Secrets and lies

I have a past life that would raise the hair on your neck. Do I have to tell my boyfriend?

By Garrison Keillor
August 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
main article image

Some readers protested my advice to Lonely Wife, whose wonderful
husband is spending three and four hours a day and a couple hundred
dollars a month looking at pornography on the Web. Some readers
suggested he go for therapy. One wrote: "You treat pornography like a
fun game when it can actually be very dangerous. I spent five years in
a dead marriage trying to figure out what was wrong. It was abusive
use of porn. It makes a woman feel pretty miserable when she is
rejected in favor of images." I stand by my advice, that the woman
express friendly interest in seeing what her husband is looking at.
That she try to talk with him about why these images interest him.
First of all, a stern, forbidding presence is likely only to intensify
his pleasure; and second, nothing could sap the intensity of the
fantasy quite like the friendly presence of one's spouse. Porn is all
about unreality. I agree that it can be harmful, if obsessive, as this
man's habit seemed to be. I also think he is paying too much. -- Mr. Blue

Dear Mr. Blue,


I have been with my boyfriend, an architect, for a year. He wants to
get married, and so do I. But I have a secret, a past life that would
raise the hair on your neck. When I think of it, I can't believe it
was me. Alas, no respectable person would ever consider forgiving
this lack of good judgment. What should I do? Tell all and risk
losing the one I love or forge ahead hoping that he never finds out?
Sure, honesty is the best policy, but some things have a social stigma
that can't be explained away.

Squirming in NYC

Dear Squirming,


Your boyfriend loves you as the person you are now; he doesn't need to
know everything about your past. He really doesn't. St. Paul (who was
no squishy liberal) said, "But one thing I do: Forgetting what is
behind and straining toward what is ahead ..." Leave the old days
behind; you're not the same person. OK, so you once danced naked on
barroom tables and invited lascivious software salesmen to put dollar
bills into your garter belt -- or, worse, you spent a few terms in
Congress -- it's over and done. If he ever finds out about it, let
him take up the task of forgiving you. But you forgive yourself and
put this secret behind you.

Dear Mr. Blue,

She looks like she's stepped out of a John Singer Sargent painting,
and she's generous, unpretentious and loving (in a Christian way),
but she's said twice that she doesn't want me. Since then, I've tried
everything -- searching for God, buying a Corvette and revving through
the countryside, brushing up on my Spanish, moving to a part of town
full of nubile young artists -- but when I see her at work and talk
with her, I can't stop thinking about her. Any suggestions?



Dear Smitten,

The lady has spoken. Sometimes a woman will change her mind, but this
is not up to you, and you should not make a heroic effort. If I may
be blunt here, I wonder if you're not simply wanting to, as we say,
get into her pants. Perhaps she senses this. Perhaps she is trying to
point you in the direction of friendship. Perhaps you should take this
cue. It's tough when we can't get what we want, but sometimes this
sends us on a circuitous route that winds up at something better that
we would have wanted if we only had known it was there.


Dear Mr. Blue,

I was a freelance writer for years and now have a great new job at a
magazine as a senior editor. I get along well with most of my
co-workers except two who worry me. One is a very aggressive woman who, when
I joined the staff, asked me out a lot and liked to gossip, and who I
sense is not to be trusted. The other is a woman who is absolutely insane, who
walks around telling people that the reason she doesn't hand in her
work on time is because she has an "AIDS-like condition." How do I
deal with these co-workers?

Trying to Rise Above It All


Dear Trying,

It's a volatile business, and when a magazine starts to
lose its grip, regimes topple, the tumbrels fill up with senior
editors, blood flows in the hallways. Consequently, magazine people
tend to give each other plenty of slack, knowing that Life May Be
Short. At the places I know about, you could walk around in your
underwear humming the Ride of the Valkyries so long as your work is
good. And a certain slacker element is accepted. I mean, you're not
building the City of God on earth, you're only putting out a rag to
amuse people waiting to get root canals or rectal examinations. Be
polite without fail, don't gossip with the gossips, avoid romance with
colleagues and do your work. And plan for when the revolution comes.

Dear Mr. Blue,


I'm a single mom with five children. The youngest is 8, the oldest 22.
How do I get back to any kind of relationship? I battle daily with
financial survival and bouts of depression. The depression has led to
excessive eating and weight gain. I feel old before my time. I suspect
that not many guys want a broke, overweight, middle-aged mom of five.
Not a very attractive personals ad. I was married for 20-plus years.
The end of the marriage wasn't my choice, but that was a few years
ago. I'm not sure if there's time or enough life left in me to try


Dear Lonely,

You're smart and courageous and funny and with those five kids, you'll
always have enough inspiration and lunacy in your life. I bet on you
to come through the depression and find a way to get the eating under
control. (As for the financial problems, I hope Dad is doing his
part.) You're right, a personals ad that read, "Impoverished Heavy Gal
with five kiddoes seeks Handsome Prince to make everything right"
would not be a winner. But you are not defined by your deficits any
more than I am. Tackle the problems one at a time: finances,
depression, health and well-being, in any order you choose. Before you
try to be attractive to someone else, win your own self-respect. Sit
down and list some steps to improve matters: This is to ward off
desperation. Every day, do something to improve your life. Make
yourself take a walk every day. Get in touch with the current job
market, if you're out of touch. Give yourself a little time every day
to lie down in a room by yourself and simply think. Remember that you
have these five kids watching and learning from you, and when you take
charge of your own life, you're also teaching your kids that ordinary
heroism is possible.


Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been in a relationship for the past three years with a man I
love very much. We live together and have a great relationship except
that he says he is not ready to be monogamous. This was a hypothetical
problem until recently when he admitted that on an international trip he
took a few months back, he slept with a woman, a close friend, and now
I am at a loss as to how to deal with the situation.

I am upset that at first he lied to me about his behavior. Can you
clarify it for me?



Dear Confused,

He's not ready to be monogamous, as he told you, and now you know he
meant what he said. Don't throw away three years for one violation,
but do clear things up with him. For one thing, he has no right to
expose you to sexually transmitted disease. For another, you need to
believe in yourself as a woman who is worth a man's full attention and
passion and not a sideline, a hobby. It's painful to get this sorted
out, but do it expeditiously, no shilly-shallying. Be explicit. You
want monogamy. If he doesn't, then get his suitcase out of the closet
and lay it open across the bed.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am almost 27 years old and live in Tokyo, having left a promising
computer job and gone abroad to escape the loathsome doldrums of daily
cubicle life. I'm doing quite well here flittering around with Asian
lovelies, but my friends stateside are getting rich off the Internet
boom, and I'm wondering whether to return to the States and hop onto
their track, or stay here at a pretty good job and live the expat
life. At what age must I halt this foolishness?



Dear Adam,

Do you envy their wealth? Probably your friends envy your expat life
and don't dare admit it. They wonder what it'd be like to live outside
the U.S., and they'll never know. They're too old now to try. And their
bubble of prosperity is getting bigger and bigger and they're worried
that it may burst and cast them back into the loathsome doldrums.
Meanwhile you're actually living life to the fullest, which is the
beauty part of the expat life: It really keeps you awake to be outside
the culture. You needn't halt this foolishness until you reach a dead
end, and then you can go on and find some new foolishness. It's the
way life is, if you're lucky. You leap from one beautiful mistake to
the next and the next and the next. Pity the poor cube in the cubicle
who is following all the rules and managing the arc of his career. Be
glad to be you and not him.

Dear Mr. Blue,

For the past four years, I have been working at a publishing
house in a small town. I would like to try working in the
editorial department at one of the big national publications in New
York City, such as Time or Mademoiselle.

Do I need major connections (I have none) to land this type of job?
Would I need more experience? Or is it feasible to pick up, go to N.Y.
and try to break in through temping/interning at one of these big
publishing conglomerates?

Magazine Junkie

Dear Junkie,

My sources at Time say that fact-checking is the usual
entry-level editorial position, and that you can expect to go through
a number of temporary and probationary phases before becoming a
full-timer. Jane Bachman at Time says: "If someone is willing to break
in at the bottom of the heap, pay his/her dues, I'd say there probably
are some good opportunities and, yes, New York is the place to be. I'd
suggest coming to the city for a few weeks, pounding the pavement,
hounding the offices of Time Inc., Hearst, Condi Nast, etc. (or try to
set up interviews beforehand); sometimes, of course, it can just be a
matter of timing, but if someone has a passionate interest in
journalism, it usually shines through ... and, no, I don't think you
have to know anybody."

Dear Mr. Blue,

Up to this point, I've always enjoyed a free-spirit lifestyle; while
my friends were grabbing their diplomas and marrying, I was traveling
around soaking up new places and experience. And then last year I came
to D.C., got a job and suddenly woke up with this fear of not being
settled. I'm 28 and dating a younger Thai man who tells me he's crazy
about me, but lately I've been feeling this paranoia about being with
him if he's not the one for me in the long term. What I don't know
is, how do you know if someone is right or not? How long should I give


Dear Independent,

All is well so far: You've endeavored to have an interesting life, and
I guess you were successful. So you'll have plenty of stories to tell
your grandchildren and wonderful memories when you're camped on the
veranda of the Good Shepherd nursing home. Don't panic about settling
down. You're 28, a serious age, but it's not the same as 38, or 48. Be
casual, be cool and if you're not crazy about this younger man, don't
pretend that you are. Not for a minute. If you feel uneasy about him,
then don't lean his way. Don't settle for less than what makes you
happy. How do you know if he's right? You feel it in your heart: You
think, This is the guy with whom I'd gladly share a cabin on a
freighter from Marseilles to Seattle via Johannesberg, Calcutta,
Singapore, Sydney and Honolulu, without a doubt.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am trying to finish my dissertation, and it is becoming a real
headache. I am an OK writer with plenty to say. My main problem is
having no deadlines to meet and being unable to force myself to
create them. How can a writer successfully invent deadlines and beat
the laziness bug, or is there some other way of getting the job done?
At this point I am more interested in "done" than in "excellent." Any

Gradual Student

Dear GS,

Make a syllabus, if you haven't already, and lay out the stages of the
project; set a goal for each stage, and find a friend who is
willing to oversee you and hold you accountable for fulfilling your
plan. Don't be embarrassed about doing this. Just do it. You've done
this sort of labor before, now do it again. One day at a time. Meet
your daily goal, and then put a CD on and fire up a pizza. Day by day.
You can do it. Writing is cumulative. You write a few pages a day and
keep going and eventually you get there.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Several months ago I met a wonderful man and we began dating. He had
recently ended a relationship and was cautious about appearing to be
on the rebound. We enjoyed each other's company immensely, but did
not sleep together. I did not meet his friends or family, and the words
"girlfriend" or "boyfriend" were not used.

A month later, I began dating another man. After a month, I
reluctantly ended things with the first man, since the second appeared
to want to build a relationship and was very forthright about his
affection, although we did not sleep together either.

Another three weeks passed and I realized that I had made a huge
mistake and I ended things with the second man. I called the first
man and we had a four-hour, gut-wrenching conversation that ended in
reconciliation. This was five months ago. Since then we have fallen
completely in love and discuss marriage regularly.

My problem is this: While I alluded to the other man when we
reconciled, I never actually told him that I broke up with someone to
pursue a relationship with him. He is very honest with me, and a few
of my friends know what happened.

Do I need to tell him? I love him more than anything else in the

Haunted by Conscience

Dear Haunted,

You could tell him or you could reckon that the allusion was enough.
It's an innocent tale, utterly innocent, so don't see this as a big
problem. I mean, dating another guy for three weeks is not a major
deal, not enough of a relationship to justify the term "breaking up" -- you simply stopped seeing him. In fact, No. 2 undoubtedly served as
a catalyst to get you back with No. 1. No reason to be haunted by
this, but if you really think you are, and if there comes a point in
the conversation where it's utterly natural to say something about
this, then allude to Mr. Two again, and if Mr. One is interested, tell
him the story.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I seem to have a deficiency in reproductive drive. I am healthy, in
love and secure, yet I have no desire whatsoever to father children.
This was a factor in the loss of my first wife. My second and final
wife has two beautiful children of her own. I love them like crazy.

She is accepting but thinks that I will never be fulfilled if I don't
father a child. All of my friends and colleagues are parents and all
seem to regard me with pity, concern or even sadness. I am a
physician, and I frequently meet patients who are infertile and will go
to almost any length to have a child. I just cannot relate to this.
I have been involved in hundreds of births and have seen the joy; I just don't
want it for myself. Do you believe one can find fulfillment in life
without being a parent?

Evolutionary Dead End

Dear EDE,


Don't let other people write your life for you. Enjoy your
stepchildren and don't procreate for recreation. Keep on being normal
in your own odd way.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Why do people say "feel" when they mean "think," and
vice versa? I don't think these two words are interchangeable, yet it
seems most others feel otherwise because they use them as if they mean
the same thing. I'd be interested to know what you think or feel about

Flummoxed Grammarian

My dear Grammarian,

I admire your quest for clarity, I truly do, but
thought and feeling are so delicately intertwined that it is not
possible to put them into two separate bins, and the writer/speaker
must choose between them intuitively and sometimes mix them. "Think"
can seem weak and hesitant, "feel" can sound gloopy and sometimes you
need to reach for "believe" or "consider" or "am positive," and then,
when you get to be my age, you stop attributing your thoughts and
feelings to yourself and you simply state things as a plain natural
fact and let the reader/listener grapple with it. This is the correct
answer to your question.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a woman of middle years who has had a fascinating and picaresque
life. Marriage No. 1 to college sweetheart ended after children left.
Marriage No. 2, to a charming rotter, dragged on for 12 years and
damaged me badly. And now, after a year alone, I've fallen madly in
love with a man several years my junior and know he is right for me.
He is just not ready to commit, although he says he loves me and does
not want to lose me.

I appreciate his reticence, but how long should I wait to plan a
future? Is there a timetable for these things?

Near New York

Dear Near,

The timetable is his timetable; the herd moves at the pace of the
slowest buffalo. You have his companionship, and probably you won't
lose it unless you force him to commit before he's able. Endure being
uncomfortable for a while. It won't harm you. Let the future happen,
week by week, for a while. Meantime, don't be picaresque with this nice

Dear Mr. Blue,

In 1958 my grandmother shot and killed my grandfather because of his
infidelities. She never served time in prison as her offense was
deemed a crime of passion. But the bullet that killed my grandfather
killed many other things as well. Forty years afterward, several of
us are still suffering the consequences of that fatal night. I want to
write the story of our family but I don't know where to begin. I know
I won't get a lot of support from my relatives. Everyone wants to bury
the past. I also majored in engineering so I don't have the basics.
Can you give me direction. Is there a story to tell?

Writer Wannabe

Dear W.W.,

You believe there's a story to tell, obviously, so start
digging immediately. Begin with the murder. Get hold of the police
records and court proceedings, and then start interviewing -- the
adults of 1958 will not be around much longer for you to talk to, and
when they're gone, this story vanishes with them. As you get a grasp
of the story, write an outline that will serve to focus your efforts:
If you're not a great prose stylist, that's OK, you can make up for
it with logic and organization. Take it as far as you can, and then
decide whether you want to take it further. Do it for your grandmother
and grandfather. And as for the people who say they want to bury the
past, they will be the ones most anxious to read the results of your
inquiry. Good luck. And go to it. You won't regret making the effort.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am divorced from my husband, who has not spoken to me for 15
years, and now I am losing my daughter, our only child. It breaks my
heart. Four years ago, I got upset about her taking me for granted,
and she went on the offensive, accusing me of not wanting to see her
(untrue), and made a number of other accusations and criticisms, most
of which were incredibly petty. When I suggested that we go for joint
counseling (I was at a loss to know where her anger was coming from)
she told me that writing to me was a "waste of ink" and that she never
wanted to have anything more to do with me. She took the suggestion of
therapy as being an insulting suggestion that there was something
wrong with her.

I have been writing down my thoughts and feelings about this, thinking
I might publish it some day. I never thought this would happen to us;
but I believe that she enjoyed rejecting me. I have not tried to
communicate with her for some time. My previous efforts made me sick
at heart and body.

Do you recommend learning acceptance and waiting for her to figure out
her own stuff, or would you have another suggestion? I still love her but can't say that I like her a whole lot anymore. I
didn't deserve this.

Rejected Mom

Dear Rejected,

This is a grievous story and I am sorry for your loss of the adult
friendship of a child. But your combative tone makes me think that you
have blundered into this situation and antagonized your daughter on
your own steam. You say this started back when you got upset about her
taking you for granted? Good Lord, madame, that is a poor pretext for
a fight with your only child, I must say. God knows, it's human enough
to get upset, but there comes a point when you simply must accept your
children as they are, stop prodding and pushing and punishing them,
and learn to enjoy their company. You weren't rejected: You simply got
into a fight you had no business fighting, and you wound up the loser.
It's a sad fact that our power to anger and alienate others is so
immense and our power to reconcile is so pitifully small. The lesson
is: Be slow to anger. Don't be right every time you have a chance to.
And don't go off writing a book about this as a further exercise in
self-justification. If you need to write something, try writing an

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

MORE FROM Garrison Keillor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Writers And Writing