By John Thomas Tuft
Maybe it was not supposed to ever happen. Or maybe, no one was ever supposed to find out. Such are the nature of secrets. Some secrets are to protect the lives of others. There are also secrets of the nature of “I can’t tell you what I got you for Christmas, it’s a secret” meaning, hopefully it will be a pleasant surprise. There is something I don’t think you should know or, if you knew, you would think about me in a different way. Shame, surprise, security—all are the realms of secrecy.
At a different points in my writing career I have been approached about developing stories into screenplays for major motion pictures. One was about the life of Jim Thorpe and another was about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Both projects involved extensive amounts of research and dealing with the secrets that I uncovered. In the case of the Rwanda story, a nonprofit religious organization approached me about turning a book they liked into a screenplay for a Hollywood producer. They sent me to London to speak with the author to explore how to write the story. As I sat down with her over a British breakfast, I asked her about the most glaring omission from her story. She was a nurse who had gone to Rwanda to serve, met and married a Rwandan pastor, and was out of the country when the genocide occurred. Her book told the wrenching story of traveling throughout the country in the aftermath trying to find out what happened to her husband.
My question was simple: what took you out of the country at that particular time? I could see the panic on her face, the fear in her eyes. On her answer hung the pivotal drama and pathos of the story. She quietly told me the answer. The cultural differences had proved too great in the marriage and they had separated shortly before the events of the genocide. But she forbade me to use that in the movie. Her family did not know, and she did not want them to know. I could absolutely not use that information in the story. Period. It was too personally costly. Eighteen months of grueling, heartbreaking research and nine drafts later, I had a story ready to produce. But without her in it at all. She had written herself out of her own story due to her secret shame.
The story of Jim Thorpe presented a different challenge. A sports hero and icon across multiple sports, an Olympic champion, a hero to millions and a Native American. Born in Indian Territory in Oklahoma, his name roughly translated meant Bright Path, sent off to an Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, where he played football under the legendary coach, Pop Warner. Onto the Olympics, pro ball in different sports. Then into ignominy and being stripped of his Olympic gold medals because he followed the example of the white college boys who played baseball for money in the summers.
To start, I dug into what frame of thinking led to a young man being sent to a school specifically established to educate and immerse Natives in a foreign culture. For Native Americans to seek citizenship in the United States at that time, meant he needed to “demonstrate the desirable American-European qualities.” The secret shame of life in the Indian boarding schools deserved a movie all its own. I also learned of the effect the death of his mother had on him. I discovered that he won a ballroom dancing championship while in college. He played against Dwight Eisenhower in the Army game, acted in some movies, struggled with alcoholism, died of heart failure at age 65. An exceptionally gifted and complex, wounded man.
I thought of all that while I watched the Super Bowl recently, for the commercials, of course. Commercials are of only two types. They either point to an anxiety and, try to convince us that their product relieves that anxiety within us whether it be about our home, our bodies, status, perception by others, and so forth. Or they create a feeling of joy, belonging, fulfillment, and promise that their product will recreate or restore that same feeling over and over within us. Period. Same thinking applies to political advertising, as well. Relieve anxiety or promise good feelings if we would only buy what they sell.
So, when an old rock singer in his 70s, started walking around a barren looking middle of the country, preaching unity while he was the only human being in sight, and pushed open the door of a tiny church to reveal a wooden heart nailed to a cross nailed to a map of the country painted like the flag, I naturally wondered what on earth are they selling? I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I realized what it was. Secret shame. They were promising that their product would help us all to hang on to our secret shame. That this is how we want it to be. We chose this life and want it to stay this way.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not buying…
Words are magic and writers are wizards.