Is It Fair To Go Ahead With This Wedding?
It’s still not clear how or why that strange misunderstanding occurred. The plan we’d made was pretty straightforward: Claudia Martinelli and I were to meet each other in the lobby of the Yale Club, which is just across the street from Grand Central Terminal. That waiting area isn’t large, so it never occurred to me that we needed to describe ourselves, put carnations in our lapels, do anything of that sort.
When I arrived, ten minutes late, out of breath, the lobby was unusually crowded and noisy. Clusters of people stood around talking, laughing; their high-pitched voices echoed off the marble walls, muffling phrases of the familiar carols being piped in from unseen speakers. The whole lobby was dressed up for the Christmas holiday: Huge red velvet bows festooned the high archways leading to the elevators on the right side of the lobby; and on the opposite side, the same red velvet bows graced the handrails of the wide stairway leading up to the cocktail lounge on the mezzanine. The sounds of a loud party floated down from up there. I looked around but didn’t see the woman I was expecting.
Very few people were actually sitting in the club’s waiting section, which consists of several dark blue sofas and blue, comfortable-looking chairs arranged in an elongated oval. There was one person, actually, a strikingly attractive woman sitting by herself; but she surely didn’t correspond to my image of the person I was meeting. Anyhow, this woman didn’t seem to be on the lookout for me; her gaze slid right past without a flicker of interest and remained fixed upon the revolving door at the entrance.
She’s waiting for a date, I thought. Someone important to her, for she was sitting forward on her seat intently. At her feet was a striped pale green shopping bag that bore the label Emporio Armani.
Behind me the front door went on swishing steadily, letting in blasts of cold air and new arrivals. I stood there, uncertain, feeling guilty about my perennial tardiness. The tall grandfather clock, which had been decorated with fragrant Christmas greens, suddenly emitted a loud, single chime. For a moment all the cheerful hubbub halted. It was actually six-fifteen, not ten after, so I’d arrived even later than I’d thought.
Was it possible that my interviewee had gotten here on the dot of six, waited briefly, and then left because I was nowhere to be seen? Or was this a plain and simple no-show? Claudia Martinelli had sounded pretty agitated during our several preliminary phone calls; she might have gotten confused about the plans, which had been changed a couple of times, or even decided against participating in this project—an exploration of secrets and lies and how they affect us mentally and physically. Had I said anything that might have sounded overly intrusive or alarming?
I sank into one of the deep armchairs with my back to the revolving door and soon found myself gazing covertly at the handsome woman sitting across from me. She had wide, pale blue eyes, fringed with black, unblinking as a bird’s and focused on the entryway in back of me. Her hair was light colored—masses of curls, which looked carefully disarranged—and she wore a very short dark wool dress, clockworked stockings, and polished boots with heels so tall and narrow that the whole effect was faintly pornographic. She wasn’t merely good-looking, as I’d first thought; she was beautiful—the kind of woman whose mere existence eclipses every female around her.
It was six twenty-five, and whoever she was meeting still hadn’t arrived. In the meantime, a smattering of other people sitting in the area had linked up with their friends, and some new personnel had come to take up places on the dark blue patterned sofas. I was growing ever more certain that Claudia Martinelli wasn’t going to show up and feeling responsible for whatever might have gone wrong. I had been too casual in making arrangements for this meeting. I had come too late, and she’d gone before I got here. I’d made some ill-advised remark that had disturbed her, and she’d decided not to be interviewed.
I began to console myself with the fact that I had a goodly number of other volunteers for the research I was engaged in—a project that had begun as a straightforward study of secrets and lies, but then expanded as I’d reflected upon the narratives I was gathering. For as I’d moved from interview to interview, it had become ever clearer to me that there was so often a mysterious link between the secrets a person holds and painful events of the past—including painful events that he or she believes to have been fully dealt with and resolved. There was, too, a link between things that were happening in the person’s current-day life and those same toxic experiences—which may have happened recently or so long ago that they’d become lost to everyday, conscious awareness.
But whether they’re “forgotten” or present in the here and now, highly stressful events—by which I mean experiences that felt and still feel harsh, overwhelming, traumatic—can leave in their wake a sense of inner chaos, of being helpless, disorganized, unable to cope or self-soothe and calm oneself down. Traumatic situations leave their symptomatic calling cards, and while the story of what originally happened may go underground in the form of a closely held secret, the body “remembers” what occurred, for it remains stored within the neural circuitry. Not only does the body remember, but the original story goes on being told and retold in disguised form—often as incomprehensibly powerful emotional and physical reactions or as inexplicable, self-damaging, repetitive patterns of behavior.
Those symptoms that are carried in the body may emerge in subtle or in strikingly clear-cut ways. For example, they can show up as muscle tension, hyperarousal, stomachaches, headaches, anxiety, changes in sleep patterns, depressed mood, fatigue, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, or an enhanced vulnerability to colds and other illnesses. The aftereffects of such experiences may also be expressed in the form of behavior, such as becoming involved in relationships that are hurtful and demeaning or in dangerous kinds of acting out, including wild sexual escapades, compulsive gambling, or addictions to drugs, alcohol, or food.
Less obviously, a trauma of some kind may leave a permanent mark upon a person’s view of the self and of his or her world. Some fall into a way of being best described as a kind of “learned voicelessness,” a peculiar talent for getting into depriving relationships. Such relationships foster a state of emotional numbness, a pervading silence about the individual’s own desires and preferences; and in such situations, the voiceless partner’s needs and wishes go unheard; they almost seem to have no existence.
This is by no means disconnected from the common observation that severely stressful events can leave an individual with a sense of not being fully present in his or her life, of being “out of it” somehow. The person is eminently capable of going through all the right motions yet lacks a real sense of being fully embodied in the here and now of the present moment.
It’s now well recognized that traumatic events leave their neural imprint upon what is called the “old,” emotional brain, and that even small reminders of the trauma can immediately activate the body’s survival alarm system. This is the renowned “fight-or-flight response”—an instantaneous, physiological reaction to danger that has served our species well over aeons of evolutionary time. The only drawback to this wonderfully automatic, self-defensive reaction is that after the challenge, when all threat is long past, some people cannot calm their minds and their bodies down again. They remain battle-ready, sometimes for years—on the alert for fresh danger, mistrustful of others, prone to feelings of shame, anger, and apprehension.
Just recently, in the course of several long telephone conversations with Claudia Martinelli, it had seemed to me that I was hearing this kind of gut-level agitation and alarm in her fearful, pressured tone of voice.
To be sure, when it came to secrets and lies, Claudia was dealing with some very big ones; her current situation was distressing enough to get anyone upset. Still, as I sat there waiting, I found myself speculating about whether or not there had been earlier events in her life, some profoundly disturbing experiences, that had set the stage for her becoming embroiled in her current situation. For as I’d already come to realize in the course of my interviews, the secrets people keep, and the lies they tell, frequently stem from odd acts of loyalty and protection.
Those matters that we choose to censor or completely conceal from the world (and, in some instances, even from ourselves) often have to do with painful memories involving those we have loved, and may remain deeply loyal to, even though their behavior toward us or their heedless neglect of our needs once caused us great harm. So you had to wonder: Was something from the past driving Claudia’s wildly mistrustful behavior, making her feel that the very notion of confiding in the person closest to her, her new husband, was completely out of the question—that simply being herself would drive him away? Moreover, what (if any) signals was her body sending her whenever she contemplated opening up and telling him the truth?
As Claudia was to tell me later on, the mere thought of doing so always set off some frantic reactions in her body—most prominently, feelings of constriction in her throat, as if she couldn’t catch her breath, and a wildly thumping heartbeat. She took these to be urgent communiqués of alarm that translated into “Don’t even think of it!”
Claudia Martinelli was behaving as if her life’s experience had taught her, and taught her well, that trust and openness were simply not among the options to be considered in an intimate situation. Deeply ingrained within her physical being, as well as her belief system, seemed to be the basic assumption that lies and falsifications about who she really was, and what had actually happened in her past, were her only means of staying safe, if not to say surviving.
He Doesn’t Know Who I Really Am
Before making plans to meet her in person, I’d gained some preliminary understanding of the difficult and potentially disastrous circumstances in which Claudia Martinelli had recently found herself. As she’d described recent events in her life, she had gone to see a psychotherapist two weeks in advance of her second marriage, which had taken place some eight months earlier. At that point in time, elaborate arrangements for her wedding ceremony and reception—flowers, music, caterers—had been made and were all set to go, but she’d had an agonizing problem on her mind.
The dilemma that had suddenly sprung to front and center at that time had to do with everything about herself that she hadn’t told the man she was on the verge of marrying. For insofar as outward appearances were concerned, Claudia Martinelli was an attractive, stable, and reputable woman in her mid-thirties, who was on the fast track upward in the management hierarchy of an elegant Manhattan department store. However, unknown to Paul Novak, her bridegroom-to-be, there had been a period in her life—it was after the breakup of her first marriage—when she’d been partying uproariously, drinking too much, snorting cocaine, on the loose, living a wanton, promiscuous existence.
She’d said not a word about this to her future husband, even though she knew that Paul had been through a similar “crazy time” himself, after the bitter ending of his own first marriage. He’d gone through a period of living the same frenetic, drinking and drugging, dissolute life on the edge. He’d been a high-risk gambler for a while, too. The cardinal difference between them was that he had told her all about his past, while she’d held back about her own history and her reckless, extravagant experiences.
Why, I wondered, hadn’t she told him her story early on, during the highly romantic and potentially more forgiving period when they were just becoming involved? It would have been far easier at that point, but she had been afraid to take the risk. She’d probably been frightened that he would look down upon her as a wanton woman and lose respect for her, perhaps end the relationship on the spot. That would have been hard, for he’d been so kind and caring then; she hadn’t wanted to take the chance of spoiling things.
The truth was that this relationship had felt so right to her, and Claudia had been very tired of living on her own; she’d wanted to settle down, have a child or children, a real home. Moreover, as I was to learn, keeping secrets had been a way of life in the household in which she’d grown up. So she’d postponed making any revelations while events kept moving along, from courtship to an engagement to the plans for the wedding; and it wasn’t until just before her marriage that she began to panic about the secrets she was holding.
At that penultimate moment, she’d needed to consult someone outside the situation (not a close friend, not a relative, not anyone who knew her) about the pressing question she was asking herself over and over: Is it fair to go ahead with this wedding when the man I’m marrying doesn’t actually know who I am or the truth about my past? She was feeling beset by strong urges to unburden herself and just tell Paul about that period of her life; but each time she came close to doing so, those frantic warnings from within began prompting her to consider the probable consequences.
She seemed to know enough about her future spouse to realize that forgiveness wouldn’t come to him easily. In truth, her fears about the potential magnitude of his reaction always drew her up short, horrified. With the wedding arrangements all in place, and so many acceptances in, how could she spring this information on him from out of nowhere? Besides, wasn’t there a realistic danger that Paul would be so infuriated that he’d decide to call the whole thing off? If something like that did happen, she would be shamed and humiliated in front of all her and his family members and their entire circle of friends. Yet if she didn’t talk to him until after the wedding, there was the very real threat that her new husband would feel cheated and manipulated—as if he’d been hoodwinked into marrying a woman who wasn’t what she had appeared to be and who was, in fact, damaged goods.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Secrets, Lies, Betrayals by Maggie Scarf. Copyright © 2004 by Maggie Scarf. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.