Pagan Studies

Seeing Paganism in terms of being a movement, explorations of our history, societal context, comparisons to other religious movements, and general Pagan culture.

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The Tyranny of Secrecy

I don’t think that secrecy is a good thing.  I don’t think it’s healthy and I don’t think it’s beneficial to anyone.  Secrecy is a condition that allows all manner of malevolence to thrive.  Secrecy allows wounds to fester in the darkness and spread infection throughout the family system.

I’ve heard 12-steppers speak of the ways in which their families are affected by keeping secret the alcoholism of one or more family members.  Keeping that afflicted family member’s secret adversely affects everyone in the family.  One rationale for keeping such secrets is shame. 

The same is true of families in which there is physical, mental and/or emotional abuse.  There is shame attached to allowing domestic abuse to continue.  More importantly, there is the very real danger of serious injury or death.

If secrecy can allow alcoholism or substance abuse to continue, and allow domestic abuse to continue, is there any wonder how it allows incest to happen?  What is promoted by keeping family secrets?  Nothing, I say.  I’ll allow that there are some family disgraces best left unannounced, but that’s not to say unaddressed, both within the family and by secular authorities.  Some family secrets need to be kept from children until they are grown.

Like most families, our family has some members whose behavior is shameful. We don’t talk about it much, but when the topic comes up and there are other adult family members asking questions, I will answer as truthfully as I can.  Other family members are uncomfortable with my candor, but I believe with all my heart that it’s important.  Giving these family secrets some light and air tends to weaken their affects.  The sun bleaches them out.

We can see evidence of the ill effects of secrecy in news reports about any number of religious sects.  Christians have the likes of David Koresh and David Berg; FLDS has Warren Jeffs. And need I cite the institutional secrecy and cover-ups of Roman Catholic Church?  Nor are other religions free of sexual predators:  Buddhists have, for example, Eido Tai Shimano and allegations against Sogyal Rinpoche.  I’m sure there are other religious paths that have their share of predators hiding behind the veil of secrecy. To their credit, many do their best to investigate, to separate fact from rumor, to hold transgressors accountable, and to attempt redress.

Sexual predators/wackos such as Ariel Castro; Phillip and Nancy Garrido, who held Jaycee Dugard for 18 years; Kenneth Parnell, who held Steven Stayner for seven years; Jerry Sandusky -- all depend upon secrecy to hide their abuse.  Sexual abusers threaten their victims with some kind of retribution or other disastrous result should they tell anyone.  They sometimes blame the victim for “tempting” them; they warn about hurting the victim’s family members; they tell the victim no one will believe them if they speak up, and that they will be shamed.  These predators depended upon secrecy to protect them from being revealed for their crimes.  In the case of all except Sandusky, there was no institution colluding in the cover-ups.

I’ve seen evidence of how secrecy fosters bad behavior within the Pagan world.  There was a local witch hereabouts who exploited his students and other younger people, particularly males, by dazzling them.  He’d flatter them by telling them that he can tell they’re really special, and he needs to know them more intimately so he unlock their true potential and advance them over other students.  I know this phenomenon is not uncommon within small covens with unscrupulous leaders who use the Craft (or other “specialness”) to advance their own nefarious agenda.  With secrecy, there is no accountability.  If one has been sworn to secrecy, where does one turn when abuse occurs?  To whom can one turn when one’s trust has been betrayed?  Well, if secrets are strictly kept, no one.

There was a time not long ago when we (meaning specifically Witches and Wiccans in this case) did not feel free to practice in public or to let our non-mainstream religious practices be known.  We’ve all heard the ugly stories: custody battles wherein one spouse accuses the other one of practicing Witchcraft (or being homosexual)[1]; workplace harassment and even termination of employment; housing discrimination; firebombs in people’s front yards.

Unfortunately, there are some locales today where Pagans are endangered if it becomes known in their neighborhoods and communities that they practice a non-mainstream spiritual pursuit.  In those areas, one is best served with the words of the Bard of Avon: “The better part of valor is discretion.”[2]

In such intolerant, narrow-minded, homogeneous communities, blending in with the local populous provides good cover.  It has the added benefit that if you’re known around town for a while in secular activities (grocery shopping, taking kids to school, sporting events), then should it happen that your Pagan proclivities become known, that revelation is less likely to bring trouble.  We humans tend to fear the unknown, yet when someone known turns out to be a bit different from how she was first perceived, neighbors are more likely to take a closer look than they are to castigate.[3]


[1]   Both being “sinful.”

[2]   Henry IV, Part 1 Act 5, Scene 4, William Shakespeare

[3]   This is one of the benefits of involvement in interfaith.

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Aline O’Brien (M. Macha NightMare), Witch at Large, has circled with people of diverse Pagan paths throughout the U.S., and in Canada and Brazil.  Author of Witchcraft and the Web (2001) and Pagan Pride (2004), and co-author, with Starhawk, of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying (1997), Macha has also contributed to anthologies, periodicals, textbooks, and encyclopedias.  A member of the American Academy of Religion, the Marin Interfaith Council, and the Nature Religion Scholars Network, Macha also serves as a national interfaith representative for the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and on the Advisory Board of the Sacred Dying Foundation.  Having spent the last eleven years developing and teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary, the first and only seminary serving the Neopagan community, Macha now serves on its Board of Directors. An all-round Pagan webweaver, she speaks on behalf of Paganism to news media and academic researchers, and lectures at colleges, universities and seminaries.


  • Aline "Macha" O'Brien
    Aline "Macha" O'Brien Wednesday, 09 October 2013

    Please, please, please leave comments here rather than on FB! If they're here, their available to other readers and don't become lost in the avalanche of crap that FB is.

  • Jamie
    Jamie Wednesday, 09 October 2013

    The isolation that secrecy fosters is like a poison-tipped arrow. Metaphorically speaking, far more damaging than the wound itself. The potential for abuse exists in every human community, ours included, as you rightly point out.

    As for your parting warning, that's why I like living in a small New England village where I've been reasonably well-known for a long time: Whilst I don't advertise it, my apostasy from Christianity and Platonist Pagan beliefs would not really raise that many eyebrows.

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