Having secrets can be healthy and liberating. For a teenager, assuming a different identity can be a natural move toward becoming independent. But it can also put the youngster in danger. In her new book, “Anatomy of a Secret: The Psychology of Living a Lie,” Dr. Gail Saltz, a regular “Today” contributor, examines how several people — composites drawn from her patients as well as famous historical figures — created alter egos. Dr. Saltz, invited to appear on “Weekend Today,” discusses the latest research to explain our impulse to create and nurture secret lives. In this excerpt from her book, Saltz examines what goes wrong when an insecure girl tries to find intimacy — and acceptance — through an online relationship. Here’s the excerpt:Chapter Two
The Secret Life of the Mind
I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not.—from Saturday Night Live (c. 1975) It was loneliness that drew her to the desktop computer at first, and later on it was excitement. Adrian always made sure to finish her homework first, and then she kissed her mother good night (her father was usually traveling) and went upstairs to her bedroom, where she would sit in front of the pale blue glowing monitor, living an IM life that was so much more compelling and fulfilling than the one she really lived.Her early years had been easy and pleasurable, surrounded by friends. But starting in sixth grade, the line between cool and uncool began to thicken, and Adrian found herself falling on the wrong side of the divide. She didn’t mind. She could always hang out with the other girls in this group and pretend that none of them cared about being uncool. But for the alpha girls, coolness evolved into cruelty. No matter how Adrian dressed, or what she said or did, the alpha girls beat her down with their nasty words, mocking her clumsy attempts to fit in. They’d taken a page right out of the movie Mean Girls, and though Adrian tried to believe, as she wrote in her diary, that they were just using her as a scapegoat and that she shouldn’t take it personally, she took the mean girls’ words to heart. She was ugly, she wrote in that diary, and fat, and stupid, and a complete loser. She might as well die right now. Even Stephen King’s Carrie had it better than she did. So Adrian, a girl with deep-set, hungry eyes and an awkward way of carrying herself as she navigated the treacherous corridors of school, retreated into herself.The Internet helped her do that, providing an alternate corridor that she could walk down easily, and where no one would hiss cruel names at her, or casually stick out a foot so that she would stumble and fall. Adrian began IMing every night, and while in her daily life she was an outcast, here she was popular. Different anonymous people chatted with her, both male and female, and she found herself writing responses in the shorthand that such interactions required. The rhythms of the chats were friendly and funny and sometimes flirtatious. She took the screen name Exotica, a name that had just popped into her head out of nowhere, which was funny to her, because Adrian, at fifteen, with her slightly lumpy nose and scattering of acne and clumsy demeanor, was the furthest thing in the world from exotic. But no one online had to know that.
One night she began talking with a guy who called himself chai83. He lived in the suburbs of New Jersey, only an hour and a half from her own Long Island suburb. “Hey, Exotica,” he wrote. “How u doin?” To which Adrian replied, “Exotica is bored 2nite. Tell me something interesting.” The tone of her words was playful and teasing; she’d never spoken like this to anyone before. But as “Exotica” chatted on through the evening and into the night, long after her mother had gone to bed, she started to open up to chai83. She kept a balance between her actual, Adrian self and her new, Exotica persona, mixing true details (chestnut hair, dark brown eyes) with made-up ones (age eighteen, worked as a bartender at a trendy club in Manhattan).Though her own details were a stew of the real and the false, she never questioned whether chai83’s own story was entirely true. He said that he was twenty-two, with black wavy hair and dark blue eyes, and that he was an aspiring actor who made his living as a waiter. Back and forth, they traded anecdotes and aspirations, mostly using suggestive language. This went on and on for a matter of weeks. Adrian seemed less troubled by the mean girls at school, and their catty comments simply floated past her. She was moving further away from school itself. She stopped listening in class, and began failing tests. It got to the point where Adrian skipped doing her homework altogether and just went straight to the computer, where chai83 was inevitably waiting. For an actor who had a day job and was often going off on auditions, he was online a surprising amount of time.
Then one night, chai83 said he wanted to “take my friendship with u to a new level.” He asked Exotica to meet him in the parking lot of the mall in his hometown. Tentatively, she agreed. “How will I know u, Exotica?” he asked. “I will be the exotic one,” she told him.Three days later, after Adrian’s body had been found in a swamp in central New Jersey, her desperate mother wept to the policemen who came to her home that her daughter was a studious girl who would never go anywhere unsafe or do anything stupid. And when the sergeant asked if Adrian had kept secrets from her, her mother shook her head no with conviction.To have secrets is to be human. To find in a private world a personal identity is an essential part of what it means to be a member of our species. The ability to have a secret is the thing that gives birth to our sense of ourselves in early childhood, and the secrets we keep and share are what shape our relationships for the rest of our lives. Here, then, is a crash course in developmental psychology, as it relates to the complex and very human art of secrecy.Once, none of us had any secrets. Our life in the climate-controlled aquarium of the womb was all mom, all the time. We were one with this woman whom we hadn’t even met. When she ate Szechuan chicken, we did, too; when we had hiccups, she felt every tremor. Out of the womb, we technically had a separate existence from our mothers. But of course the infant is no less dependent than it was before being born; in some respects, it’s even more dependent. The comfort and sustenance that came effortlessly while floating in the womb now require a little individual effort: a suckle, a thumb in the mouth, an earsplitting, colicky cry.Through these tiny efforts, the child begins to distinguish itself as a separate entity in the world. Months pass. The independence grows. The child finds the lesson of peekaboo a source of endless fascination: A person can disappear and reappear! How cool is that? Soon the child makes the intellectual leap: Whoa, people don’t disappear — they just go out of sight. Mom is gone now, but she’ll be right back — mom, who used to be “me.”The child holds on to furniture and cruises around the great forest of the living room. He or she lets go and actually takes a solo walk. Babbling turns into syllables that are actually understood by the adults in the room. At around fifteen to eighteen months, the child recognizes itself in mirrors or photos. By two, the child learns that he or she is in fact a he or she. And it is at this moment that the child, after months and months of saying nothing but yes — yes to the breast, yes to a spoonful of Beech-Nut apricots, yes to mom and mobility and speech — learns to say no.No is a word that comes with tremendous power. Any parent who has ever experienced a child going through the “terrible twos” will know just how intoxicating that power can be, for in one transformative moment, children begin to understand that they can have some control over the outside world.And that’s how the child now learns to view the world: inside, outside. A distinction is emerging in the child’s understanding of his or her relationship with the immediate surroundings — an inner-world/outer-world divide that some psychologists call the body boundary. On one side is the child’s own body and all its working parts. On the other side is everything else in the world that is not attached to the body. The significance of this recognition of physical separateness can’t be overstated. Still, it’s only the first step. The next one is trickier. It can be a little more difficult to pinpoint exactly when it takes place for each individual child, but it’s even more difficult to say exactly what takes place. This new transformation is psychological, and always profound.It’s the birth of the secret self.
Excerpted from “Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie,” by Dr. Gail Saltz. Copyright © 2006 by Dr. Gail Saltz. Excerpted by permission of . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.