One mislaid credit card bill or a single dangling e-mail message on the home computer would have ended everything: the marriage, the big-time career, the reputation for decency he had built over a lifetime.

So for more than 10 years, he ruthlessly kept his two identities apart: one lived in a Westchester hamlet and worked in a New York office, and the other operated mainly in clubs, airport bars and brothels. One warmly greeted clients and waved to neighbors, sometimes only hours after the other had stumbled back from a “work” meeting with prostitutes or cocaine dealers.



In the end, it was a harmless computer pop-up advertisement for security software, claiming that his online life was being “continually monitored,” that sent this New York real estate developer into a panic and to a therapist.



The man’s double life is an extreme example of how mental anguish can cleave an identity into pieces, said his psychiatrist, Dr. Jay S. Kwawer, director of clinical education at the William Alanson White Institute in New York, who discussed the case at a recent conference.



But psychologists say that most normal adults are well equipped to start a secret life, if not to sustain it. The ability to hold a secret is fundamental to healthy social development, they say, and the desire to sample other identities – to reinvent oneself, to pretend – can last well into adulthood. And in recent years researchers have found that some of the same psychological skills that help many people avoid mental distress can also put them at heightened risk for prolonging covert activities.



“In a very deep sense, you don’t have a self unless you have a secret, and we all have moments throughout our lives when we feel we’re losing ourselves in our social group, or work or marriage, and it feels good to grab for a secret, or some subterfuge, to reassert our identity as somebody apart,” said Dr. Daniel M. Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard. He added, “And we are now learning that some people are better at doing this than others.”



Although the best-known covert lives are the most spectacular – the architect Louis Kahn had three lives; Charles Lindbergh reportedly had two – these are exaggerated examples of a far more common and various behavior, psychologists say. Some people gamble on the sly, or sample drugs. Others try music lessons. Still others join a religious group. They keep mum for different reasons.



And there are thousands of people – gay men and women who stay in heterosexual marriages, for example – whose shame over or denial of their elemental needs has set them up for secretive excursions into other worlds. Whether a secret life is ultimately destructive, experts find, depends both on the nature of the secret and on the psychological makeup of the individual.



Psychologists have long considered the ability to keep secrets as central to healthy development. Children as young as 6 or 7 learn to stay quiet about their mother’s birthday present. In adolescence and adulthood, a fluency with small social lies is associated with good mental health. And researchers have confirmed that secrecy can enhance attraction, or as Oscar Wilde put it, “The commonest thing is delightful if only one hides it.”



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