“No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”
~Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
My favorite moment in “The Scarlet Letter” is when Reverend Dimmesdale climbs the scaffold to reveal his forbidden/hidden love for Hester and his fatherhood of Pearl just before suffering a deadly heart attack. Enrapt with the Intiman Theater’s production on Saturday night, I debated the cause of Dimmesdale’s demise: was it the eventual price of weakening self-torture, or was it the result of an enslaved heart set free? Was it both?
Hawthorne’s opus evokes a favorite theme of mine, told through the lens of adultery—that each of us holds secret things inside—deeds, desires, personalities. Arguably, there are reasons to keep public and private worlds separate in modern life, but within that sensible separation can grow a continental divide: the face others see and the one mirrored on the inside—one person becomes divided into two, and they become strangers to each other.
Adding complexity to that is the fact that people [can] change over time. What might have been true of one’s public or private persona may become invalid with life experience. I considered this in Civita; what would it mean that I would likely return more evolved or simply different from the woman who left? Is one incarnation more “valid” or “true” than the other?
Reading a letter that arrived from my oldest friend today brought these questions back. We’ve both struggled as our relationship has thinned over the past few years; we’ve changed as individuals, our relationship has changed, but it has happened so slowly and over so much time that we’ve never talked about it—only felt the change with discomfort, and apparently, hurt feelings.
She referred back to a time when I had a different name and a different life—a time when I was unhappily married, very lost as to my career and general direction, and truly, in a state of secret despair. Yet, I found myself amidst the most amazing family of in-laws, as if they were the family that I was meant to be born into. Looking back, I realize that I carried the secret of my unhappiness for the last few years of my marriage because I didn’t want to destroy my family.
Watching Hester’s defiance against her inquisitors, refusing to break down or reveal anything, choosing instead to suffer an excruciating sense of inner desolation, I could sense that old burden for a moment on Saturday. I also realized that the lightness of being that I’ve experienced this year—the same freedom that Dimmesdale found when he let loose his own burden—has come as a direct result of working on my fellowship project.
As I read my friend’s letter, this stood out as the tell: “It’s like you’ve changed your very essence. …I keep waiting for the true vulnerable person to reappear.”
I paused for a moment, my eyes darting back and forth across those words, realizing how much I really have changed. In my blog this summer, I questioned who and what I’d be when I came back from Civita. The clarity of purpose I achieved there was the final catalyst in drawing together my evolved public and private lives. I unified two halves of myself by undertaking that journey to write my book.
Delving in between her words, I realized that she has known me as a very different person, one built around a core of vulnerabilities. When that began to change, so did the balance of our relationship.
For a moment, I debated revealing this in my blog; then I recalled that the past few months of revealing thoughts and questions in a vulnerable way is actually what’s made me stronger as a person—and as a writer. My blog is an open window through which readers can peer; a controlled medium, yes, but what’s behind it is naked and true. In the end, I feel more cohesive—more “myself”—the more appropriately revealed I am, the more I let these thoughts come closer to the glass.
In the wee hours of Sunday morning, I scrawled down the parting words of my companion before I went to sleep. After meeting my friends for the first time, seeing this very intense play together, and spending hours deep in conversation, he thanked me for a glimpse into my world.
In achieving freedom, Dimmesdale shuffled off his mortal coil; perhaps the final death of my outdated persona was a necessary sacrifice to find my own freedom—that, and a little loss of privacy as long as I keep the windows open into my new world.
Thankfully, those windows are equipped with curtains. After all, a little modesty is a good thing.