mother!”
I was floored. Of course I knew who she was. Mrs. X had struck me as just another very regular frum mother! No one would have dreamed what she was dealing with at home. Obviously, I never breathed a word about our conversations to anyone. But I was left dazed by this blindingly bright revelation that our neighbors and fellow yeshivah parents are often not who we think they are. They may be dealing with debilitating, overwhelming challenges that we never in our wildest dreams could have imagined. This particular mother was a hero who will forever remain unsung because, in her heroism, she has guarded her family’s privacy so carefully.
This article went to print in the first person, except that the editing and graphics team somehow neglected to put in the words “As told to” before my name. It looked like I was the one talking about my alcoholic husband! Here I was trying to keep my interveiwee’s secret safe, while the magazine revealed my own “secret,” giving me a taste of what public exposure might have felt like for my interviewee.
For a Friend
By Chaya Kellerman
started as a whispering in the school hallways, a furtive glance or two whenever I was around. With time, it became more open.
“Did you speak to Michelle? What did she say?”
Something was up with my friends, but I couldn’t put a finger on it. Was it the way they spent every recess whispering about Michelle, whoever she was? Was it the presents Rivky kept on getting? The new lingo Devora used when she thought I wasn’t listening? Something was off, but to betray my friends and tell? Never!
There was no point asking them about it. Rivky was secretive in general, especially so when it came to this Michelle. Our friendship was still tentative, and I wanted to be on Rivky’s good side.
Bit by bit, I gathered evidence. A hint here, a clue there. Michelle was a 20-something woman Rivky had met while visiting non-frum relatives. They’d developed a tight bond that lasted through texts and phone conversations. Because they spoke all the time, Michelle knew everything about her. She gained Rivky’s trust through kind words and the presents she bought her. Thirsting for connection, Rivky was lured in by her warmth.
Somewhere along the way, Rivky told Michelle about Devora, who was soon pulled into the secret friendship as well. I was left out, wondering whether this was a good thing or not, but also longing to be deemed worthy enough to be included.
Not long after Devora’s inclusion into the “secret friendship,” she bagan sporting a brand-new iPod, casually mentioning it came from Michelle and that she’d promised her an iPhone, too. At that time, most kids didn’t even have a phone, never mind an unfiltered smartphone. Michelle’s glitzy life was enthralling to a sheltered Bais Yaakov girl — forbidden waters that were far too sweet.
One day, I’d had enough. I’d only heard part of the conversation, but it was enough to scare me into realizing that something more sinister was going on than I wanted to believe. I wasn’t sure Michelle was Jewish. Maybe she was a missionary… or worse?
“Michelle’s gonna send me a ticket to visit her in Miami Beach once she’s settled in,” Rivky said nonchalantly to Devora.
“No way! That’s the coolest! When?”
The rest of the conversation was conducted in a whisper that my pounding heart drowned out. What? Did her parents know anything about this?
Something told me they didn’t.
“Uh, Ma…” I said nervously a few nights later, having plucked up the courage to tell her what was on my mind. “There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
And I told her. It felt good, yet traitorous, to unburden myself of this awful information.
My mother’s face turned pale. “Are you sure?” she asked me. “Thank you for telling me this. It’s very, very important.”
Her words frightened me. Was I about to get my friends into hot water? Surely that would make me lose the friendship I was working so hard to build. “Ma, just, like, maybe tell whoever you’re gonna speak to about it, not to say it came from me.”
I’ll never know exactly what happened, but a few days later, Devora looked at me, a strange expression on her face.
“Did you speak to Mrs. T.?” Her voice was accusing.
Mrs. T. was our school guidance counselor. She must have called them in.
“No,” I replied, poised.
“Oh.” She turned to Rivky, who was wringing her hands.
“I can’t believe this! I feel so exposed. All my secrets — out in the open!”
I felt a twang of pity, but as I recognized the gravity of her words, I couldn’t help but think to myself, Phew.
I never heard about Michelle again.
Not Such a Surprise
By Mindel Kassorla
verybody knows that an anniversary is really just an excuse for a wife to celebrate her birthday twice in a year, right?
So it’s no “surprise” that for my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary, all of us siblings, along with our father, were in on planning an event for Ima in honor of the occasion.
Top secret, of course.
Abba is a master of surprise. And Ima loves surprises. The only problem was that someone decided to include me in the plans — five-year-old little me, with a mouth the size of Mount Everest.
I was a very smart, very astute, and sneakily talented little girl who believed I had a gift for subtly prying private information from people’s lips. There was the time I tried to figure out how old my teacher was. I knew I couldn’t ask an adult their age, so instead I thought of asking her how old she was when she got married… and how old her oldest was… and how many years after she was married did she have him. I barely made it through the second question before she discovered my plot.
It was a regular afternoon in our home, a week before the surprise party. Ima was on the phone with the dentist’s office. “I’m making you an appointment,” she called across the dining room to where I was comfy on the den couch. I looked up from my dolls, knowing that now was my chance to show just how well I could keep a secret.
“Okay,” I called back. “Just don’t make it on Sunday at two o’clock!” (Because obviously five-year-olds make their own plans for a Sunday afternoon, duh!)
Of course, Ima put two and two together. Child genius that I was, I didn’t see the writing on the wall, even on Sunday morning when Ima, ever the fashionable mom, laid out a blue and white sailor dress on my bed because who knows what I’d end up wearing to her party if she didn’t intervene.
When my siblings somehow realized that Ima knew, they kicked themselves for having entrusted this secret to a blabbermouth kid.
So she knew. And to her credit, she kept quiet and appeared clueless. When Abba offered to take her to lunch that day, she politely obliged, and donned her favorite blue and white polka-dotted suit. But I told you my father is a master of surprises, right? On the way, he claimed he desperately needed a bathroom stop — in Shang Chai restaurant in Flatbush. Ima came in with him, too, and — surprise! There we were. She was blown off her feet, and we’ve got the pictures to prove it. I still remember her laughing and crying so hard to all of her friends, astounded that even though she knew, we still managed to catch her off-guard.
Almost two decades later, after my husband and I moved to Israel, the family celebrated Ima’s 60th with a surprise birthday bash. All of my siblings live in America, even the ones all the way across the country were planning to make it. We knew we couldn’t miss it, and that this would be the surprise of the century. For the first ten minutes of the party, Ima made peace with the fact that I surely wouldn’t fly in all the way from Israel, especially since there had been a terrible snowstorm the day before. When my husband and I showed up, she thought she was hallucinating.
This time, I’d kept the secret, and the only person happier than Ima was my father — another surprise mission accomplished.
By Deena Simons
me, privacy is sacrosanct.
My severe mental illness is mine, and mine alone. Yes, there have been people who have blabbed about me. “It’s all in the family,” they said, and the intimate details of my illness became fair game for all and sundry. I don’t forgive those people.
Of course, the closer people are to me, the more they know. But it’s up to me with whom and when and how much I want to share. Those I have told all to are very few and far between.
The odd thing is, when people hear of my diagnosis, they assume they know everything about me. They know how I think, how I feel, why I act the way I do, why I do things that are hurtful to them, and why I just can’t get my act together. Oh, yes, they know. They understand it all. Because, you see, they read BOOKS about my condition. And because, you see, they GOOGLED my condition. And because, you see, they KNOW ME SO WELL, they have access to the inner workings of my psyche.
That, of course, gives them the right to judge me. That right is happily and freely utilized. I stand before a jury and am summarily tried and convicted. There’s no one to question the veracity of that judgment. They’re the majority. They’re the healthy ones. They know better.
And so, I am vilified.
Sometimes I wonder how they would deal with it if they were in my shoes. Not “they,” with their healthy minds and healthy medical histories, but “they,” if they had lived my full external and internal history.
Would they act so differently from me?
Maybe they would have turned to drugs. Stopped keeping mitzvos. Found a way to end their life.
“Oh, but,” I hear the supercilious voices respond, “if there’s something we didn’t understand, you should have EXPLAINED it to us.”
Right. Because I really feel like opening up the only thing I can call my own and let you trespass.
My mind is all I’ve got. And as much as it tortures me, it’s a beautiful mind, a secret garden of wild and untamed foliage.
Only I have the key.
Inside that garden, wild and overgrown as it may be, filled with the constant threat of wild beasts roaming through… It’s only here, inside my secret garden, that I’m safe, or at least as safe as I could ever be — a wounded, traumatized child huddling in a corner.
No one can take that away from me.
Let them judge me. Let them convict me. They don’t deserve to peek inside.
Sometimes my fierce guarding of my secret comes back to bite me. I’m always sure that the fact I’m “not normal” shows, one way or another. But when I do make myself vulnerable to someone, they usually don’t believe me. They don’t understand how compromised I am, how exquisitely sensitive I am, how much I need, and how easily I get hurt. “You?” they say. “But you’re so with it!”
They genuinely think I’m normal. And when I act crazy, they get angry at me.
It’s only when I’m broken, beyond pride and beyond the desire for them to mind-read, that I tell them the facts, describe how absolutely shattered I am inside.
I desperately need the facade. I couldn’t handle the exposure and violation of others knowing what lives inside me.
And at the same time, I wonder if others would be better equipped to give to me in the ways I need, if they knew the details. What if I’d walk around wearing a sandwich board, one side explaining what I’m dealing with, the other broadcasting the type of help I need?
Would there be anyone who would respond? Would anyone in the outside world look, stop, think, and try to help me?
I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.
But I’d never so much as let a word slip out, even when it aches and burns inside me. I can’t bear the exposure. The likelihood of getting help isn’t very high anyway. I talk to people, I watch their faces, I look into their eyes and plumb the depths of their souls. Something inside me screams, “Help me, help me, help me!”
But the words remain locked inside, ricocheting off the walls of the secret garden.
It’s not worth it to drop the facade. It won’t get me what I need.
And it would leave me ripped open, bare, exposed, robbed of that one precious, private place I have left.
This I’ll say. Don’t ever assume you know what goes on in someone’s life. Know that the whole ones may be broken, the fortunate may be destitute, and that the ones who look so put together may be held together by safety pins, the truth masked by an insanely good ability to act.
You never know who needs your kindness.
Sometimes it’s all a secret. Sacrosanct, locked by sheer necessity… yet waiting, begging, pleading for the right person to find the key.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 826)
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