Keeping Men’s Secrets

The Me Too movement is about women daring to speak painful truths that we’ve been forced to bury from fear and shame, truths about what’s been done to us, about the secrets of our lives. But is it possible that women suffer even more from being compelled to keep the secrets of men’s lives?

Any entitled power group can afford to entrust (for which read: burden) the less powerful group with its secrets and prized treasures; not so the reverse. Think of white people during institutionalized slavery (and today, during institutionalized racism), sharing family secrets and even handing over care of their precious children to those serving them who are “just like part of the family”—except they’re not—people whom they themselves consciously or unconsciously regard as not quite human. It’s assumed that the underclass won’t betray the overclass because they won’t dare, and besides, there’s always the shadow of threat guaranteeing that assumption. What’s more, the powerful can afford to project their desires onto the less powerful, assuming that the latter must surely want what they themselves want. In a patriarchy, then, it makes perfect sense that men as a group commit their secrets to women far more than women as a group do to men.

This is a complicated process, though, because most of the time, an individual woman keeps an individual man’s secrets. She might do so as an act of mercy, fear, pity, ambition, loyalty, or even love—but there’s almost always another element: as an act of survival. I frequently quote lines by the late poet Muriel Rukeyser, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” But now I’d add to that, What would happen if women told the truth about men’s lives? The world would be transformed. No wonder society is to say the least reluctant to engage so complex a challenge.

Take, for example, the current trial of Noor Salman, widow of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, and then was slain in a shootout with the police. Salman is charged with aiding and abetting Mateen, with obstruction of justice, and with providing material support to Da’ash (ISIL or the Islamic State). The prosecution has argued that Salman had been seen driving around with her husband, apparently casing possible targets, and that she fabricated a cover story for him on the night of the shooting. But the defense has brought forth other facts plus some context: Salman is an apolitical woman of limited education who found herself in an arranged marriage, and she is the loving mother of a toddler. More to the point, she has been the victim of continual, severe, domestic abuse by Mateen for years. He isolated her, punched her, choked her, repeatedly raped her, and often threatened to kill her. Neighbors reported that she was “terrified” of him.

This is hardly the first time we’ve seen this pattern of mass shooters having histories of domestic violence; it’s now quite commonplace. Kevin Kelly, who murdered 26 congregants at a Texas Baptist church in November of 2017, had been court-martialed by the Air Force for domestic violence. James Hodgkinson, who shot at members of Congress as they played baseball last June, had a court record of abusing his foster daughter. Mohammed Bouhel, who mowed down 84 people with a truck in Nice, France, in 2016, was known to police for spousal assault. And on and on. Also commonplace is the frequency with which such killers exercise coercive control over their partners, forcing them to participate in various ways. Lee Harvey Oswald. David Koresh. Timothy McVeigh. Some of the killers claim political motivation; some just “went postal.” The consistent element is a background of domestic violence.

So why do we ever blame such women for forced cooperation? Is it related to such attitudes as “She asked for it” about rape, or “No means Yes” about sexual harassment, or “Why doesn’t she just up and leave him?” about battery? Why do we not apply a Stockholm syndrome analysis to these women? Why, for that matter, do we not follow up on perpetrators of domestic violence who may well be en route to committing a mass shooting? Isn’t it because we still fail to grasp the depth of terror that compels such women to keep their men’s secrets? I do not mean to exculpate such women from moral responsibility or agency, nor do I perceive women solely or even primarily as victims. But the law itself recognizes a relationship between coercion and legal guilt in the “duress defense,” which excuses a person from criminal responsibility for actions if that person had a well-grounded fear of serious bodily injury for refusing to act and also had no plausible hope of escaping the threat. Nevertheless, this defense is rarely employed for abused women. Why? That’s bizarre.

Still, sometimes a woman does keep a man’s secrets safe for less violent reasons. Sometimes she keeps silent for plain old monetary gain—although it too may be a form of survival, especially when the alternative is that ever-present shadow of threat. Then again, over the course of her life, sometimes she changes and breaks her silence. Take for example the case of Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels. Pundits scratch their heads, wondering why she’s come forward. She could lose a lot of money. Is she a publicity hound? Is she in search of more payoff? Is she trying to further her career? Whatever we believe, we’re still left with three interesting questions: Why has Trump, who denounces everyone, never said a negative thing about only two people: Vladimir Putin and Stephanie Clifford? What do those two people have on Trump? And why did his minions pay Clifford so much to keep silent, and threaten her if she spoke up?

Maybe it’s less of a mystery if we remember how men entrust (inflict) the act of keeping their secrets onto women. Maybe Trump’s secrets are, as Clifford says, liking to be spanked or being obsessed with his own daughter or sending thugs to threaten Clifford. Maybe, after having unprotected sex with him, Clifford became pregnant and Trump demanded that she get—or himself even arranged for—an abortion, and maybe she has that conversation recorded. If that were to come out, would it be proof of the one “sin” that would finally make women in Trump’s hard-core, hypocritical, evangelical base abandon him, as they’re already starting to do? And would the men continue to forgive him?

Time will tell, and Clifford’s lawyer claims there’s much more of the story yet to come.

One thing we know for sure: If women told the truth about men’s lives, the world would be transformed.

The Blog will be on a week’s spring break, and will return on April 9.