Meeting of thirty-five heads of expression, Honore Daumier
Meeting of thirty-five heads of expression by Honore Daumier. Photo credit: Wikiart

If you have secrets — whether they’re deep and dark, or downright tacky — you may be comforted by this collection of insights from people who have a lot to hide.

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What is it about a secret — something you’re not supposed to know — that makes it so irresistible?  It’s none of your business, so of course you want to know all about it. You think its discovery will be enormously entertaining or shocking or both. 

On the other hand, you certainly don’t want your own secrets known, and at night you worry about all the new snooping technology. 

The funny thing is, there is a reverse situation: To paraphrase Voltaire — the secret to being a bore is to tell all!  When you’re on the phone, don’t leave out a single detail, no matter how dull or irrelevant! 

I have fantasies of a CIA interrogator listening in to my gabby old Aunt Kate — who was very thorough when telling all — and being cured of ever wanting to listen in again. This is your secret weapon in the war on privacy.

Bore them to death!

But if you’d rather not, then here is something to talk about that will charm all your listeners whoever they are.  


I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvelous to us. The commonest thing is delightful if only one hides it.  (Oscar Wilde)

Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides. (Andre Malraux)

Brains are an asset, if you hide them (Mae West)

I was worried about my own vagina. It needed a context of other vaginas — a community, a culture of vaginas. There’s so much darkness and secrecy surrounding them — like the Bermuda Triangle.  (Eve Ensler)

In 1930s mysteries, all sorts of motives were credible which aren’t credible today, especially motives of preventing guilty sexual secrets from coming out. Nowadays, people sell their guilty sexual secrets. (P.D. James)

A man nearly always loves for other reasons than he thinks. A lover is apt to be as full of secrets from himself as is the object of his love from him. (Ben Hecht)

If we knew each other’s secrets, what comforts we should find. (John Churton Collins)

Deep down below, all our secrets are the same. (Amos Oz)

Sad Secrets

Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants willing to be dethroned. (James Joyce)

Under every guilty secret there is hidden a brood of guilty wishes, whose unwholesome infecting life is cherished by the darkness.  (George Eliot)

From infancy on, we are all spies; the shame is not this but that the secrets to be discovered are so paltry and few. (John Updike)

There are inscriptions on our hearts which, like that on Dighton rock, are never to be seen except at dead-low tide. (O. W. Holmes)

Keeping Secrets

He that communicates his secret to another makes himself that other’s slave. (Baltasar Gracian)

Confidante: One entrusted by A with the secrets of B confided to herself by C. (Ambrose Bierce)

If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.  (George Orwell) 

Of course I can keep secrets. It’s the people I tell them to that can’t keep them. (Anthony Haden-Guest)

A secret’s worth depends on the people from whom it must be kept. (Carlos Ruiz Zafón)

The best way of keeping a secret is to pretend there isn’t one. (Margaret Atwood)

He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore. (Sigmund Freud)

Secrets and Spies

We’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the US public believes is false. (William J. Casey, former CIA Director, per Barbara Honnegger of Reagan Administration)

Most of the secrets the CIA has are about people, not machines and systems, so I didn’t feel comfortable with disclosures that I thought could endanger anyone. (Edward Snowden)

The NSA’s business is ‘information dominance,’ the use of other people’s secrets to shape events. (Barton Gellman)

No one demands more caution than a spy, and when someone has the skeleton key to minds, counter him by leaving the key of caution inside, on the other side of the keyhole. (Baltasar Gracian)

The Secret, Vladimir Makovsky

“The Secret” by Vladimir Makovsky. Photo Credit: Vladimir Makovsky / WikiArt

Secrets and the Government

There are some things the general public does not need to know and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets, and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows. (Katharine Graham)

The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to bear the secrets of government and inform the people. (Hugo Black)

We don’t have an Official Secrets Act in the United States, as other countries do. Under the First Amendment, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of association are more important than protecting secrets. (Alan Dershowitz)

The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and to secret proceedings. (John Fitzgerald Kennedy)

Secrets About Secrets

A secret may be sometimes best kept by keeping the secret of its being a secret. It is not many years since a State secret of the greatest importance was printed without being divulged, merely by sending it to the press like any other matter, and trusting to the mechanical habits of the persons employed.  They printed it piecemeal in ignorance of what it was about. (Sir Henry Taylor)

There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told. Men die nightly in their beds, wringing the hands of ghostly confessors, and looking them piteously in the eyes — die with despair of heart and convulsion of throat, on account of the hideousness of mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed. Now and then, alas, the conscience of man takes up a burden so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave. And thus the essence of all crime is undivulged. (Edgar Allan Poe)

(This article was previously published July 5, 2018)


  • Milicent Cranor

    Milicent Cranor is a senior editor at WhoWhatWhy. She has worked as a creative editor at E.P. Dutton, a comedy ghostwriter, and editor of consequential legal and scientific documents. She has also co-authored numerous peer-reviewed articles for medical journals.

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