Secrets and lies that last a lifetime

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There is more of it about than you might imagine. A 75-year-old American has confessed, after the death of his wife, to being the man in the celebrated photograph in which a sailor gives a passionate kiss to a young nurse in New York's Times Square on VJ Day in 1945. But when it comes to guilty lifelong secrets he is not alone.

It is not just the famous who have something to hide. True, there was Marje Proops who revealed in her autobiography that her happy marriage was a myth which disguised a life-long infidelity.

Then there was the playwright JR Ackerley, who discovered when his father, Roger, died that the old man, a director of the fruit importer Fyffes and an apparent pillar of bourgeois respectability, had led a double life, maintaining a mistress and three daughters for 20 years just a few miles from the family home in Richmond.

Just ask around the office and you will find a forest of dark secrets which emerge, through confession or accidental disclosure, after a lifetime in the shadows. My immediate colleagues guiltily unearthed:

A maiden aunt who disappeared every Wednesday for 20 years to have sex with a married man;

A grandfather who, at his funeral, turned out to have another life and another family 50 miles from his first home; his wife thought he was a dissolute rake who spent his nights, and often subsequent days, in drunken gambling when in fact he kept a pipe and a pair of slippers elsewhere;

A married aunt who, for more than two decades, vanished for a week three times a year. No-one knew where she went. She simply packed her bags and departed with the enigmatic words: "Well, I'm off then." She took her secret to the grave.

"More secrets are kept than come out," says Dr Petruska Clarkson, a psychotherapist with 35 years' experience. "Often, the more solid a person looks, the bigger the secret they're hiding - secrets of sex, crime, money, abuse, scandal or lies about their social circumstances."

Indeed. Take the 1936 Olympic 100 metres dash runner-up, Stella Walsh. It was only in 1980, at her post-mortem, that it was revealed that Walsh, who had lived her life as a woman, had been born with "ambiguous genitalia". A high-jumper at the same Olympics, Dora Ratjen, admitted 19 years later that she was in fact a man who had been forced by the Hitler Youth to compete as a woman "for the honour and glory of Germany".

"It can get easier with the passing years where people have kept a secret to protect someone else," says Dr Clarkson. "But where the secret is one of shame, which is in conflict with the moral sense, it can get harder and harder to stay silent.

"Privacy may be healthy, but generally secrets are not. People often find relief in confessing them to a priest or a counsellor. But it is better to deal with them early on." Do not say you were not warned.