Keeping Secrets When Everyone Already Knows Them

A Therapist in Small-Town America Struggles with New Ethical Dilemmas

Jan Michael Sherman

When my wife, Denise, and I moved to a place in the Yukon so small that when someone sneezed at one end of town, someone at the other end reached for the Kleenex, I quickly found that practicing therapy could get pretty tricky. Not only did everyone know everyone else's business, everyone was in everyone else's business. Case in point: because I chose to drink only Diet Pepsi when out in public, word soon spread that I was a recovering alcoholic.

The place in question was a spot in Canada straddling the Alaska Highway just north of the British Columbia-Yukon border that I'll call Mile 666. Home to some 1,600 souls, mostly fugitives from "down south," these were folk for whom the normal overload of urban life felt too much like being buried alive. Denise and I had planned to stay two years, but ended up staying five. Something about the stillness and serenity of the winters--and only three stop signs in town--proved difficult to abandon.

Denise caught on as a medical assistant with the local doctor, while my canine cotherapist, Grizz, and I ran a branch office of a family services agency. I reported, by phone mostly, to a supervisor in Whitehorse, 300 miles and a five-hour drive to the northwest.

In a town so small, the standard therapeutic ban on "dual relationships" was impossible to observe. I quickly came to know almost everyone. And almost everyone knew me. My first client, for instance, was Susan, who bagged my purchases at the Grubstake Grocery and also happened to collect the rent on behalf of Burl, her common-law husband who owned the house Denise and I lived in.

Early on, I decided to deal with clients in public reactively: if someone said hello, I'd say hello. The approach worked fine, except when I happened to have awkward, multiple chance encounters (in the same day) with some client who'd had an especially intense session earlier. Even Grizz discovered there were clients she had to pretend she didn't know when she encountered them away from the office. But that wasn't enough to keep me out of trouble.

One crisp September day, a logging show operator named Gary walked in, telling me he'd parked some distance away to approach my office from the rear. He'd been concerned that his truck would be recognized--thus announcing to everyone in the damn territory that he was seeking help from "the town shrink." I found it tough to maintain a straight face given that his wife, Flora, had urged him to seek counseling while they were in the produce section of the Grubstake three days earlier; her "suggestion" had been broadcast in a nicotine-cured rasp that could cut glass at 40 paces. (I got the news from Hoser, the town taxi driver--notorious big-mouth and non-recovering alcoholic--who'd driven Flora to bingo that same evening.)

Gary himself was a straightforward, easygoing guy who loved the Yukon as much as Flora couldn't stand it. Flora was big-city raised, had come to loathe the north and was determined to sell off Gary's business and move back to civilization. Upset about matters existential she couldn't quite put her finger on, Flora had decided to locate the source of her frustrations in her husband, and had cajoled him into getting a bit of counseling.

The first ethical problem was that I already knew Gary, sort of. Soon after arriving in Mile 666, I'd gone fishing with him. Unacquainted with the sometimes-convoluted ethics of our profession, Gary was surprised when I told him it would be inappropriate for me to see him professionally, given our preexisting relationship, ephemeral as it might be. I suggested he contact our main office in Whitehorse. But the next day, Gary called to let me know that it would take three months to be seen at Whitehorse, which would put his first session sometime in November, meaning he would have to make -the 10-hour (round trip) trek in minus 30 degree to minus 40 degree weather. By that time, he told me, his marriage to Flora might well be history. He couldn't understand why he couldn't see me, since I was the only game in town.

To add a dash more dilemma to my ethical queasiness, Flora and Denise had become chummy as a consequence of Flora's frequent visits to the medical clinic where Denise worked. I told Gary I needed a little time to consider the situation. As soon as the door closed, I reached for the phone and then recalled that my supervisor was down south for a conference. Agreeing with myself that delivering needed services in a timely fashion superseded rigorous conformity to standards of ethical practice created by people who had never lived in a place like Mile 666, I booked Gary a first, formal session.

Meanwhile, the three of us prepared for our first winter. Denise made freezer jam and looked after the plants, and I split and packed logs for the wood stove, while Grizz supervised the arrival of her winter coat. One night, we went to the Tundra Room to hear the Rockin' Thunderbirds. I ordered a couple of beers to grease the grapevine--hoping to confound the rumor about my being a recovering alcoholic. I figured news of my "relapse" would be all over town come morning. (And I was right.)

A Suspicious Wife

A few weeks later, I picked up the phone to hear Flora's nicotine rasp, insisting in great distress that she needed to see me. Flora was 30 minutes early and started to cry almost as soon as she walked into my office. Apparently, about a year earlier, not long after she'd begun lobbying for them to pack it in and leave the Yukon, Gary had gone missing from the physical side of their marriage. After six months without making love--not due to any lack of desire on her part--Flora began to suspect that Gary was "carrying on." She started monitoring his movements, checking his odometer and generally feeling like she was losing it. Gary had denied any extramarital activity, but in a way that served only to fuel Flora's suspicions.

Two days later, at their first couple's session, Flora quickly confronted Gary. His denial sounded like a prelude to a confession, an invitation to tease the truth out of him, but Flora was in no mood to indulge his manipulations. She was the injured party here, not bloody Gary, so she'd be damned if she were going to make it easy for him. She wanted him to take full responsibility for his actions and then they'd see what they would see.

Six days on, the plot thickened considerably. I received a call from Susan (my grocery bagger and landlady) requesting a session, her first in several months. Getting right to it, Susan said that she and Gary had just ended a yearlong affair, unable to bear the guilt and shame any longer. But that wasn't why Susan had booked the session.

It seems common-law hubby, Burl, had taken her confession badly. Burl, who worked for Gary as a tree-faller, had cooked up a plan to teach Gary a lesson. Burl intended to stage a "logging accident" somewhere deep in the bush. All he'd told Susan was that he was going to lure Gary to the top of a cedar in the most remote part of the logging show, then hang him by his feet and abandon him to the tender mercies of the elements. Susan wasn't certain he'd go ahead with it; after all, Gary and Burl had been best buddies forever. Burl wouldn't actually harm Gary, would he?

I told her Burl and Gary's friendship was irrelevant. If I believed Burl's threat was serious, I'd have to report it to the Mounties--or, at the very least, warn Gary. Susan begged me not to, saying she regretted having told me about the situation. I asked if this was truly how she felt. After a moment, she shook her head: No, of course not. But wasn't there some other way we could handle it?

This was an ethical minefield beyond anything I'd been taught about in school. I mean, here I was negotiating with a client (Susan), on behalf of my landlord (Burl), about another client (Gary) and his wife (Flora), who's not only a client as well but the disclosure-prone buddy of my wife (Denise). Talk about needing a program to tell the players!

Well, I suggested to Susan, if the four of you came in for a session and Burl was prepared to tell Gary of his plan, that might suffice. Of course, I would need to tape the session. Susan nodded and said she'd talk to the others.

A couple of days later, Susan called to say that Burl had agreed to the "group" session after she'd told him I'd have to speak to the Mounties if he didn't. But she simply couldn't approach Flora or Gary--she just couldn't be the one to broach the affair. Couldn't I please invite them?

Out on a Limb

I could and I did. Interestingly, neither Flora nor Gary asked about the session's agenda.

A day later, the five of us met for several hours. Figuring that her cofacilitation might be counterproductive, I left Grizz at home. I felt the couples needed to stand in the fire of their threatened connectedness, to confront their fears and half-hidden truths without the ameliorating effects of canine comfort and compassion. Personally, I decided to be more Perlsian than Rogerian.

At first, there was much throat-clearing, exchanging of furtive glances and maintaining a safe distance--no one sat next to his or her partner. I was more anxious than anyone. Finally, I blurted out entirely spontaneously, "I wonder how long someone would have to hang upside down from a tree before turning into human jerky?"

Dead silence was replaced by laughter that sounded like spring ice breaking up on the Yukon River. Everyone took a deep breath. Dual though they might be, my preexisting relationships with these folk clearly carried some serendipity.

Gary, radiating misery, told how he'd initiated the affair with Susan. He looked beseechingly at Flora, who, rigid with hurt and anger, looked through him. "You betrayed me, Gary," she whispered. He nodded. She started to rise and for a moment I was sure she was going to bolt. It was then that I realized what I had at stake: I had gone out on a limb by not insisting that Gary seek counseling in Whitehorse and I was responsible for what came from that decision. I was afraid my entire therapeutic intervention was about to implode.

Then Burl admitted his plan to "damage" Gary--and made it clear that he'd been quite serious "at the time." Sitting back down, Flora said she almost wished he'd gone through with it, then broke into tears. What about right now, Gary asked? Where do we stand now? "I love ya, man," Burl blurted. "That's how I stand now." Telling Burl he'd been talking to Flora, Gary went over and tentatively sat down beside his wife.

Embarrassed, Burl glanced at Susan. She took a deep breath, then allowed as how he and Gary went back almost 40 years--were closer than most brothers--while she and Burl had been together not quite 8. She'd sometimes felt as if Burl was cheating on her with Gary! Flora managed a smile, then said without irony, "Hey, we're family, the four of us. Whatever's led to this, we can work it out." She glanced at Gary. "At least I want to."

That night, Denise said, "Well, are they all getting divorces? Is Burl really going to hang Gary from the top of a cedar and leave him to turn into jerky? Is Flora moving back to Toronto?" She kissed me goodnight. "The phone didn't stop all evening. Naturally, I had to pretend I knew absolutely nothing at all. And, of course, no one believed me. People simply can't fathom how you can keep all that good stuff to yourself… You know, keep it from your wife, at least."

Too-close friends and erstwhile lovers, their lives intertwined on so many levels, Gary, Susan, Burl and Flora struggled to disentangle and disengage, not really knowing where the process would lead but determined to see it through. Everyone in Mile 666 cheered them on each step of the way.

I saw the four of them in every conceivable combination, including one session with Gary and Susan. Flora went "south" to visit family and after a couple of months, invited Gary to join her. He did, leaving Burl to run the logging show. Susan quit the Grubstake Grocery, asked me for six post-dated rent checks and then went off into the bush with Burl.

In Mile 666, I discovered there were precious few real secrets--an understanding that made it easier for me to keep what I knew to myself. After all, keeping "secrets" isn't all that hard when everyone else knows them.


This blog is excerpted from "Everybody's Business," by Jan Michael Sherman. The full version is available in the March/April 2002 issue, Shhh!: The Ethical Dilemmas No One Talks About.

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Topic: Ethics

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