“Intimacy? What is that?”
“It’s when two people share everything, when there are no secrets between them.”
I had to laugh. “No secrets?” I asked him. “It’s not possible. We spend weeks extracting entire biographies from subjects and always when we hook them up to the autopilot, they blurt out some crucial detail we’d missed. So getting every secret out of someone, sorry, it’s just not possible.”
“No… She gives you her secrets. And you give her yours.”
This is an extract from Adam Johnson‘s Orphan Master’s Son. Set in North Korea, it’s a very human story about an inhuman part of the world. The two people speaking are an interrogator and his subject. It’s a piece of fiction, but having read more than my fair share of accounts from North Korean defectors, I know the sentiment, at least, to be accurate. This is the thing you always take away from every piece of such testimony – the absence of intimate space. The absence of intimacy itself.
Without intimacy, we are nothing. We have functional relationships with our spouses and children. We live in fear of being denounced by those closest to us, and so collect information, ready to denounce those closest to us. We are starving – physically, emotionally.
It’s an extreme human situation in an extreme state.
Something a little like this happens in the context of the alcoholic marriage, only the individual fearful of intimacy is the alcoholic. Until that alcoholic is genuinely in recovery, untruth is the place where he resides (I say he, because the alcoholic I know best is my estranged husband, Ben). The alcoholic will resort to lies and obfuscation even when the truth is undeniable. Not unlike the madness extolled by the North Korean state.
Even once the alcoholic has stopped drinking, he may continue to deal in duplicity. I’m reasonably certain that Ben lied to my face when I confronted him some weeks back (not about drinking). Since then, I’ve realised he has always kept himself sealed off, always retained something that has prevented real intimacy between us. That something has changed over the years, but whatever it is, it’s probably unappealing.
This realisation hit me a few days ago, during a long and winding conversation in which Ben told me that being with me would almost certainly cause a relapse. In other words, our marriage is definitely over. This, after I offered him an opportunity to be truthful with me about something else. He deflected by effectively blaming me for his condition. He refuses to speak about the other thing. And the fact that he lied to me breached a boundary I hadn’t realised I’d set.
I have not looked at him since, although he continues to come around. I refuse to seek out his company. I refuse to be alone with him in the same space. I tolerate him because he’s Rosie’s dad and she needs him. I needed him once, too. Not so, now. At least, not in that way.
The subject of the interrogation in the above excerpt defies all odds and finds intimacy in North Korea. He falls in love. He can do this, because he refuses to lie to the woman he loves. She, in turn, offers the same. That’s how intimacy is struck. That’s how relationships are sustained.
I feel somehow buoyed by the possibility of love in such harrowing circumstances. I know it’s fiction. Perhaps it can only happen in fiction. And yet… ?