In the Valley of the Open Secret

From Thomas Carlyle to Harvey Weinstein, a brief history of a pernicious term

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

In 1828, Thomas Carlyle, the British author and polymath, wrote an essay considering Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Carlyle praised the work that he also translated into English—and he praised it in particular on the grounds that, through the character of Wilhelm, a young man who rejects a life of urban business for one in pursuit of art, the novel had itself achieved a kind of transcendence. In the character of Wilhelm, Carlyle suggested,

Poetry and Prose are no longer at variance, for the poet’s eyes are opened: he sees the changes of many-colored existence, and sees the loveliness and deep purport which lies hidden under the very meanest of them; hidden to the vulgar sight, but clear to the poet’s; because the “open secret” is no longer a secret to him, and he knows that the Universe is full of goodness; that whatever has being has beauty.

Carlyle’s effusions were textbook examples of early Romanticism: the artist as uniquely capable of seeing the world; the assumption that beauty and truth are irrevocably tangled together. His essay also marked the first time, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that the English language would make mention of an “open secret”—a phenomenon that, in Carlyle’s sense of it, embodied the heady realities of the Universe that lay just beyond the reach of the “vulgar sight.”

Carlyle’s original use of the term is, to put it mildly, markedly different from the uses that have been issued like drumbeats in recent days, in headlines about Harvey Weinstein and his alleged pattern of sexual impropriety with the women in his orbit. Headlines that reported, and expanded, on the New York Times investigation that found previously undisclosed allegations of harassment and abuse against the mogul that stretched over nearly three decades. Headlines that treated Weinstein’s behavior as an “open secret”—not the antithesis of Carlyle’s “vulgar sight,” but rather the embodiment of it. “Harvey Weinstein was Hollywood’s biggest open secret.” His was “the ‘worst-kept secret’ in Hollywood and New York.” His behavior, hidden and revealed, heralded “the era of open secrets.” Open secret, open secret, open secret, the stories reminded, as they revealed horrors that had apparently been known all along.

Weinstein’s secret has now swiftly shed its secrecy. Over the weekend, in response to the Times’s article, the board of the Weinstein Company fired Harvey Weinstein. Celebrities came forward to register their public shock at Weinstein’s alleged transgressions. Many more of Weinstein’s alleged victims shared their own experiences. And then, on Tuesday, The New Yorker published the results of its own investigation into Weinstein’s decades of alleged abuse: a detailed account of the mogul’s behavior, far more damning even than the Times’s report, told from the victims’ point of view. Ronan Farrow’s story included accusations, from several different women, that Weinstein had raped them.

The story was shocking. But it was not, strictly, surprising. That is the paradox of the open secret as it exists in 2017. That is what makes the open secret of the present day so cynical and sad. “It wasn’t a secret to the inner circle,” Kathy DeClesis, Bob Weinstein’s assistant in the early 1990s, told the Times of Harvey’s behavior. Farrow began his New Yorker story by noting what had become, by that point, a piece of conventional wisdom: “This has been an open secret to many in Hollywood and beyond.”

Weinstein, for his part, told The New Yorker that he unequivocally denies “any allegations of non-consensual sex”; he has threatened to sue The New York Times for $50 million. He has also, however, admitted to wrongdoing in a statement to The New York Times and in an interview with the New York Post. On Tuesday evening, according to TMZ, he boarded a plane bound for a sex rehab center in Europe. And, seemingly by the hour, more people are coming forward—more stories are being told. Gwyneth Paltrow. Angelina Jolie. So many women, so many voices, each one taking a chisel to a secret exposed.

The open secret, in Weinstein’s case as in many others, can serve a sadly practical purpose. At Buzzfeed, the writer Anne Helen Petersen described the way “whisper networks,” for women, can be empowerment by another means: last resorts “when normal routes of protection—HR complaints, direct confrontation, the police—simply won’t work, either because of a man’s power or because the burden of proof, when it comes to sexual harassment, is so heavy, and the price of becoming an accuser is so steep.” The open secret, in that sense, is a thing of desperation: gossip, that stereotypically feminine phenomenon, used in the service of survival.

It’s a far cry from Thomas Carlyle and “open secrets” that suggested the sparklingly poetic truths that lay just beyond our fleshy grasp. Applied to Weinstein, the open secret is decidedly earthbound. It acquiesces to power, because often it has no other choice. (“I was expected to keep the secret,” Paltrow said, and the expectation in question came from one of the most powerful institutions in Hollywood.) The headlines about Weinstein speak of “open secrets” because, indeed, what the following stories amount to are on-the-record confirmations of the horrific rumors that have followed him, like a trail of exhaust, for decades. “This wasn’t a one-off,” an executive who worked for Weinstein for several years told Farrow. “This wasn’t a period of time. This was ongoing predatory behavior towards women—whether they consented or not.”

And it was behavior that was, in thinly veiled ways, publicly discussed. During the nominations announcement for the 2013 Oscars, Seth MacFarlane made a joke about Weinstein’s behavior. 30 Rock, in a 2012 episode, did, too. (“I’m not afraid of anyone in show business,” Jenna tells Tracy; “I turned down intercourse with Harvey Weinstein on no less than three occasions.” She pauses: “Out of five.”) The author Peter Biskind detailed Weinstein’s bullying behavior in Down and Dirty Pictures, his 2004 history of Miramax and the Sundance Film Festival. David Carr, the late New York Times columnist, had hinted at that behavior, as well: “As the keeper of star-making machinery,” Carr wrote in a 2001 profile of the mogul for New York magazine, “Weinstein has re-engineered the media process so that he lives beyond its downsides.” In 2015, Gawker, following up on a story from 2012, invited readers to “Tell Us What You Know About Harvey Weinstein’s Open Secret.”

No one did, apparently. Or not enough people did to put the open secret on the record. Weinstein went on as he did for so long in part because of journalism’s reporting standards, which are in turn connected to legal and cultural standards: If something can’t be proven, it would be irresponsible and reckless to publish it. It’s perhaps no accident that “open secret,” as a phrase, exploded in popularity in the U.S. during the mid-to-late 1800s—a time that also witnessed the rise of the telegraph and the penny press, and a time in which secrets themselves could newly operate at scale. The phrase declined sharply in the early 20th century, which is also the time the American press began professionalizing.

Yet there is something decidedly modern—really, decidedly postmodern—about the notion of the open secret. As used today, it whiffs of reality television, and of theatrical wrestling, and of pseudoevents. The open secret suggests that vast space between what we, as a public, understand, and what we merely “understand.” It is the stuff of known unknowns, of truthiness, of alternative facts. It is the stuff of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby and Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes and Floyd Mayweather and Mel Gibson and Bill Clinton and O.J. Simpson and Donald Trump and, until recently, of Harvey Weinstein: the whispered rumors. The information that is everywhere and nowhere. The facts that hang in the air, not quite touching the ground. The open secret insinuates without declaring. It feeds on mistrust, and engenders it. Everyone knows that, the open secret says, savvily and cynically, before throwing up its hands.