Catchphrases · Reading

“Keeping secrets will kill you”

I have been quoting this for years.

I was sure that I’d read it in Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer prize-winner “A Visit from the Goon Squad”, early in 2013. I searched for it on my Kindle and couldn’t find it. I searched for “secret” and “kill” and finally “keep” and it wasn’t there. Then I went to Google and typed the whole phrase in quotes and it was displayed from an article about the book on

The quote features in the Presentation Slides that make up Chapter 12, “Great rock ’n roll pauses”, which look like they were included as graphics rather than text in the Kindle version. Like many of the books I have read on the Kindle I bought a paperback copy too (from my local Oxfam bookshop – always a good selection there) and needed it to read Chapter 12. I couldn’t read it on my Kindle 1.0 (I still have the original model, with a physical keyboard and a screen that is not touch-sensitive).

On “Desert Island Discs” recently Sandi Toksvig talked about the frightening tabloid reaction to her private life in the 1990s, about having to go into hiding after she came out as gay. She describes secrets as “a cancer of the soul”. It’s much easier just to let them out. (UK readers can hear the show here for now, or download it here.)

I don’t have many secrets. I find them tiring, just like lies and personal conflict. But other people have shared their secrets with me; I have become the repository of their secrets. If you want to affect my peace of mind just start any sentence with “Don’t tell anyone, but …” Maybe it makes them feel better. It always makes me feel worse.

When I was 9, on holiday in Ireland, I failed to keep something secret even though a cousin had asked me to, and I had promised. It was a rude joke. I found it funny and after a day or two I told my brother. I said “I promised I wouldn’t tell this joke, but …” He told my parents, they told my aunt and uncle, and my cousin got into a shedload of trouble. It taught me a lot.

There are two much serious secrets that members of my family have been holding onto for over 15 years now. One is about how somebody died (it was suicide, not an accidental death) and the other is about the true nature of someone’s former boyfriend, who has since disappeared off the face of the earth (he was an alcoholic who used to beat up his girlfriend). Some people in my family know the truth and others don’t. It’s not entirely clear who knows what. I feel that 2016 is the year that everybody affected by the consequences of those two stories should know. We’re all grown-ups now. It’s only information. Keeping secrets will kill you.

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