Skip to content Skip to navigation

The uneasy lives of secret keepers

March 1, 2007
by Linda Watts Jackim
| Reprints



Secret Keeping: Overcoming Hidden Habits and Addictions

John Howard Prin; New World Library, Novato, Calif., (415) 884-2100; 2006; ISBN: 1-57731-534-0; softcover; 272 pages; $15.95

Living parallel lives is so complex and so stressful that it may be hard to imagine how anyone could pursue this. But that is exactly what licensed alcohol and drug counselor John Howard Prin says 1 of every 15 people are doing. Prin, who is in recovery and says he lived this type of life for 40 years beginning at age 11, now seeks to help others find healing through his counsel and writing. His most recent book may help addiction counselors identify secret keepers among their clientele, and could serve as recommended reading for clients for whom the information is relevant.

Prin presents a convincing case for how people who were healthy in their original state manage to transform into double-mindedness and harmful secret keeping “in an attempt to satisfy their emotional needs, despite societal constraints.”

Continuum of secrets

To illustrate basic distinctions among the kinds of secrets Prin says people keep, he charts a continuum of secrets from the benign to the criminal. “Simple secrets” come first. They are relatively harmless secrets, such as an adolescent peeking at a classmate's test answers. “Silent secrets” involve fantasies that are not acted out, as well as deceptive acts of omission. “Secret keeping” includes indulging in habits or rituals that can lead to risking one's safety, health, or sanity—and that of others.

The final category on the continuum is “criminal-psychotic behavior.” The difference between this category and the previous one is that the acting out violates legal boundaries or sinks to a level of serious psychological pathology. Here, Prin offers the example of Sara Jane Olson, who was wanted for attempted murder as a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s and went on to live a hidden life for 24 years as a suburban housewife and mother before being discovered and sent to prison.

“Secret keepers live in a parallel universe based on the intentional concealment of what is shameful or discreditable beyond the limits of privacy,” writes Prin, who is also the author of the 2004 self-help book and memoir Stolen Hours: Breaking Free From Secret Addictions. It is a balancing act that requires “endless superhuman energy, calculated hair-splitting and highly developed cunning, leading to elevated stress levels and high blood pressure.”

Personal accounts

The first half of the book examines the problem and its consequences using many vignettes involving a variety of secret keepers—including Prin himself. His own story is presented in installments throughout the book. Prin writes that he began “slipping into the secret keeping trap early in my teen years” in response to an outrageously demanding and insensitive mother. He began “acting one way while feeling another,” which is the first of what he has come to call the “eight splintered mindsets of secret keepers.” The other seven are:

  • placing appearances first and reality second;

  • stealing hours to do what feels better;

  • walking a tightrope between two opposing worlds;

  • living from the outside in;

  • maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain;

  • getting their way in any way possible; and

  • thinking of oneself first and others last.

The second half of the book is devoted to healing, using Prin's “blueprint for gaining freedom.” This section offers secret keepers a staged approach to successful recovery that includes support strategies for overcoming addiction, rebuilding self-esteem, and living honestly. Counseling professionals likely will find many opportunities for sharing the information Prin offers.

Linda Watts Jackim is a freelance writer based in Rhode Island.

Topics