essay

The Language of Secrecy

By Marco Roth
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The Language of Secrecy
Marco Roth.

I no longer know when I learned the word ‘furtive,’ or how I first understood its meaning. Perhaps, from false etymology, I associated it with ‘fur,’ aligning the word with ‘muffled’ and conjuring visions of small, hunted mammals scurrying audibly but never visibly in woodland undergrowth. In this imaginary bestiary, ‘furtive’ was the harmless cousin to the more predatory ‘skulk’ and ‘lurk,’ although it seems to me now that I must have learned the word as a more social-minded, less metaphorically inclined teenager. That’s probably wrong, too, an error of association. Sure, much of what I did in those years I did furtively, nothing romantically clandestine, no special operations of seduction or discovery as I daily made my way back and forth to school across Central Park, returning later and later with each passing year as I added orchestra practice and theater rehearsals to an already growing list of approved activities. At home, there were my tip-toed violations of medicine cabinets, which revealed nothing special in unmarked vials, condoms in a dresser drawer. As for many, my teenage years were a period of muffled longings after desires, the objects themselves muffled by vagueness, inexperience, fear of making myself a fool. Nothing so exceptional: but there was an additional need for secrecy that added to the usual furtiveness about more life-affirming matters.

When I was fourteen, my father told me that he’d contracted the HIV virus through an accident at the clinic he supervised, in Harlem. He had, he said, between months and five years to live, and neither my mother nor I were supposed to tell anyone about it: not our friends, not my teachers, nor my mother’s musician colleagues. This was New York City in the mid 1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis, in an educated and fairly affluent family brought up on the values of ethical culture, free to be you and me, and the libraries of every civilized person. We’d passed stickers proclaiming Silence=Death on lampposts and subway platforms, and my mother, at least, knew more than a few gay men who had friends or lovers suffering from the disease. If my father’s request to be quiet—really more like a demand—seemed unusual to us, my mother and I never mentioned it. And so I came to live under a double regime of secrecy: while at my Upper East Side school for tomorrow’s leaders (motto: “We go forth unafraid”) I said nothing about my knowledge of my father’s impending death; at home, I worried any signs of life I gave would be inappropriate to the atmosphere. We’d leaped ahead into mourning, covered up only by my mother’s efforts to make sure my father remained comfortable and undisturbed as he religiously imbibed those early, damaging anti-retrovirals with their mysterious triple initials, AZT and DDI, from an IV stand, hooked up next to the couch where he’d once taught me to read.

It was difficult to know what my father felt as his life drained away, seemingly in proportion to each discarded fluid bag. Scientist by training, teacher by inclination, he spoke a lot about T-cell counts and the molecular mechanics of HIV virus reproduction. He could lecture so well and with such animation, at times, that I failed to notice how facts and truths about our bodily systems could be marshaled as the best secret-keepers of all. One kind of knowledge could be put to work to maintain an unawareness of another.

In later years, after my father’s death, the content of the secret mattered less to our surviving family than the ways secrecy became a habit. My mother and I were used to practicing indirection, wooly or ‘furry’ thinking, evasion: about money, about love, about our work. When I first decided to try to write about living with my father and his many secrets, of which the disease was only the most visible, my first conscious step was to enroll myself in a PhD program in Comparative Literature, where my professors viewed any evidence of literary ambition as a symptom of one’s unfitness for the work of professional academic scholarship. What I wanted to do had to be done on the down low. Around the same time, I started sleeping with the close friend of a girl I was in love with. It happened, I told myself, ‘by accident,’ just as my father caught the disease by accident. Whatever desire led me away from the one I desired, or towards wanting to wound before I could be wounded, I pretended not to know. The secret doesn’t just keep you as you learn to keep it; it shapes you to its purpose even when it no longer serves any purpose.

Now that the story is out, as much as I’ll ever know about it, the old habits still linger. My mother calls me up, occasionally, and says, for example, “I ran into Maury Silverberg on the subway today coming out of Lincoln Center.”

I won’t remember Maury Silverberg, even though my mother reminds me that he used to come to our house concerts when I was six years old. She’ll insist I do remember him; he’s a wonderful man, she says, and lists his accomplishments known to her New York music scene. I’ll wait on the line to figure out where this is going.

“He told me he was really enjoying your book.”

I want to ask her why she’s telling me this. Does it make her proud, ashamed, angry? Does she find the man’s use of ‘enjoy’ offensive? Did she tell him, “I’m so glad you can enjoy the worst years of my life?” Was there something else she felt: a recognition, a possibility of something they now shared, unspoken, a memory of my father he had that he’d kept to himself and kept still to himself? She won’t say. Instead, she lets a silence fall, a silence into which, maybe, she waits for me to ask, just as I’m waiting for her to frame the anecdote for me, to give it some kind of narrative meaning we can share: To come out with it. Even now, years and years on, we’re still waiting to talk to each other openly, in the clearer light of who we, as a small family, now know ourselves to have been, of what we had actually experienced, that legacy of desire and fear of desire and the tragic consequences engendered, out of the undergrowth.

About the Author

Marco Roth is a writer, literary critic, and co-founder of n+1 magazine. His book “The Scientists: A Family Romance” traces his family’s response to his father’s struggle with HIV and other unforeseen transmissions. He lives in Philadelphia.

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