Pardon Me; Don’t I Know You?

Well, we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out
And show ourselves when everyone has gone
Some are satin, some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather
They’re the faces of a stranger
But we’d love to try them on

Billy Joel, “The Stranger”


When Mark and I first got married, Matthew, who was six, had a great friend who lived just a few houses up the street. That little guy—call him Scott—was a year or two younger than Matt, and adorable: freckled, chubby-cheeked, with the kind of expressive, mobile face that revealed every random thought that flitted through his agile young mind.

They were a winsome, mischievous pair, Matt and Scott, and they often got into trouble. Matt was more adept at displaying wide-eyed innocence, but Scott—well, all Mark had to do was look at him sternly, and the whole sordid tale would come tumbling out.

Matt would slap his forehead, Scott would collapse in remorse, and Mark would point at his son triumphantly: another plot foiled, young man!

Nothing the boys did was ever so very terrible, but nothing they did was ever secret for very long, either.

Scott’s parents, Vera and Vince, were warm people. They’d drop anything to make us welcome, and food and drink would flow. Vera was a hometown beauty; Vince was a New York City guy, the Bronx tumbling in his voice. He had a wry, sly sense of humor.

They were originals: they loved their sweet dog, for instance, who’d died the year before I met them. They had the pup stuffed and mounted and put on a wheeled wooden base. They kept him in a closet, and they brought him out when they missed his canine presence.

“Want to see?” Scott once asked me eagerly, and, “Uh, no thanks,” I hastily replied.

Vince usually had a great idea he was working on, a way to earn big stacks of money. Often, he’d want to involve us in the current scheme, and, not wanting to sell pizzas in addition to my day job, I grew to give those warm neighbors a kind of smiling wide berth.

And then, quite suddenly, not even a year after Mark and I married, Scott and his parents moved to a town about sixty miles away. Matt was devastated at the loss of his good buddy, and it happened so quickly, we were all a little stunned.

News floated back. Vera and Vince had hit a really bumpy patch.

Vera and Vince had split, and Scott was taking it really hard.

And then, finally, a longtime friend of Vera’s told us a shocking truth that she’d only just discovered: Vince wasn’t the person we thought he was. He was in a witness protection program; he was a recreated man, one with a new name and a totally new personality that he’d inhabited ably for over ten years. But finally, he went back, against all advice, to his troubled old stomping ground. He was never heard from again

My God, we thought; my GOD. How could a person live like that, comfortable in a certain, seemingly authentic persona, and, all the while, truly be someone else entirely?

And why didn’t we sense something off?

How could we not know?


“Hey,” said Jim, “want to check out this show? It’s called Defending Jacob.”

Mark and I watched with him: Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, and Jaedan Martell played the closely knit Barber family. Andy Barber was an assistant DA; Laurie worked at a school for children with special needs. And Jacob was just kind of a geeky 14-year-old kid…until he was charged with the murder of a classmate.

The series wraps itself around this question: did Jacob do it?

And, even more disturbing, could you live with someone—could you RAISE someone—for 14 years, and not know they were completely capable of vicious killing?

I’m not saying whether Jacob did it; I’m just saying those are the questions the series raised for me.

We watched one episode a night for several days; the show was really well-done, and each episode was gripping. And then finally, we came to Friday night, and, “Oh for heaven’s SAKE,” we said. “Let’s just watch it and find out.”

So we power-watched the remaining three episodes, white knuckled. When it was over, we looked like characters from a Saturday Night Live skit: our eyes were rimmed in white, and our hair was blown straight back from our faces. Our jaws hung slack.

We’d been through an emotional wringer.

“Wow,” one of us said. “Wow.” And then we all tottered away from the TV room. The next morning, we compared notes and discovered we’d each dreamt of the characters in Defending Jacob. The show had wormed into our psyches.


The idea of hidden selves is fascinating and coldly compelling and thoroughly terrifying. It is, I think, why so many people hate clowns: who wants to think that a smiling face can hide a much darker reality?


“Having a secret life,” writes Sakil King in “What Causes People to Live Double Lives,” “is not as unusual or abnormal as you may think. According to latest research, seventy percent of all men and fifty percent of all women are going to have an adulterous event at some point in their life. This implies that the vast majority of all people will live a double life at some point.”

I’m chilled by that statement, and I am doubtful about the statistics. Can you, after all, get reliable figures from a group of people who happily admit to lying? I think of my friends and my family and my colleagues, and I just cannot believe that so many people really cheat and lie.

But I take King’s point. Everyone has dreams and fantasies that they hold close, that they don’t share. So the really quiet person may picture herself as a head-banging rocker, bringing a raucous crowd to its feet. The slow, measured person might, when they are eyes-closed alone, see themselves, lean and mean, legs pumping, leading the pack in a fast-paced marathon. The always-agreeable nurturer might have a fantasy of standing at a podium, shouting out strong opinions, while an audience pumps fists in the air and roars agreement.

Worry enters, says King, when the hidden side of the personality leads into risk and danger.

Benedict Carey, in “The Secret Lives of Just About Everybody,” agrees. Most adults he says, are quite capable of having a vivid fantasy life, one that doesn’t interfere with their social functioning at all. Carey points out that, by the age of 6 or 7, children can keep positive secrets: they won’t tell Mom what Dad bought for her birthday, for instance. Keeping secrets can be a healthy, positive skill.

You might work with someone and never know that they’re an enthusiastic clog dancer, or that they love themselves a mighty poker game. And unless that activity becomes an obsession, what’s wrong with that?

But sometimes, the secret life IS wrong. Some rare people are, writes Carey, ‘pathologically remorseless.’ Those people don’t care if the secret they keep has negative and disastrous impacts on others.

Those people might have a separate family tucked away, or an obsession that costs so much it causes real hardship for the people they live with.

And then there are repressors. Carey reports that they make up ten to fifteen per cent of the population, and they are people “who are adept at ignoring or suppressing information that is embarrassing to them and thus well equipped to keep secrets…” Although psychologists don’t have a definite explanation as to why repressors develop, they could be people with painful, terrifying memories. Rather than remember the bad stuff, they pull up happy thoughts, cheerful memories.

They refuse to deal with the reality of their pasts.

But Carey, too, writes that there can be healthy, enriching benefits to having a vivid inner life, one that may be different than our public personas. He quotes psychologist Jay S. Kwawer as saying, “Contrary to what many people assume, quite often a secret life can bring a more lively, more intimate, more energized part of themselves out of the dark.”


“Did you know,” I ask Mark, “that Charles Lindbergh had a double life?”

“WHAT?” says Mark, and I drag him over to the computer. Carey mentioned Lindbergh as a famous person who led a double life, and, a longtime fan of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s writing, I was shocked. I followed the internet trail, and found an article called “Lindbergh’s Double Life.” Mark and I scroll through; we learn that Lindbergh had a separate family with a woman named Brigitte Hesshaimer. He met Brigitte when he was 55 and she was 31. He would visit her in Germany two or three times a year; their children thought he was Mr. Careu Kent.

Even after Lindbergh’s death in 1974, Brigitte maintained secrecy. The story only emerged in 2003, when the children came forth with the story. They didn’t claim any of Lindbergh’s estate; they only wanted to be honest about the relationship before their book, Das Doppelleben des Charles A. Lindbergh (The Double Life of Charles A. Lindbergh), hit print in 2005.

Lindbergh, it turns out, had two other mistresses, and four other children.

That’s a little different than dreaming of being a rock star.

That kind of secrecy affects other people in large and serious ways.


I can see the healthy escape a vivid fantasy life provides. But the idea of living with someone for ten, or fifteen, or forty years, and never knowing a huge and relevant secret: well, that’s a frightening thing.

That’s the thread nightmares are woven from.

Jim tells me that the book Defending Jacob has a different ending than the limited series. And so I request it from the library. It’s sitting on my TBR stack, waiting for me to finish Wolf Hall, so I can torment myself with the thought that the people closest to us may be people we don’t really know at all.