“Downton Abbey” and the secrets we keep


“Downton Abbey” has been a bit more like “Downer Abbey” lately. There’s the aftermath of Mattthew’s death, and Anna’s rape, and Tom’s troubles.   I know many viewers have strong feelings about (or against) the second plot point mentioned above, but I’m not going to debate that in this post.  Instead I’m going to talk about a motif (yes, I’m getting all English-teachery on you!) that I’ve noticed this season.

It’s the motif of keeping secrets versus letting others into our troubles.

Exhibit A in this, of course, is Anna.  I don’t know about you, but when I watched the episode where she insisted that she was going to keep quiet about the rape, I wanted to yell at the TV in the manner of a rabid sports fan.  “Tell someone!” I wanted to shout.  “Tell Bates!  Tell the police!  Tell the Granthams!”  It is almost physically painful to see her keeping the trauma to herself (at least Mrs. Hughes knows and is in her corner).

Then there’s Tom, Exhibit B.  I found it telling in this last episode (I’m writing this before the latest one has aired) that he felt he couldn’t tell anyone about his Edna-shaped shame.   “If you knew, you would despise me,” he tells Mary at one point.  The poor bloke goes for most of the episode with his guilt locked inside, looking progressively more miserable until he finally tells Mrs. Hughes (who in another century would have made a wicked good therapist).

All this got me thinking about how easy it is to keep mum about things that bother us.  Maybe it’s easier for some than for others; it could be a personality thing, I suppose, this fear of sharing the things that weigh on us. And, of course, the reasons for our silence can vary  Poor Anna is the victim who feels the need to protect others with silence.  Tom, by contrast,  has complete ownership of his own problems, resulting in profound guilt (admittedly, alcohol plus Edna’s tenacity are a pretty potent cocktail).

As a mom, there have been times where one of my boys  has something weighing  on his mind.  Often, it’s a worry about something he saw on TV; sometimes it’s guilt over a minor little kid transgression.  All I can do in those moments is tell him that he’ll feel better if he  shares what is on his mind, and keep repeating that he can’t tell me anything that will change how  much I love him.  It’s not easy for him to open up, but when he does, the relief is instantaneous and obvious.

It reminds me of my own childhood, when I had a hard time sharing things with others.  Notably, as a teenager, I  started to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, with distressing thoughts playing on a loop in my mind.  It was hard to open up to others about it, which meant that I wasted a lot of time before addressing it in any significant way through counseling. It’s not that I was chronically miserable, by any means; the OCD ebbed and flowed, worse at some periods than others.  All the same, I went far too long with a diminished quality of life, having those thoughts and and their resulting guilt preying on my mind.  Letting others into my troubles was the key that opened the door to a new, much improved life.

So as much as I hate to see all this happen to characters I like, I can’t help but feel that there is a great deal of real-life emotional truth in the human desire to keep things hidden.  It rings true to me.

I’m grateful that, in the most recent episode, Tom finally unburdened himself to Mrs. Hughes.  (Let me take this opportunity to say that I love her.  Let me rephrase that: I looooooove her.)   I hope Anna shares her secret too, for her own sake and the sake of those who care about her.  And it may sound cheesy, but if this season of hidden pain makes a viewer realize that he or she has a secret burden that can be shared with others, then that’s a great and beautiful thing.

 What do you think of “Downton” these days? 

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