Where the Bonbons Are Buried
By STEVEN KURUTZ
Soon after they moved in together, a woman we’ll refer to simply as Ashley noticed that her boyfriend had amnesia when it came to remembering where household items were kept. If he needed a bandage, for example, he would ask her where to find it — repeatedly. “I’ll say, ‘It’s in the box in the bathroom, where it always is,’ ” Ashley said.
Some might find this trait annoying, but Ashley recognized an opportunity. Where her boyfriend never seemed to go or remember going, she was able to create secret stashes of things she would just as soon keep to herself: junk food hidden in a stack of mixing bowls in a kitchen cupboard; old photographs stowed in a box at the back of the bedroom closet; extravagant purchases tucked behind the couch.
One day while she was mopping the bathroom floor, Ashley discovered a loose strip of molding under the sink and behind it a small cavity: another place to stash things she does not want her boyfriend to see.
“I have lots of hiding places around my house,” said Ashley, who is in her mid-20s and lives in La Crosse, Wis. (she asked that her full name and occupation not be used so that her secret places could remain secret). “As long as I’m half in the open, it goes over his head every time.”
It’s an unsettling thing to consider on Valentine’s Day: somewhere in your home, in a spot you pass several times a day, your partner may be concealing something, be it grave or trivial: old love letters, cigarettes, money, evidence of an affair.
As Deborah Cohen, a history professor at Northwestern University, said, “The need to hide something is almost universal.”
“Family Secrets,” Dr. Cohen’s new book that is due out in April, explores the changing role of secrecy in Britain, going back to the famously private Victorians. During her research, she came across 19th-century ads for desks and tables with compartments that were not just hidden but locked. “These cabinets were an attempt to maintain familial or individual privacy,” Dr. Cohen said. “When you look at records from divorce trials, you see how this locked furniture was put to use.”
She added, “I think a pretty extraordinary amount is still hidden.”
THE QUESTION IS WHERE — AND WHAT?
Stuffed in a box in the bedroom closet, Ashley keeps photos of former boyfriends. When she lived alone, she kept them “closer to the top of the pile,” she said, adding that after her boyfriend moved in, “I made it a point to squirrel it away in the back.”
But that’s not all. “Along with some pictures — and I refuse to believe all girls don’t do this — I do have a letter and little trinkets,” she said.
Many people hide artifacts of past relationships from their partners, for arguably valid reasons. Throwing them away can feel like losing a part of your past. But if you live with someone, you won’t do so blissfully with souvenirs from old lovers lying around in the open.
Kristen Sokac, 21, who lives in Philadelphia and works as a model, said one of her favorite photos of herself happens to include another model she briefly dated. “It has nothing to do with the guy that’s in it,” she said. “But he’s in it. I can’t throw it away, but I can’t frame it on my wall.”
So Ms. Sokac keeps the image — along with letters from high school boyfriends and pictures of herself she finds embarrassing — in a breaker box in her apartment that looks functional but is, in fact, hollow. Her boyfriend, who stays over so regularly that Ms. Sokac feels they share the space, has no idea.
Books are another popular hiding place. Whitney Chandler, 29, a nanny who lives in Brooklyn, said her husband used to stash notes from former girlfriends in plain sight on the bookshelf. “I wasn’t going to snoop through his Kafka books,” she said. “And he knew that.”
He was not the only one hiding things. Ms. Chandler wrote comedy routines in secret, hoping one day to perform them on stage, and in the process, turned their 400-square-foot apartment in Seattle into the equivalent of a game of “Clue,” concealing her creative jottings inside books, in Tupperware containers stacked high on closet shelves and behind framed pictures on the wall.
“It turned out my husband found them,” Ms. Chandler said. “I was so embarrassed.”
The couple, now separated, uncovered each other’s hiding spots during a move. But it was not responsible for their split. “It wasn’t a big deal,” Ms. Chandler said, adding, “I think couples who live together should have those secret places.”
On this point, Ms. Sokac and Ashley agree. But Ashley’s boyfriend, who came across a photo of one of her exes, has a different view. “He feels because we’re a couple, we’re not going to have secrets,” she said. If he’s hiding something, she added, “I’ve found nothing.”
When Ms. Sokac discovered a card from a former girlfriend in one of her boyfriend’s books, she said, she put it back and pretended she hadn’t seen it. “I figure if he ever wants to talk, he’ll bring it up with me,” she said. “Even when you’re in a relationship, you’re still an individual and still have your individual history.”
Not everyone is so understanding. Particularly if the secret discovered sheds light on an aspect of a partner’s personality that threatens the relationship.
Stacey, a photo editor in New York, recalled finding a boyfriend’s pornography stash in the back of a closet. “There were pictures from the Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape — how dated is that?” said Stacey, who did not want her last name used to protect the identity of the former boyfriend. “I tore it all up and put it right back where it was hidden, just to see if he would say anything.”
Stacey’s boyfriend never mentioned it, but the relationship didn’t last much longer.
WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW
MIGHT NOT HURT YOU
Frank Warren, who created PostSecret, an art project in which people send in anonymous confessions that he posts online, said that not all secrets involve duplicity. Some, he said, “can be hopeful and romantic.” He recalled a confession he received from a man who had built furniture for his family and put love missives to his wife inside.
“They got a divorce,” Mr. Warren said. “And he wondered if she’d ever seen the messages, because she got the furniture.”
Scott Brown, New York magazine’s theater critic, has come up with a system for hiding things without actually hiding them. “There’s a chair in the kitchen that I’ve polluted with myself,” said Mr. Brown, who until recently shared a railroad flat in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, with his wife (the couple moved to another apartment nearby). “Clothes pile up in drifts, books, bills. It’s my Superfund site.”
Mr. Brown’s wife will not venture near his mess, he said, so that’s where he hides presents for her. If practiced within reason, this sloth strategy, he maintains, is one way to compensate for the natural advantage most women have in being more observant than men.
But “the junk has to be localized,” Mr. Brown said. “It can’t get to the point where it gets offensive and encroaches. If you steer that middle course — this is my crummy area, full of my stupid things — there will be a strong tendency to ignore it, and that’s where you can put things.”
However you hide things, the very act of hiding them gives them a certain significance, Dr. Cohen said. “It’s indicative of the shame or stigma they feel about it, or the privacy they want to enshroud whatever it is in,” she said. “You get a clue into someone’s own feeling about it.”
That would seem to suggest that Brian Wray, a TV producer who lives in Manhattan, has unusually complicated feelings about coffee. High on a kitchen shelf, where a step stool is required to reach it, Mr. Wray has hidden his collection of coffeemaking paraphernalia, including a beloved Krups cappuccino maker, a Turkish ibrik and a French press.
When Mr. Wray left his bachelor pad in Brooklyn, he said, he transported the cappuccino maker himself, and carved out the hiding spot quickly after moving in. Photos and other things from his previous marriage, which Mr. Wray is holding on to for his daughter, are more out in the open, he said, than his coffee supplies.
On Sunday mornings, before his wife wakes up, Mr. Wray sneaks into the kitchen and brews a cup. His wife probably has some awareness of his coffee drinking, and may have even sneaked a peek at his hiding place, Mr. Wray said. But she doesn’t know the extent of it. “That cappuccino maker, I treat it like a child,” he said. “At the same time, I’m a little embarrassed by the amount of coffee stuff I have. It’s sort of extravagant in a way. Isn’t a Mr. Coffee enough?”
Now that sugar is regarded by some as a toxin, food is something else that is often hidden around the house. Ashley had a bag of M&M’s stashed in one of her many hiding spots, and Mr. Warren said his wife hides sweets the same way her own mother hid chocolate. “Some secrets are passed down in families,” he said.
Years back, Bill Thoms, 63, a retired federal employee who lives in Gloucester, Mass., went on a health-food kick and got rid of all the candy, cookies and other sweets at home — a strict regimen he thought his wife was also following until one day when he was putting away laundry in her dresser. “Hidden in its recesses was a large, partially consumed bag of Nestlé’s semisweet chocolate bits,” Mr. Thoms said. “Of course, I confronted her. We had a great laugh over it.”
But as innocent as keeping secrets can sometimes seem, Mr. Warren said, it can be detrimental to relationships. While he believes people need to carve out personal space at home, between spouses, “I would think there’d be more sharing and more honesty,” he said. “I think it’s better to err on the side of openness, even if that causes a difficult conversation.”
BUT THEN AGAIN, IT MIGHT
If you want to hear darker secrets, the kind that can rock the foundations of a relationship, talk to a few divorce lawyers. Randall M. Kessler, a family lawyer in Atlanta, recalled a case in which a husband bought a separate iPad solely for the purpose of conducting an affair, hiding e-mails and photos on the device.
This clever tactic might have gone undetected if not for iCloud. “He unwisely added his home computer to the account,” Mr. Kessler said. And when he synced his iPad, “the cloud shared all the photos.”
Susan L. Bender, another divorce lawyer, recalled the nice, balding middle-aged man who came to her distraught after finding a Moleskine notebook that concealed a photograph of his wife in a dominatrix outfit.
“She would say she was going out at night with girlfriends,” said Ms. Bender, who practices law in Manhattan. “In fact, she was working as a dominatrix at a place on the West Side.”
Like so many things these days, Ms. Bender said, hiding places are increasingly migrating to technology. “Twenty years ago, people did have physical hideaways,” she said. “The condoms hidden in the jacket pocket — that happened once a week, every week. I don’t see that as much anymore.”
The pornographic tapes tucked inside a sock drawer are now more likely to be video clips stashed in a desktop file with an innocuous name like “Tax Returns: 2007.” Mr. Warren of PostSecret said he recently received a confession that read, “If my wife knew all the secrets I have on my cellphone, we would be divorced.” Perhaps the person in question was using PhotoVault, an app that allows users to hide images with a password.
Ashley discovered the perils of using a computer as a hiding spot when she took digital photos of a few postcards before mailing them to PostSecret. She uploaded the photos and put them in a locked folder, but her boyfriend saw it and insisted she tell him what was inside.
“I refused,” she said. “And we worked it out.” Still, she has decided that for the time being it is safer to stick with the loose strip of molding under the sink.
There is only one spot that’s more secure.
While researching her book on secrecy, Dr. Cohen became convinced that there is a place that no partner can uncover. “It would probably surprise us,” she said, “if we could look into people’s hearts and see what they’re hiding.”