Freedom to keep a secret: an interview with Eliza Martin Simpson

For Decent Company June: secrets, Eliza Martin Simpson will be performing a burlesque piece about her love and the secrets contained within. Eliza sat down with producing director Josh Boerman and talked about love, lies, boundaries, and what it means to be truly exposed.


JOSH BOERMAN: You’re exposing yourself in a way that is new for you, right?

ELIZA MARTIN SIMPSON: Yeah. It is an exercise in exposing. It is an exercise in stripping down. What do we think we’re supposed to hide? What do we actually feel uncomfortable about hiding? And what do we feel uncomfortable about sharing?

For me, that’s kind of taken the form— it’s grown into this thing about secrets and how secrets can be tied to shame, how they can be tied to guilt, and how there is freedom in releasing that secret and telling that secret.

But there can be freedom in keeping your secret, depending on the context. Depending on who you’re telling, what you’re sharing, how you feel about those things.

JB: And that’s a dynamic that a lot of people seem to be exploring this month too. One of the things that keeps coming up is that very thing of, like, how appropriate is it to keep certain things to yourself? When is guilt dangerous? When is it appropriate? How appropriate is it to live a life that is shame-free? When is shame something that is good, that keeps you in check? I mean, I’m curious. Where do you fall on that?

EMS: I think as a generation we are in a very specific age, which is that huge numbers of people identify as non-religious. And for a long time, the purpose of religion was to guide that express quality in humans.

How much shame do I need? How much shame is too much? How much shame is not enough? How much guilt do I need? How much will keep me in check? How much will keep me from murdering my neighbor and stealing his things?

JB: And that only the church had the power to grant you absolution from that.

EMS: Exactly. Which is a very, very seductive idea. Somebody else is in charge of the forgiving. Guilt and shame are one of the more interesting barbed part of our psyche. And if somebody else is dealing with the barbed part of your psyche, either ripping it out or putting it back in, you never get your hands bloody. You get your psyche bloody.

What I’m saying is that it is an uncomfortable, painful, sometimes damaging thing to wrestle with. And this newer generation that is coming of age in a society that is hyper-aware of how we shame people, of triggers, of those aspects of us which are guarded and guided by our shame. We’re hyper-aware of that.

JB: That’s interesting to me that you mention triggers and that whole sort of thing, because that’s definitely a topic of contention for a lot of people, is trigger warnings and making sure that people are able to be in a space where they feel like they’re able to openly and comfortable express themselves without fear of one of their secrets being suddenly and rapidly ripped into the forefront, and putting them in a very difficult place.

But at the same time, it seems like what your piece is saying is that keeping your secrets and living with them, that there’s tremendous value in that.

EMS: Yeah. And I’ve paired it with the idea of this reverse burlesque, because me personally, this is my story as regards nudity and secrets; they run parallel in my life.

JB: Which are two great things. Nudity and secrets are, like, two of the best things.

EMS: I always consider myself a very open person, a very comfortable, body comfortable person. I grew up in the woods; I grew up with a lot of alternative lifestyle folks.

JB: Yeah, you had, like, a classic hippie upbringing, right?

EMS: Oh, yeah. Oh yeah. So I spent a lot of my upbringing being told that shaming nudity is… woof. If you feel uncomfortable nude, good. Do whatever you need. So nudity for me was always a positive thing. Show more, the better. I have nothing to be conscious about; I have nothing to hide. I have nothing to feel shameful about.

JB: Which is what’s so empowering for a lot of people about doing burlesque, is like—

EMS: “I have nothing to be ashamed of. Look at these tits. They’re great.” And I felt similarly about myself, about secrets. “I have nothing to be ashamed of. If I feel conflicted about something, I share it, and then I feel better. That is the way things work.”

And as I matured and grew up, as an adult I’m finding more power in the boundaries that I draw. I am finding the difference between zero boundaries means zero fear and zero shame, and zero shame comes with deciding where my boundaries are. Maybe putting in a boundary.

JB: What do those boundaries look like for you?

EMS: Well, as an adult, it has been about discovering what actually makes me uncomfortable. What actually feels like too much sharing.

JB: Which kind of goes along with those triggers, right? The idea of triggering, being triggered, et cetera.

EMS: Exactly. When you are brought up to think that shame means you have something to be ashamed of, you throw out all your triggers, right? “I have no hangups. I have zero hangups.” But coming to grips with what my actual hangups are, what they’re linked to, makes me me.

JB: And the fact that you have those things doesn’t make you any less strong or any less—

EMS: Or any more or less ashamed. So this piece mirrors me learning how to kind of keep my secrets, draw my boundaries, and put my clothes on.

JB: When do you feel like that sort of change started to happen for you?

EMS: Well, like with anything, there’s a pendulum swing, right? So high school and college was a lot of feeling like I had a lot to be ashamed of, and wanting to cover up a lot.

JB: Yeah, I think we all kind of feel that way in high school.

EMS: Yeah. (LAUGHS) It’s a rough time.

JB: “Nobody understands me!”

EMS: “No one understands me; I’m so full of angst.” But I think that the more that the pendulum swings back and forth, the more I swing between sharing everything and feeling like I don’t want to share everything. Because we all do that, like, day to day. Within four minutes. The more I can see where the middle is.

JB: In the specific context of this piece, you’re talking about secrets and their connection to love, to your love, to what love means for you. And I was just hoping you could talk a little more about that as well. What does that mean to you that your love is made of secrets?

EMS: Well, I think love is like growing up. It’s one of those things that you can’t understand until it happens to you. And even then, not really that well. You just keep swinging through the experience, going from extreme to extreme, and feeling where that middle point in the pendulum swing is; the center. In regards to love, secrets and love…

JB: I see you right now thinking about how many secrets you want to keep, right? (LAUGHS)

EMS: I’m drawing my boundaries, yes.

JB: That’s what you’re doing.

EMS: Yes. As regards love, love is a deep experience. It is a pull you away from yourself and bring you to yourself experience. And I think in coming to myself, being in love and letting it really show me who I was, it helped me learn how to keep my secrets, how to draw my boundaries. That’s why I was surprised that love had secrets.

JB: And when did that really happen for you?

EMS: My first love, way back, messed me up in good ways and bad ways.

JB: When was that?

EMS: I’m not going—

JB: You’re not going to tell me. (LAUGHS)

EMS: —to tell you. (LAUGHS)

JB: That’s fine, you don’t have to. It’s a secret.

EMS: It’s a secret. But I will say, it was my first love. And it was a while ago. But that person, incredibly special person, still incredibly special to me. And that taught me so much about myself.

JB: Was that because of the keeping of secrets that were withheld from each other?

EMS: No, I think it was the falling in love, being so terribly close to a person that it feels like they can see all your secrets, then trying to actually keep a secret and seeing that that felt different.

JB: Oh, interesting. So, like, it was a relationship where there was no room to be together but also to be apart a little bit. To be independent, in a way.

EMS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, in terms of almost everything else. But I think when you are really in love with someone, your souls get slammed right up against each other. And I think that what I realized was that you are always allowed to keep things to yourself.

But if an experience that you’re keeping to yourself, if it has changed you, if you’ve grown because of it, and you have to keep that to yourself? If you have to hide a growth in yourself from the person you love, then you’re lying.

JB: Sure.

EMS: End of sentence, end of conversation. It’s a lie.

JB: Because the idea of a good relationship is that you grow together, right? And that you can share in those experiences.

EMS: Yeah. You grow together, not physically together, but you both grow. Parallel, vertical, I mean, whichever way you do it, you’re growing. And you’re witnessing each other in that growth.

JB: Right. And openly seeing each other, and being willing to see each other. And when a change or a growth happens, being willing to acknowledge that rather than being afraid of it.

EMS: Yeah. Absolutely. I didn’t know that’s how love worked. I didn’t know until it happened, and then I had to hide something and I felt awful. I felt awful. I won’t say more than that. (LAUGHS)

JB: No, that’s fine. But that’s what brought this to life, what you’re doing now, is you can remember those times where the secrets became lies. And now you’re putting out there that you don’t want to do that anymore, right?

EMS: Yeah. Again, like love, you don’t know until it happens to you. I experienced it, I realized that it’s not what I wanted, and then I drew my boundary. And then I put my clothes on.

To buy tickets for Decent Company June: secrets, click here.

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