Thursday, September 11, 2008

Appalling Secrets

I know I’m the sort of person who could hobble around with my foot in a huge cast and, when concerned friends and acquaintances asked me what I’d done to myself, be annoyed that people are so damn nosy. If I’d ever had children, I would have walked around 8-months pregnant and raged against those who asked such personal questions as when was my due date, and did I know if it was a boy or a girl. I’m fully aware that this means I’m what some might euphemistically refer to as a “private person,” rather than “an uptight, prudish weirdo.” However, I’m pretty sure I can’t be the only one in the world who is often quite shocked by the information others will freely offer me, information I did not ask them to provide and that I would have to know someone for five or more years and have at least shared an apartment or a house, if not a bed, before I myself would divulge. And if I were going to divulge it, I would certainly take a look at my surroundings, figure out whether or not this was the appropriate place to discuss such a thing, and give my listener a bit of warning, set him or her up for the fact that This Is Serious/Embarrassing Shit, not act as though this is a conversation about the weather.

I’ve never been quite sure what it is about me that inspires people to tell me all that they do. I’m pretty sure I don’t look like a Father Confessor, and I most certainly am not going around saying, “I’ll tell you something really weird about myself if you tell me something really weird about you” (memes notwithstanding, of course). Nonetheless, I am treated to such information as that from a former colleague of mine who told me, right there in our open cubicles, within hearing distance of bosses who might have picked up on it if they’d had their ears open, that she saved all the condom wrappers every time she and her high school boyfriend had sex, writing the date and place on each one. She was not a life-long friend of mine. I knew her for exactly a year, socialized with her the way work colleagues do (party here, happy hour there) and basically never saw her again once she left the company. But there she was, giving me this information.

That information is pretty weird in and of itself, but okay. She was a teenager when she was collecting her condom wrappers. I pretty much forgive all weirdness at that age, as long as it doesn’t hurt or kill anyone. She thought this guy was the love of her life. I’m sure she expected they’d get married and have children. (And then what? Her children are flipping through Mom and Dad’s scrapbook pleading, “Tell us again, oh please tell us again how it happened the night of ‘Mom’s kitchen, 8/5/88?’”) Somewhat, I suppose, forgivable behavior for a 17-year-old, possibly having sneaked into the R-rated Blue Velvet at age 14, acquiring very strange ideas about love and romance. However, by age 26, she was married to someone else. She had already established for me what an ass that former boyfriend had turned out to be. At this point in her life, telling anyone about those condom wrappers wasted on a jerk should have been as embarrassing as showing up to high school in nothing but Scooby Doo underwear. Yet, here she was, sharing it with a colleague she barely knew, in a place where any number of people could have listened in and possibly sued her for sexual harassment.

Then, there was the friend (not one of those “friendly-friends” as we called them in my 20s, which for me would have been a man with whom I’d shared more than conversation, but “just a friend,” one with whom I’d never even shared a house) who blithely informed me with absolutely no warning (I think before this information came out of his mouth, we were just generally complaining about family members and the things they do to drive us nuts. Maybe that was a warning? Maybe I’m just completely out of tune when it comes to “about-to-receive-really-strange-facts-from-friend” detectors) that his brother had told his mother that he’d given a venereal disease to his wife, a VD that he’d picked up having sex with a prostitute (well, that one certainly beat my “my-brother-is-driving-me-nuts-because-he-hasn’t-returned-two-phone-calls” story).

My god, was this more information than I ever wanted to know about a man I’d never met. It was more information than I wanted to know about my friend. I mean, what kind of a man, in this day-and-age, who has a family, still sleeps with prostitutes, and what kind of a man over the age of eighteen, would call his mother up and tell her such a thing? Obviously, the kind of man to whom my friend was related. I quickly forgave my friend for being related to such a man (you should see some of my own relatives and hear what they do – not that I would tell you), but I didn’t forgive him for the fact that I might one day meet this brother, and what would I do then? All right, the brother and his wife and two kids happened to live in Iowa (and I didn’t have plans to go to Iowa anytime soon – still don’t), and it isn’t as though my friend is likely to invite me to any family reunions, but still. At least he’d had the foresight to tell me this when we were alone in a car together, traveling down to D.C. We weren’t in an open office space. That wasn’t much comfort, though. What if we’d been in a terrible accident, because I was so shocked by this news, an accident in which I’d been unhurt? What if his brother had flown from Iowa to visit him in the hospital where I sat by the bed in which he lay with two broken legs and bandages around his eyes, while guilt oozed from every pore of my body? Or worse, what if he’d become a vegetable, and his brother had decided to sue me for everything I was worth? Would I have the wherewithal not to stand up in court, shouting, “Who are you to take away all my David Bowie CDs and fancy kitchen gadgets, you VD-ridden, prostitute-loving, adultery-committing mama’s boy, you?!”

More recently, I’m in the very early stages of a budding friendship with a woman I like very much. She’s everything I’m not: tough, confident, very attentive to others, a fantastic mom to two fantastic kids, and wonderfully outspoken. But maybe she’s just a little too outspoken. She stopped over at my house one evening while I was doing the dishes, and right there, as I was wiping down the counters and chattering on about what foods I like to cook, just about to offer her some tea, she announced to me that when she was in college, she tried to kill herself. Just like that, as though she were saying, “I was doing dishes tonight, too, before I came over.” I don’t know: is it just me, or isn’t this the sort of thing that one normally leads up to before allowing it to flow from brain to tongue? Shouldn’t we have been having some sort of general discussion about depression, or maybe have been to see a movie that triggered such a conversation? Or maybe she could at least have told me that college was really rough, and she suffered from depression, but I didn’t get any of that. She then went on to give me some details I could very easily have lived without and to say how she completely sympathizes with anyone who chooses to take his or her own life.

Couldn’t we, you know, if not shared a house together, at least shared a few more meals, maybe a movie or two, even a couple of blog posts, before hitting me with such heavy stuff? It isn’t that I don’t want close friends feeling comfortable enough to talk to me about such things. I do, just as I want to be able to discuss such things with close friends. However, we aren’t that close yet. And if we’re not that close, I at least want some warning that this is coming, some sort of, “I’ve got something really weird to tell you, and it’s hard for me to talk about it, but I’m enjoying getting to know you, and I’d like you to know,” or at least, short-hand for that, something recognizable as, “Sit down, because this is disturbing.” But I didn’t get any of that, and now our friendship has taken a whole different turn, one that’s left me a little uneasy. We didn’t climb up that big hill on the roller coaster first; we just went right down it, upside down and everything, completely unprepared. I’m cautious in a way I wasn’t previous to that conversation. Meanwhile, she’s never mentioned it again, carrying on as though we’re still in the “So, where’d you grow up, and would you like to have lunch sometime?” stage.

So call me an “uptight, prudish weirdo” when you ask me where I went to college and I reply, “That’s none of your business.” Or look at me as if I’m such when you decide to tell me all about the sex change operation your grandmother has elected to have at age 75, and I cut you off to tell you I don’t want to hear it. I’d rather be known as “Ms. Uptight, Prudish Weirdo” than “weird, private, inappropriate-at-this-time information receptacle.”


Pete said...

Well I think it must be compliment to you that people trust you with their disturbing memories / confessions. Or maybe it's because you're married to a priest so they figure you're used to confessions? But I agree with you about the inappropriate sharing part. Tends to ruin a friendship a bit. Maybe you could get one of those t-shirts that say, "Do I look like I give a sh*t?" or something more polite.

Dorothy W. said...

I'm totally with you on this one. People who tell you inappropriate things are certainly interesting, but it's awkward if you have to keep seeing them. It's better if you can turn them into a good story and never see them again. People are weird!! The older I get the more convinced I am that many, many people are deeply weird, so much so that there really is no normal ...

Anonymous said...

I think you are always such a (seemingly) open and definitely non-judgmental person that you are easy to confide in. That said - way too much information, way too early on and with no surrounding context does strike me as odd. This strange obsession with 'sharing'. What's wrong with keeping a few good elephants in the room?

Anonymous said...

Someone with a psychology background could probably answer the question of people who open up too fast...or at all. I've had a few people over the years who chose to divulge things I would rather not know about. Yes, I found it did change the friendship - or lack thereof.

If I ask a person where they went to college though, I am genuinely interested in their life and what they've done. It may also be that I'm looking for a common denominator to base a conversation on. If I ask that right away then certainly, yes, it is too forward and invasive. Otherwise I wouldn't see that as overly prying.

I am reluctant to share anything more personal though, until I want to. I am notorious for scowling when those bloody shopkeepers start asking for address, family income, etc, when you try to return something. The public and retail world doesn't need as much information as they think they do!

Emily Barton said...

Pete, a compliment, huh? I'll keep that in mind, while I'm looking for my equivalent of a "Do I look like I give a sh*t?" t-shirt.

Dorr, me too. The older I get, the more I'm convinced everyone is really weird (well, except me, of course).

MFS, yes, why does that gorgeous elephant in the room, with his big grey ears and long trunk, have to be on the verge of extinction?

PP, don't worry. I don't usually refuse to tell people where I went to college (although I don't tend to volunteer the information and do believe that, like telling someone how old I am, it really tells them very little about me. I was in college for four years, over 20 years ago). And you're right: people like shopkeepers or telephone researchers ask far too many questions that are none of their business.

litlove said...

I reckon as a pastor's wife you might be in for a bit more of this over the next few years. I think there is a real dearth of people who genuinely listen and seem really non-judgmental, and guess what - you're one of them! And what do you win? Lots of people who are longing to reveal the bad stuff and have someone tell them it's okay.

Turns into great stories, though!

ZoesMom said...

First of all I have to say that you really made me laugh and I really needed a good laugh right now.

Second, although I am perhaps not as private a person as you are, this kind of thing has happened to me a lot too as recently as last week.

Third, I got nervous for second that I was the person who'd made you uncomfortable in some over-sharing too much wine induced moment. That does happen to me.

Fourth, thanks again for the laugh although I am sorry you were made to feel so awkward.

Cam said...

The condom wrappers and the adulterous vd-carrier stories are just weird. But the 3rd instance is probably because you are non-judgmental and the person wanted you to understand something significant about their story.

It's hard though to know when you are sharing too much. I know there are times when I have shared too much, but I am frequently surprised when people ASK too much. There are two areas where I constantly am asked questions by people I know when they learn two facts - that I was married previously, and that my child had a life-threatening illness. I don't give specifics about either because I don't feel that I need to. I used to sometimes give-in to the questions, prefacing either story with the caveat: "just remember, you asked". Amazing how frequently that did not dissuade. And believe me, you wouldn't want to know the details of either!

But, getting back to your sitation. Be open to the infrequent too much info story that really is an appeal for you to understand or to help. And forget about all the other weird crap. Some people think that they appear more normal if their backstory is similar to a guest on an afternoon talk show.

Or they are just messing with your mind! :)

Charlotte said...

It may be gruesome, the too much information, but it's good novel fodder, isn't it?

mandarine said...

Never happened to me. Apparently, you are a natural-born shrink. Maybe you should try to make money with this gift:
- be a shrink
- be a spy
- write stories

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, well, I also apparently win the "nonjudgmental" description from my blogging friends, which is a real compliment, because I feel I've worked very hard all my life to be someone who doesn't judge too quickly, who tries to understand others, etc. I guess it's worked!

ZM, you are a woman after my own heart. I, too, would have read this post, thinking, "Uh-oh, what weird info. have I revealed about myself?" No need to worry. If I've chosen to drink wine with you, I expect some weird things might be revealed, but you're very poised when you drink wine (and Algonquin cocktails), nothing memorably weird at all. Besides, we've shared tons of blog posts with each other, and you shared your house with me for a night. You don't fit into the "too-weird, too-soon" category. (Oh, and glad I made you laugh. I was wondering if anyone would realize this post was actually meant to be funny.)

Cam, you're right. The third one IS very different from the first two. I hadn't thought about that, only thinking in terms of the fact that all three made me equally uncomfortable. I'll keep that in mind, because it's true: a pastor's wife should probably be prepared for real cries for help and understanding. Funny, I guess I'm just not that much of a "details" person, though. You tell me you were married before, and I just take that at face-value, figuring something went wrong, which it often does in marriage. You tell me your child had a life-threatening illness, and I think, "How awful for her," but I don't really need any more details than that. Sometimes I think it's because my over-active imagination just fills in all the gaps, which can be both a blessing and a curse.

Charlotte, absolutely! The only thing I worry about, though, is that one day, someone might recognize him or herself in something I've written (I worried about that with this blog post, despite the fact I know that none of these three people would ever be reading this). The condom-wrapper-saving teenager could be straight out of a John Irving novel, though. Come to think of it, so could the vd-carrying, cheating husband.

Mandarine, oooo, the adventurer in me wants to be a spy. Then again, I'm afraid of guns. Being a shrink full-time might be too depressing. Story-writing it is, I guess.

stefanie said...

Oh my. I'm late to this post, but gosh how I was laughing! Thanks, I really needed it too. People are weird, except you. And me. I'm not weird though if you ask my sister she will tell you otherwise. Don't listen to her. I think since you are so nice and nonjudgmental and a pastor's wife as the others have said, you get to be "luckier" than most of us.

knitseashore said...

I'm sorry I haven't been visiting much lately, but I wanted to comment on your post here...I'm so glad to read about someone else having this issue! What is it with some people?

No one has told me the types of things you have been lucky enough to hear about, but I agree that people are way, way too free with the personal revelations. Must be all that reality TV! I have always wondered how to say to them -- stop right there, because if you continue, I don't think I'll be able to be friends with you anymore. I just don't need to know that.


Emily Barton said...

Stef, so glad, as always to make you laugh. I'm sure it's your sister who is the weird one, right?

Deb, glad to have you stop by anytime. I think you're right: it's reality TV and also talk shows, I think.

Anonymous said...

I love that thing about the condom wrappers because it's so.... insane. But then I didn't hear about it from the condom-wrapper-saver herself, and so am able to see it as funny and odd and crazy rather than way, way TMI.

I'm just glad you unburdened yourself about all this stuff. It needs to be shared, so you can get rid of it. Feel free to continue to do so!

I love this kind of stuff. Second hand, though.

Susan said...

It must be because you're a pastor's wife and you're a good listener. Like your friend couldn't tell Bob, but she could tell you because it's not a sin what she did (whereas the male friend - eww, yuck way out of line!) and maybe she wanted to know she was normal. I think everyone is right here when they say a) use it as novel fodder, b) people are much stranger than we'd ever think, and c) you need a t-shirt that says something like "Do I really need to know?" I hate it when weird stuff like inappropriate conversations happen, I always wonder if I've done something to attract weirdos to me. Just know that you aren't the only one this happens to!!