Copyright – The New York Times – Published: January 11, 2005
One mislaid credit card bill or a single dangling e-mail message on the home computer would have ended everything: the marriage, the big-time career, the reputation for decency he had built over a lifetime.
So for more than 10 years, he ruthlessly kept his two identities apart: one lived in a Westchester hamlet and worked in a New York office, and the other operated mainly in clubs, airport bars and brothels. One warmly greeted clients and waved to neighbors, sometimes only hours after the other had stumbled back from a “work” meeting with prostitutes or cocaine dealers.
In the end, it was a harmless computer pop-up advertisement for security software, claiming that his online life was being “continually monitored,” that sent this New York real estate developer into a panic and to a therapist.
The man’s double life is an extreme example of how mental anguish can cleave an identity into pieces, said his psychiatrist, Dr. Jay S. Kwawer, director of clinical education at the William Alanson White Institute in New York, who discussed the case at a recent conference.
But psychologists say that most normal adults are well equipped to start a secret life, if not to sustain it. The ability to hold a secret is fundamental to healthy social development, they say, and the desire to sample other identities – to reinvent oneself, to pretend – can last well into adulthood. And in recent years researchers have found that some of the same psychological skills that help many people avoid mental distress can also put them at heightened risk for prolonging covert activities.
“In a very deep sense, you don’t have a self unless you have a secret, and we all have moments throughout our lives when we feel we’re losing ourselves in our social group, or work or marriage, and it feels good to grab for a secret, or some subterfuge, to reassert our identity as somebody apart,” said Dr. Daniel M. Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard. He added, “And we are now learning that some people are better at doing this than others.” …
…Psychologists have long considered the ability to keep secrets as central to healthy development. Children as young as 6 or 7 learn to stay quiet about their mother’s birthday present. In adolescence and adulthood, a fluency with small social lies is associated with good mental health. And researchers have confirmed that secrecy can enhance attraction, or as Oscar Wilde put it, “The commonest thing is delightful if only one hides it.”
In one study, men and women living in Texas reported that the past relationships they continued to think about were most often secret ones. In another, psychologists at Harvard found that they could increase the attraction between male and female strangers simply by encouraging them to play footsie as part of a lab experiment…
…”It used to be you’d go away for the summer and be someone else, go away to camp and be someone else, or maybe to Europe and be someone else” in a spirit of healthy experimentation, said Dr. Sherry Turkle, a sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now, she said, people regularly assume several aliases on the Internet, without ever leaving their armchair: the clerk next door might sign on as firstname.lastname@example.org but also cruise chat rooms as Armaniguy, Cool Breeze and Thunderboy…