How to decide how much to reveal about yourself

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People ask me all the time how I can be so honest about my life in my blog. They want to know how I can write about marriage, sex, abortions, or running out of money over and over again. It's an endless list really, of the stuff I write about that people can’t believe I'm writing about.

But each of you has a list of things in your life similar to that, it’s just a list you don't want to talk about. I'm not special—I don't have more stuff that is difficult to talk about. I just have more difficulty not talking about difficult stuff.

This is why.

I’m going to start by telling you that I was at the World Trade Center when it fell. I was in a post-traumatic stress support group afterward. People were divided into groups of ten based on their experience at the site—how bad things were for you that day. I was in a group comprised mostly of people who narrowly escaped the building before it fell and, as they were running out of the building, were splattered by body parts from people who were jumping out of the building.

We had individual therapy as well. Here's what my therapist said to me: “Your childhood was so terrible that your experience at the World Trade Center was nothing compared to what you experienced as a kid. Your post-traumatic stress therapy needs to focus on your childhood.”

That was the first time I really had a sense of how bad my childhood had been. I knew everyone in the world thought things at the World Trade Center were terrible. So this must mean that my childhood was really terrible.

I was 34.

When I was five, I knew something was not right. That's when I started therapy. I was never totally sure why my parents were sending me.

When I was seven I knew something was not right because the neighbor came over to our house when my parents were smashing picture frames over each others' head. The neighbor said to me and my little brother, “Come with me.”

Then my memories get blurry. The next thing I remember is my high school homeroom teacher. I skipped a day of school and then came to school with a black eye and a note from my dad that said I had been sick. She said that she was not accepting notes from my dad anymore. She said I could not come back to school the next time I miss a day unless I called the police.

I don't remember what I thought when she said that. Except that I thought, “Does she know what's going on at my house? How does she know? I never told her anything.”

I remember the next time my dad beat me up though. I called the police and they came. Like always. And my dad said nothing was wrong. Like always. And then the police started to leave. Like always.

But then I said, “Hold it. Wait. My teacher won't let me back in school unless I get a note from you that says I called you.”

I don't remember what else happened. I remember the police asking me if I want to leave. I remember my mom saying, “Yes. Please. Take her away. Please.”

I went to my grandma's to live. I spent all of high school living at my grandma's. The school social worker spent the rest of high school trying to convince me that my parents did something wrong. My grandma spent the rest of high school telling me that my parents were completely irresponsible. Except at family gatherings. When my parents were there, with my three brothers, and everyone pretended that everything was normal and that I did not live at my grandma's.

I don't remember very much. I went to college and spent my time trying to sort things out: abusive boyfriends, bulimia, anti-depressants, and cutting. Getting nearly straight-A's for a lot of the time. I sorted very little out.

I went to a mental ward the summer of my senior year. My parents visited me. They told me they were happy I was in the mental ward. My extended family visited me and they did not mention my parents. No one talked about why I might be there. My parents were anxious and loud in the family meetings: Begging the doctors to keep me from going back to their house. But even the doctors could not quite figure out why I was there: I worked on my senior thesis, I was a model patient, and I started dating a doctor right after that.

After I graduated, I moved back to Chicago, where he lived and so did my parents. I couldn't figure out how to support myself and there were so many opportunities for me to try nude modeling jobs. The doctor thought it was ridiculous. He thought I was too uptight to model. I said I probably was, but I wanted to try because it was such good money. I said they first test you out in a swimsuit.

He said, “Don't you need some sample photos?”

I said, “Yeah. I have some,” and I pulled them out of my bag.

The doctor looked. He smiled. He said, “Who took them?”

I said, “My dad.”

The doctor flipped. He went nuts. He couldn't believe it.

I was mostly surprised. I had no idea that my dad taking the photos was weird.

That I didn't know it was weird made the doctor even more upset. I remember trying to figure out why I thought it was okay. Or why he thought it was not okay.

I was 22.

I didn't tell anyone about the pictures. I started having nightmares about having sex with my parents. I started not being able to sleep. I didn't tell anyone though. Because I thought I was crazy.

Then my dad visited me a few years later, when I lived in Los Angeles. He wanted to go camping. I went. I was so nervous about being alone with him that I read almost all of One Hundred Years of Solitude before I went into the tent.

Then he took off his clothes, down to his underwear, and snuggled up next to me, with his arms around me and his penis up against my back.

Then I knew.

Or I thought I knew.

I slept outside the tent. I didn't talk the rest of the time. I don't think he even noticed.

I know the street in Los Angeles we were parked on when I finally asked, “Dad, did you do sexually inappropriate things with me when I was younger?”

He said, “Yes.”

I had no memory of what, exactly, he did. I still have no memory of it. And I was scared to ask him more. I asked my mom the same question. She gave me the same answer.

Both parents have said they were sorry. But that is not my point. My point is that my childhood was ruined by secrets.

In hindsight, so many people kept the secret: my family, the police, teachers before my freshman year. Decades later, when I asked my high school friends what they thought of me in high school, two of them told me that everyone thought I was nuts coming to school beaten up so often.

I'm not kidding when I say that I thought I was keeping that a secret.

So what I'm telling you here is that I'm scared of secrets. I'm more scared of keeping things a secret than I am of letting people know that I'm having trouble. People can't believe how I'm willing to write about my life here. But what I can't believe is how much better my life could have been if it had not been full of secrets.

So today, when I have a natural instinct to keep something a secret, I think to myself, “Why? Why don't I want people to know?” Because if I am living an honest life, and my eyes are open, and I'm trying my hardest to be good and kind, then anything I'm doing is fine to tell people.

That's why I can write about what I write about on this blog.

And when you think you cannot tell someone something about yourself, ask yourself, “Really, why not?”

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  1. truen
    truen says:

    thank you for your blog, your honesty, and your amazing insights into life. i agree with you, that secrets can really fuck up your life and distort everything. you are an amazing writer and an inspiration, sincerely, truen kirk

  2. m
    m says:

    this is as painful as its beautiful. do you thik all of this has affected your career? and if so, would you be willing to write about it?

  3. JS Dixon
    JS Dixon says:

    Its really awesome that you have taken such a positive lesson of honesty out of this. You just moved higher on my list of favorite writers.

  4. Ryan Johnson
    Ryan Johnson says:

    A while ago you tweeted something the farmer had said “don’t tweet this” and I kept thinking all week, why would she do that to him? Dosn’t she care what he wants? Now I get it. I hope he does too, but I bet he already did.

  5. Quatrefoil
    Quatrefoil says:

    You know, I’ve been reading your blog thinking ‘is she nuts for disclosing all this?’. But now I think you’re not nuts, I think you’re very sane, and very brave for facing your past. Because while my childhood was not as bad as yours, I’ve suffered enough and done enough work to know that the bad things stay with you, and that only by facing them and telling the truth is it possible to set yourself free. Good luck with your journey.

  6. Jay Schryer
    Jay Schryer says:

    I know too many people who have been severely physically/sexually abused who go the other route…they close up and keep everything in their life a secret. They have gotten so used to telling lies that they lie about everything as adults. I’m glad that you don’t do this.

    I’m not a venture capitalist, and I don’t know how they think. But *I* think that if I were rich, I would fund your company through the end of time. Why? Because you are open and honest, and I believe in you.

  7. Joe Fusco
    Joe Fusco says:

    Well done.

    Writing about careers and jobs and such is too small for you, by the way. It might (or might not) pay the bills, but that’s not really your mission, is it?

  8. Lucie
    Lucie says:

    The honesty and candour in your writing is one of my favourite things about this blog, and the fact that it’s not dry ‘career’s advice’ or self-absorbed ‘my diary’ writing but something at the intersection of the two that manages to transcend them both, is what keeps me coming back. Thank you.

  9. Leah Weiss Caruso
    Leah Weiss Caruso says:

    Wow. Brave woman. Frankly, the simple facts that you haven’t a)killed your parents or b)been on Jerry Springer is astounding. Your strength and resolve is an inspiration to me. Glad you’re writing about it; who knows how many people you’re helping inch out of the darkness by your willingness to be blunt, honest and forthright? Kudos to you.

  10. Sara
    Sara says:

    Holy. Shit.

    The next time you’re being hard on yourself because you’re screwing up as a parent, please come re-read this.

    I was impressed with your work/home balancing before, but to realize that you’re doing it absolutely blind, with no first-hand idea of how a healthy family operates? That is freakin’ amazing.

    • mamaworker
      mamaworker says:

      I agree, your one-house arrangement for your children is incredibly stable. I too was moved to tears.

  11. Sinead
    Sinead says:

    Thanks for this post.

    I also completely agree with Joe.

    “Writing about careers and jobs and such is too small for you, by the way. It might (or might not) pay the bills, but that’s not really your mission, is it?”

    I think you’re limiting yourself but only you can know this. Maybe it’s time to think bigger, way bigger?

  12. MJ
    MJ says:

    I love your brave writing. I am continually amazed and shocked by the prevalence of sexual abuse in families. It seems so many women have these stories.

    Do you still have a relationship with your parents?

  13. Jane
    Jane says:

    Thank you for sharing all of this. I always wondered why I related so well to your thinking, and now I know.

  14. Nicky
    Nicky says:

    Your candor is remarkable. Your story breaks my heart, yet I am inspired – because you have survived. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  15. Matt Cheuvront
    Matt Cheuvront says:

    While you and I have both agreed and disagreed in the past, there has always been a huge amount of respect for you on my part. Why? Because you do put yourself out there – you’re real and genuine, for better or for worse, you tell it like it is, which is rare in the online world and throughout society in general. I know you care what people think of you, but you don’t let outside judgment stifle your voice and hold you back. For that, you will always be someone I look up to as I continue to pursue my own blogging and entrepreneurial endeavors.

  16. Chan
    Chan says:

    Ok, so I fell on your blog by chance today and what a good intro to be reading…can’t wait to read the rest of your blog!

  17. Cyndi
    Cyndi says:

    What a great post, and such a heartbreaking story. I blog for the same reason. Secrets will suck the life out of us, and have for me too, my whole life. There is no shame in the truth.

  18. Anna
    Anna says:

    My first thought after reading this post was how terrified I was about the comments. I was preparing myself for the horrible things people might write. I’m so relieved that everyone so far has been nothing but supportive.

    It’s refreshing to understand now how you came to be as open as you are. Congratulations for achieving a level of self-awareness which few people in your position have or will ever find.

  19. Me Thinks
    Me Thinks says:

    Nice post. It takes a lot to put your true self and thoughts out there. I always think I’m “over sharing” the details with people around me, I think I’m too honest about things I should keep private. Next time that happens, I’ll think of this post and it will make me happy.

    Question though – you go by Penelope Trunk but that isn’t your real name, right? Why the pseudonym? Just curious as you do seem to have nothing to hide.

  20. Jeff Allegi
    Jeff Allegi says:

    You are a great writer with an amazing story. Please sit down and start writing your biography. Keep it as real as you kept this post. I think you and Elizabeth Gilbert have a long career ahead of you as memoir writers and will define feminist memoirs for the first decades of the 21st century.

    Please write your autobiography.

    Love the blog. One of three that I anticipate and read on my lunch break with a coffee and muffin.

  21. Alanna
    Alanna says:

    Holy cow. I am so impressed you wrote this. I think this kind of honesty is bad for the career and good for the soul, but I am still so glad and impressed you wrote this.

  22. Allison
    Allison says:

    Wow penelope, this is an amazing post. Based on other posts you have been writing about your personal life, I wonder if a switch was flipped to share with us. Thank you. It is inspirational.

  23. Preston
    Preston says:


    I have to admit that before today, I wasn’t a reader of your blog, and had only heard you mentioned here and there. But that was before today.
    And before 15 minutes ago, I was trying to calm down from a screaming match that occurred in my current living situation. But this post was moving and powerful and inspiring. It immediately snapped me back into perspective and made me realize the true depth (or lack thereof) of my current home problems. Thank you for dramatically changing my morning, my day, and possibly my consideration of conflicts in the near future.

    I know it’s been said in about 30 other comments, but you really are a brave, strong, and uniquely open person. I’ll just say that you have one more pair of eyes watching this blog and your writing with anticipation.
    Thanks again.

  24. J
    J says:

    I think it’s kind of comical how in previous posts (specifically the abortion one) you had all sorts of negative comments, telling you you’re selfish, going to hell among other things, then you write this and there is nothing but praise. Just goes to show, NO ONE ever truly knows ANYONE ELSE’S whole story… which is why other’s opionions of you really don’t mean a damn thing. That being said take this worth a grain of salt but I think you and your posts are f*cking awesome.

    And remember what a famous Dr. once said, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

  25. samantha
    samantha says:

    i second all the supportive comments above. may i ask how your brothers fit into all this? are they doing well and recovering like you?

  26. Alexis Grant
    Alexis Grant says:

    J, I second your comment. Isn’t it interesting how we can throw all sorts of insults at people — and all that changes when we have a look inside their soul, and find out they’re human, just like us?

  27. Kimberly
    Kimberly says:

    You are so right. If you feel like you have to keep something a secret, something isn’t right.

    Also secrets always come out anyway. Trying to keep things hidden is futile, and makes things worse in the long run.

  28. Sheila Scarborough
    Sheila Scarborough says:

    You are a hell of a writer, and thank you for sharing your thoughts with your readers. That’s why this blog is in my can’t-miss “Desert Island Feeds” folder in my RSS reader.

  29. DT
    DT says:

    I’m so, so sorry for everything that has happened to you. I have nothing substantive to add, just another voice saying that I respect your honesty and your skill as a survivor.

  30. Adrienne
    Adrienne says:

    Thank you for sharing your story! I admire your courage.

    I often struggle with how much to share via various social media outlets. My religion plays a large role in my life, but I’m often hesitant to write about it because I’m afraid it will affect future job prospects, etc.

    I recently decided to start sharing it more openly because it is such a large part of who I am. Authentic communication takes courage, but it paints a more accurate picture and gives valuable insights into motivations, etc.

  31. Todd J. List
    Todd J. List says:

    Penelope, you inspired me today.

    From the day I stumbled across your blog a few months ago, you have been one of my favorites. Many people write intelligently, some write compellingly, but few imbue their posts with the intense humanity you do.

    I think I’m beginning to understand why.

    I’m sorry for the secrets that ruined your childhood. Mine was worse than many, but I remember all of mine. I can’t begin to imagine how bad yours must have been to not even remember.

    I applaud your courage, your determination, and especially your willingness to share your journey as openly as you do.

    Many have noted that our pasts make us who we are. That’s true, but I believe that our experiences also contain gifts for others. It isn’t our job to decide what from our story is meaningful to others, but we have an obligation to offer our stories to the world.

    Thank you for writing this post. Thank you for being yourself. Thank you for being.

    • Christy
      Christy says:

      Brownit, your language and delivery is vicious & life-denying. Offering unsolicited pseudo-psychiatric analysis to others is more about yourself and what responses you’d like to generate, than about being genuinely empathic or helpful.

  32. Yawn
    Yawn says:

    Please. Your “sharing secrets” has nothing to do with your “fear” of secrets. As you mentioned before and now, you are a nutcase. Now, regardless of the fact whether you are a nutcase because you were abused by your parents or due to some other factor, you need to recognize that you sharing your personal details in public is also a part of your nuttiness.

    To be technical, you appear to have a personality disorder. There are many kinds of personality disorders. Very simply put, people with personality disorder appear and exhibit normal behavior but act abnormally – towards self and others – when under stress. You (and your readers) will recognize this pattern in you – you reveal really personal details when you are under stress / feeling low self-esteem (yes, self – esteem is a feeling too!).

    The general reason is that you haven’t learnt a constructive way of dealing with stress. The specific reasons behind this depends – maybe you feel vulnerable and you want empathy from others but don’t know how to ask for it. You may also want someone to “rescue” you. After all, by revealing your personal details, you get 1) attention (who doesn’t like it? In your case, it probably artificially boosts your self-esteem) 2) Sympathy (you are unconciously being manipulative – hoping somebody pity’s you, comforts you and offers helps to “rescue” you).

    I purposefully chose to be rude here because you need a rude awakening and need to recognize this pattern and not continue to reinforce it.

    Next time, when you feel the urge to share your personal details, try to identify what triggered it – what made you feel stressed / vulnerable. Then go ahead and share the personal details (nobody expects you to be able to stop cold turkey) but also keep in mind the trigger, and if possible, find a more constructive way to deal with this.

    I also recommend working with a good cognitive therapist – check here: .

    Note 1: And for God sake, don’t just go to a therapist to hear his / her insightful thoughts which you regurgitate as some blog post in some fancy way here so that people can go – “Wow, that was insightful – she is so smart!” (attention is addictive and as destructive as any other addiction).

    Note 2: And don’t berate me saying I don’t know a f**k about you. You are the one who has revealed your personal details here for everyone to “understand” you.

    (And don’t say “you don’t know f**k about me” – you are the one who shared all those personal details).

    • Dree
      Dree says:

      Are you kidding me?

      Talking about things online is a VERY constructive way to deal, especially given the other options (I let you think about those; since you’ve sat through a psychology 101 course you probably know what they are).

      I agree with you that your comment was rude, though.

    • Kirk
      Kirk says:

      Disagree, we’re only as ‘sick’ as our secrets…
      Seems I’ve heard something somewhere about people living in glass houses.

    • Diana
      Diana says:

      I see you appear here anonymously. Very brave of you to be so bold and keep your identity “a secret” (not!)

      Methinks you might have some projective identification (desire for attention) going on which you can’t acknowledge.

      Penelope, I was one of those people who, when asked how their childhood was, replied, “Oh, like most I guess.” How wrong I was, but normal for some of us is not normal.

    • Andy Pels
      Andy Pels says:

      Mr./Ms. Yawn, Don’t you get that after what she has been through, so-called social norms don’t mean dick any more?
      And I don’t say this in a rubber-glue sense, but you really ought to turn your supreme psycho-diagnostic powers inward.

    • Erin
      Erin says:

      Yes, there is such things as personality disorders. However, I am going to make a giant leap of faith and assume you are not a doctor(if you were, I would be worried about your compassion for your patients). While I am not either, I am a medical student and have just learned about personality disorders. By definition, they are not something that comes out just under stress, but are something that invades a person’s whole life. Normal people, however, can have symptoms that resemble personality disorders while under stress, which is within the range of a normal stress response. There are alot of psychiatric terms that are misused to the point that the doctors have to come up with new ones, partially due to the stigma that comes from misuse by the media and others. While I am sure you don’t actually care, I wanted to present the facts.

    • C
      C says:

      Yawn –

      I’m probably taking the bait here. Tossing the troll-food over the side of the bridge for you, showering you with the attention and pity you crave.

      I was just thinking if you’re telling her what to do, the tragedies in your life are obviously the same order of magnitude as hers (I’m very sorry). I think the difference is that she’s connecting with people and turning her life around and making a good home for her daughter. You’re lashing out at people. IMHO (I know i’m not really the one to judge) she’s dealing with things better than you.

  33. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    Thank you for the moving post today. It made me think quite a bit about the parallels of growing up in an alcoholic/drug addicted family where secrecy and denial are paramount. Like yourself, I am missing entire blocks of memory, punctuated with fight scenes. I blocked the drama out so that I could also be a straight-A overachiever. After erupting into panic attacks in my early 20s and seeking therapy, I too walked away from keeping secrets, and I have never been happier. Best of luck in your continued journey of self exploration, it never ends.

  34. Jackie Dishner
    Jackie Dishner says:

    Insightful perspective, Penelope. I’ve read your tweets and sometimes have thought you go overboard. But after reading your story, I get it. I lived one of those secret lives. My mind also protected me by blocking out childhood memories. So it’s weird when I hear people telling vivid stories of their childhood–good stuff, fun stuff–and I remember very little of that. My memories are more like your frying pan story. It’s also the reason I share my secret stuff as well. Never thought of it as fear though. I’ve done it because I learned it wasn’t healthy to keep secrets, that secrets beget more and allow bad things to continue happening. Life deserves to be about good things. If sharing TMI makes other people feel awkward, they don’t have to listen. To me, if sharing secrets is going to help turn obstacles into opportunities, then that’s a good thing. The secret’s out. Thanks for sharing your perspective. It will open eyes.

    All my best,

  35. Hamimah Nordin
    Hamimah Nordin says:

    I couldn’t keep track of how many times I said “OH MY GOD!” when I read this post. What happened to you was every bit unacceptable. I don’t know how but I hope justice is served.

    I agree with the comments above, this blog is too small for you. You can be this generation’s Oprah. I wish you all the best and all the love in the world.

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