A review of Brad Blanton, Radical Honesty: How to Transform Your Life By Telling the Truth (1994; Stanley, VA: Sparrowhawk Publications, 2005). ★★★★★ (5/5).
I got some things I can’t tell anyone
I got some things I just can’t say
They’re the kind of things that no one knows about
I just need somebody to talk to me
—Counting Crows, “Speedway”
This review is about keeping secrets, and whether it is necessary or harmful. I suspect it’s often both. It’s an unusually personal post, but also, perhaps, unusually evasive.
My radically honest youth
When I was younger—until about twenty-eight or twenty-nine—I was excessively concerned with the feeling I had to do “the right thing”—by myself, my principles, and others. Not always in that order, though I put others last on purpose, because we never know others as well as ourselves, and our help is often unwelcome or gets in the way. “You can’t please everyone, so you might as well please yourself,” as they say. I wish I were better at acting out of that realization.
Brad Blanton, a psychotherapist and the author of Radical Honesty, sees trying to do the right thing as a problem. First of all, there is no right thing.1 It is, then, fortunate that my interest in doing it has diminished somewhat over time.
But when I was about fourteen or fifteen, precisely because I wanted to do the right thing as much as possible, on my own I thought up and decided to pursue something like the “radical honesty” Blanton espouses in this book.
I resolved to be as open as I could about myself and what I was doing, at all times and with all people. Firstly, this was because little is inherently shameful. Secondly, if you kept that in mind, you probably shouldn’t be doing the things you still didn’t want to tell anyone about. Telling the full truth about myself all the time was to be a way of keeping myself accountable for what I did. My practice of openness also included avoiding false modesty and, eventually, not withholding praise or compliments if you feel inspired to give them.
Blanton’s radical honesty
Blanton’s radical honesty is similar, though slightly different. One crucial difference is that, rather than seeing honesty as a way of keeping ourselves true to our principles, Blanton thinks our principles are a major cause of dishonesty. We get so uptight from trying to stay polite and do the nonexistent “right thing” all the time that we hide the truth—the visceral, present-tense reality of our experience—from others and, worse, from ourselves.
Maybe the more important difference between Blanton and me is that while Blanton is promoting—and, I assume, practicing—radical honesty, I’m not radically honest anymore. I feel uneasy about that sometimes, but I also have serious doubts about whether radical honesty is right for me or anyone else.
Blanton sees dishonesty—which can be more a matter of withholding than outright lying—as a bad thing because it is the major source of stress, and of physical and mental illness, in many people’s lives. Your secrets will kill you, Blanton argues, because the stress of keeping them (and possibly the alienation that comes with being unable to reveal yourself and relate directly and presently to others) will exhaust you and lead you to commit slow suicide through bad habits like drinking too much, overeating, and so on.
In Radical Honesty, Blanton presents this observation and then offers several techniques for practicing radical honesty, particularly in one’s relationships with other people, where it manifests mainly as the withholding of one’s resentments and appreciations. Radical honesty, as an alternative to withholding and lying, involves being aware of one’s thoughts and feelings in the present, particularly as they manifest physically, and immediately expressing them to the people they concern. Blanton applies a similar practice in his writing, offering candid insights into his own experiences and motivations in being radically honest as a person and as a therapist, including his grandiose hopes for the radical honesty project and his reputation.
This is an intentionally unsophisticated book. The style is conversational, accessible, and irreverent, which sometimes comes off as a lack of discipline. One quirk is the inclusion of long passages taken from other authors. Some of these are worthwhile, such as the excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath about an encounter with a self-pitying man who walks around with an exposed and weeping eye socket. Others are not. Worse still is the “Conclusion and Postscript to The New Edition – 2004”, part of an update that Blanton notes his original publisher didn’t want to help him do, and for good reason: this new final section is the weakest part of the book. Blanton’s repeated insistence that capitalism is destroying the planet is, for me, a marker of the sort of crankish thinking that should be disregarded, as should doomsaying in general.
A life-changing book
Despite its unevenness, I’ve given Radical Honesty five stars because it’s unforgettable in a good way and potentially life-changing.
Many people will find reading it challenging and intensely uncomfortable. It could be a painful reminder of how distant you have become from others and from yourself by hiding your truth. If you read it and feel this way, I’m right there with you.
Being radically honest as a teenager was easy: I didn’t have very much to lose, and I didn’t do very much of anything, particularly the sort of thing that would hurt people’s feelings or earn me a reprisal. I had serious social obligations only to my parents, and even those, at the time, I took less seriously than the task of forming my own standards through low-stakes confrontation with authority and received ideas.
As I got older, I found this more difficult, because of what some call karma: you get entangled with situations and people, and it imprisons you. This feeling seemed to spike around the time I was thirty, and it’s never gone significantly below that level since. It drove me into therapy, as I felt no one in my life had so little a stake in what I did that I could talk to them openly. If I didn’t think they’d be hurt by what I had to say, or punish or reject me for it, I at least thought they’d be unable to offer me detached or impartial reflections on my problems.
Some of the things that drove me ever deeper into silence about aspects of my thoughts, my behaviour, and my suffering (not special; we all suffer, and it is one of the best bases for universal human solidarity) were merely specific entanglements, many of which eventually ended. But others are more like themes:
- Some people may ask you for openness without committing to being nonjudgemental: even if they do genuinely want to relate to you honestly, they also want to vet you to see if you are worthy of their association. Establishing that your interests diverge, that you are guilty of some moral failing or that you merely hold some intolerably different values, they may reject you as a friend or lover, leaving you wondering why you exposed yourself and your vulnerability to them. Sometimes, there is dishonesty in our demand for honesty.
- Social media and a swing towards authoritarianism have made social situations more judgmental. Perhaps it was ever thus, but people these days can be shockingly moralistic. I might have been naïve to think, as a teenager, that humanity generally was on a path to becoming more tolerant of human difference and fallibility, and to allowing more space for people to be openly who they are, with all their particular brokenness. The twenty-first century has dashed such hopes.
- Having seen more of the world and encountered places where terrifyingly extreme authoritarianism holds sway, I see that honesty can at times be suicidally dangerous. Keeping one’s political resentments a secret in such a situation continues to take a physical and psychological toll on individuals, and lets issues that might otherwise be debated turn into festering social corruption and reason for intense (and occasionally justified) hatred. But honesty ceases to be therapeutic in a powerful authoritarian regime: one does not choose between slow suicide and release into health, but between slow suicide and quick suicide. Increasingly, violence begins to look like a society’s only way out of such a situation, and this is at least one reason why censorship is never acceptable.
That honesty requires an appropriate context—relative safety—explains why Blanton suggests people interested in practicing radical honesty should seek out or form communities. But Blanton never indicates that practicing honesty is risk-free. In fact, he encourages us to own up to our cowardice in not wanting to share the truth about ourselves when we stand to lose something by it. Many of us are quite happy to tell the truth so long as it risks nothing, Blanton says, and this prevents us from relating to people as living and responsive beings, rather than as our fixed ideas about them, which is to say as a type of inanimate object.
Radical honesty and existentialism
A good deal of Radical Honesty will remind some readers of existentialism, particularly Sartre’s accessible essay Existentialism is a Humanism. Sartre thinks we are responsible to ourselves and all mankind for all our choices, including the choice to act with cowardice:
man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.
Elsewhere, Sartre deals with the issue of what he calls “bad faith”, where we try to find ways to absolve ourselves of our responsibility for choosing. We may abandon our decisions to chance, engineer situations where others will make them for us, submit to authority, do nothing, or insist that circumstances (one of today’s major examples: “structural oppression”) or temperament forced us to do a particular thing. But whatever our excuse, if we do something blameworthy, we are still really to blame: our coin flip or dice roll, our submission, inaction, reliance on the judgment of others, or lack of effort to rise above our circumstances, was entirely within our control.
Blanton is similarly conscious of the average person’s tendency to evade responsibility. Dishonesty is one of the main forms of this evasion, and though it sometimes manifests as outright lying, it appears more often as incomplete disclosure, especially in the name of politeness or care for others.
The cowardice in honesty
Paradoxically, though, honesty can also be evasive. My greater interest in concealment, from 2011 onward, lay partly in realizing that we might want to confess something we feel guilty about mainly to relieve ourselves of the burden of carrying a secret or being unforgiven. When we have chosen to do something that we believe would hurt others, especially if it would hurt them only if they knew about it, confessing in this way is also a failure to take responsibility. Asking someone we have hurt to absolve us, or confessing with the expectation we will be forgiven, is itself an act of cowardice.2
This is another reason that I’m genuinely skeptical about whether radical honesty is to be recommended in all situations, without qualification, for all people. The Book of Life (which feels like it could be written by Alain de Botton, though he is not acknowledged as the sole author or even an author) expresses similar thoughts in its article on Keeping Secrets in Relationships:
The person who cannot tolerate secrets, who in the name of ‘being honest’, shares information so wounding it cannot be forgotten, is no friend of love. Just as no parent tells a child the whole truth, so we should accept the ongoing need to edit our full reality.
And if one suspects (and one should, rather regularly, if the relationship is a good one) that one’s partner might be lying too (about what they are thinking about, about how they judge one’s work, about where they were last night…), it is perhaps best not to take up arms and lay into them like a sharp relentless inquisitor,
But I remain conscious that by subscribing to this view, I could merely be trying to get off the hook for my cowardice.
Ultimately, Radical Honesty is likely to make you feel ashamed of yourself and wonder whether you are likely to ever have an authentic, whole relationship with any person other than your therapist (and then, maybe not even with them). But by challenging you in this way, it could change your life and your conception of yourself, even if at first the prospects look dismal.
- I only partly agree with this. Blanton and some existentialists (e.g. Sartre) are correct that there’s no perfect course of action you must choose to get things “right”. But there is clearly a range of right choices in many situations, defined by their not involving doing anything absolutely wrong, such as initiating the use of force or deliberately hurting someone for one’s own enjoyment. ↩
- I deal with this in a scene towards the end of my forthcoming novel Seize the Girl, due out in 2016. Sign up to my newsletter to be notified when it’s out. ↩