The Secret Self In Storytelling

All of us have a Public, Private and a Secret Self.

All of us have a Public, Private and a Secret Self. The degree of delineation and the stakes depend on our individual circumstances. Because we rarely have insight into the secret selves of others, fiction functions as a useful window. Fiction shows us that we are not alone, whatever our secret self may be.

DENNIS FOSTER’S FOUR STEPS TO SYMPATHY

When writers allow readers insight into a character’s secret self readers tend to understand, judge, forgive and then sympathise with the confessor.

This four step progression comes from the work of Dennis Foster who wrote Confession and Complicity in Narrative (1987). Though these steps apply to fictional characters, they apply in real life as well. This is the astounding power of fiction — when we learn that others have a secret self, and when we learn to empathise with fictional characters via this secret self, we tend to apply these skills to real people.

Secrets bind and separate in strict accordance with who’s in on them.

Lionel Shriver, We Need To Talk About Kevin

PRIVATE, PUBLIC AND SOCIAL CLASS

Freedman and Hellerstein (1981), write of “the doctrine of the separate spheres” which prescribed British women’s “personal lives centre around home, husband and children”. These values were of course exported to the colonies by British settlers.

What happened with the separation of home and work? Families became more private and a refuge from the world. This reinforced the Victorian middle-class Cult of Domesticity. Women were idealised as “the angel of the house”. Home was the woman’s private sphere; the public world was a male domain. This was not disrupted until women demanded emancipation. With emancipation came a natural blurring of the public/private divide.

But this was a middle-class thing. For working class families, there was no clean distinction between public and private life. Judy Giles (1995) suggests that the concept of privacy for these groups means simply ‘not public’. The middle-class ideal was to ‘keep yourself to yourself’, so some understanding of private self and inner life was required. Middle-class women understood privacy and what was their own business.

THE USEFULNESS OF THE CONFESSION

Stories which focus on a character’s Secret Self are often described as confessional. There is a huge advantage to writing confessions — the confessions themselves lend suspense. This suspense is caused by the reader’s desire to acquire certain information from the character. Each new piece of information functions as a reveal. Reveals are a necessary component of any suspense story.

Confessional stories have the quality of immediacy, especially when a character conveys information directly to the reader. Readers feel like the special chosen ones, with characters conveying secrets directly to them.

RELIGION AND THE SECRET SELF

I’m in no position to offer a comparative analysis of how various religions deal with the concept of the secret self, but I’ll offer this from an anthropologist studying supernatural beliefs and Pentecostalism Papua New Guinea. In short, sin is thought to exist in hidden areas of the body, especially in the uterus. Hence, women are blamed more often for concealing things they shouldn’t. This plays into an historic, enduring, cross-cultural notion that women are basically liars:

Pentecostals often describe two types of Christian—“spirit Christian” (the truly devout) and “body Christians” (those too concerned about material things, those who do not truly “believe” or have “faith”)—a sort of interdenominational pejorative that condemns doctrinal emphasis on outward ritual rather than inner belief (Keane 2007). The outer body should ideally reveal an inner “spirit body,” as, for example, through the kinds of ecstatic experience often associated with Pentecostal religious fervor.

In contrast, sin is understood as hidden in the body. Sermons that focus on sin as hidden thinking or emotions are interpreted by people listening as themselves a form of veiled speech referring to a problem of great consequence in communities: witchcraft. Through notions of hidden resentment or unseen discord, this Christian discourse associates sin with the gwumu witchcraft …. Following the sermon on Cain and Abel, church members told me that the visiting preacher was referring to witchcraft by using a local metapragmatic category of talk called tok bokis (literally, “box talk,” but usually referred to as “veiled speech”) or gramiyi harekeneve (“hidden talk”) in Dano. Ideas about hidden sin are extremely common in Pentecostal services and discourse, and the idioms in which hidden sin is described are frequently also associated with witchcraft. Sin is often described in the local language as hidden in the bilum (“netbag”) of the self, where the word bilum (ro in Dano) also means uterus, the location in the body where gwumu lives. This is a gendered, but flexible, discourse, as some accusations are also made against men. Nevertheless, Sunday morning altar calls seemed to me to be directed mainly at women congregants; speakers might even turn toward the side of the church where women sit when discussing hidden sin.

Becoming Witches

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Nikos Aliagas is a photographer of celebrities but he doesn’t ‘know how to use photoshop’. He shoots famous people in natural light, aiming to show something that isn’t visible with all the other, modified, highly staged photographs which abound, and which are more familiar to us all.

Header painting: Eastman Johnson – The Toilet

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