Discretion and Honesty Are Voluntary

Jennifer Baker

Publisher’s note: Jennifer Baker’s short story “Discretion” (in our anthology The Female Complaint) features an up-and-coming power couple (the husband is a gubernatorial candidate) who protect each other’s secrets from the outside world. Here Jennifer writes about the moral ambiguities involved when a person decides to hide their truth for the sake of a larger goal.

The story started from a prompt years ago in Writer’s Digest. But the material that fleshed out the prose came from the day-to-day, which I guess is where all stories come from. I’d probably heard about several United States politicians getting caught in sex scandals from the time I first drafted the piece to when it found a home. By then Anthony Weiner was in the running as the democratic candidate for mayor of New York City, and just as quickly another scandal hit him. Funny enough, he reacted as though the public especially shouldn’t have been that surprised.

When politicians (most often hetero men) are found out in this instance, there’s an automatic wave of pity for their spouses. The woman is expected, and possibly ordered, to stand right beside the martyred man with a face molded in place, though it doesn’t hide the truth. The wife is there as representative of the temporarily broken but preternaturally happy family as well as a symbol of enduring support—because that is her place, right?

One such woman who pops into my mind is Silda Wall Spitzer, former wife of New York governor Eliot Spitzer. How hardened, bored, and resentful she looked during his press conference after it was revealed he used taxpayer money on prostitutes. How stiffly she walked in and out of that room as bulbs flashed around her. And, if you recall, at no point did she and her husband touch. She was a dutiful soldier in that moment. It was only a matter of time before that marriage ended.

I also thought about former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey, who felt he had to resign from his post more than a decade ago so that he could come out and live as a “gay American.” I thought about the conservative mindset that dominates Congress, the Senate, and until recently the Supreme Court. Perhaps this all percolated in my head when the first line of the story came to me swiftly, and from there it all took shape.

“Discretion” is meant to play against expectation in some ways while also reflecting a truth that anyone may feel an inability to be honest, whether it be with yourself or others. What’s it like to be someone with noble intentions who also has to hide their truth to do the good envisioned? Is what the characters in this story do as bad as what anyone aiming to make a better world would do? When you deny who you are, does that also mean you’re denying your beliefs? Or is it necessary and okay to have those moments where you truly live before returning to the structured home you’ve built?

As someone who has had her own indiscretions I’ve asked this of myself. Should I feel guilty? Why don’t I feel guilty? What’s more important: my happiness or being a good person? To that last question, I’d say both. When it comes to the woman who’s expected to stand by her man after his indiscretions, what if she were the one who had to explain her own when a chip in her armor appeared? And when that break in character does occur, is that the gut telling you that happiness is an achievement yet to be unlocked? That this feeling of being content is actually a smokescreen?

I wouldn’t say I’m aiming to answer all the questions I proposed in this piece; however, writing it—writing anything—encourages me to drill so deep I may find myself on another continent. I think the best fiction makes you think about the reality versus the fantasy. And my goal with “Discretion” was encouraging that thought of how at any age we can be lying to ourselves even when we think we’ve got a hold on the tale we’re telling.

Jennifer Baker is a publishing professional, creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, panels organizer for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, and social media director and writing instructor for Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. Her writing has appeared in Newtown Literary (for which her short story “The Pursuit of Happiness” was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize), Boston Literary Magazine, Eclectic Flash, Poets & Writers magazine, and The Female Complaint anthology from Shade Mountain Press. She has also contributed to Forbes.com and Bustle, among other online publications.