[This is the fourth in a series of stories about interesting people I’ve known, a series I’m calling “Lives”. I don’t know whether you would call it non-fiction, or fiction. I’ve changed the names, and some of the details, so that the individuals are not easily identifiable. The more I change, as here, the more it becomes fiction. However, I think I’ve stayed true to the essence of what really happened. The point is what can be drawn from the story, and at least that part is 100% true.]
When you first meet Anne, you see a tall, distinguished-looking Chinese-Canadian woman in her early fifties. I know Anne through her husband Ron, whom I met while I was teaching at the law school many (many) years ago. They have two daughters, Danielle, 22 and Susan, 15. Anne has a demanding and critical job working for a Canadian charity, but her claim to fame, if you like, is that in 1984, in Los Angeles, she won an Olympic gold medal with the Chinese women’s volleyball team.
Anne has a secret. Until recently, I was the only person who knew it.
Ron and Anne met in 1987 at a Toronto club. He was a young lawyer, and she was a 24-year-old visitor from China, just traveling around enjoying the experience. They hit it off, and within a month he was taking some time off work to join her on a trip out west. By the time her visa expired a couple of months later, they were talking about their future life together.
I met Anne a couple of times during that visit. She was – and still is – a smart and witty conversationalist, not quite the life of the party (that would be Ron), but certainly full of vitality and exuding confidence. Her English was, then, already very good, although at that time she still spoke with an accent. She never failed to enthral people with stories of life in Communist China, especially for an elite athlete, as well as stories of her difficult but rewarding Olympic experience. Many people who knew Ron and Anne then will recall her bitterness when she talked about not being able to have her Olympic medal, forced instead to leave it with the director of her athletic club. Just one example, she would say, of the all-encompassing control the system exerted on Chinese athletes.
After Anne went back to China, she and Ron immediately started the wheels in motion to be together, which given the immigration rules at the time meant getting married. Neither had any doubt that’s what they wanted, and the success of their marriage, twenty-five years later, shows that their confidence was not misplaced. Still, there was a lot of paperwork in both countries. It took a long time to resolve.
Eventually, by the end of 1988, they had all approvals required. They decided that they would meet in Hong Kong, spend a few days there, and then fly back to Canada together so that Ron would be right beside her if she had any problems entering Canada. In January 1989, when they were in Hong Kong, I was there on business. Between my meetings, and their sightseeing, we spent some time together. That’s when I learned Anne’s secret.
A couple of days before I was due to return to Canada, Anne approached me to have dinner and talk privately. She told me Ron had said I was someone who could be trusted. She wanted to get some personal advice from me.
I spoke to Ron, and he was happy for her to talk with me. I asked him what she wanted to talk about, but he didn’t know. He thought she had some personal things she wanted to discuss, just to get a different perspective. I wasn’t very comfortable, but he encouraged me to let her take me into her confidence, so I accepted her invitation.
Anne started by getting my solemn promise that I would tell no-one – not even Ron – about what we discussed. I hadn’t thought about that. A secret even from Ron? He was my friend, and that didn’t seem quite right. On the other hand he had asked me to let her trust me.
I hesitated, perhaps not long enough, but then gave that promise. I later came to regret that decision.
What Anne had to tell me was totally unexpected. She had not won any Olympic medals. She had never even been an athlete, nor did she grow up in Communist China. She had lived most of her life in Hong Kong, and had spent the last six years there, before her trip to Canada, as a pricey and successful prostitute. She wanted me to tell her whether she should tell Ron the truth before they got married.
To me, there was no question what she should do. Of course a marriage based on the foundation of such a lie would ultimately fail. She had to tell Ron.
But to her, it was more complicated than that. If she stayed in Hong Kong, she could survive on her substantial savings for a while, but in the end she would be forced to go back into the sex business, one way or another. She would have few other options. If she went back to China, the country of her birth, she would not fit in at all. She had not been there in almost twenty years. Leaving Hong Kong to go to any developed country was difficult. Marrying someone was really one of the only routes available to her to do that, given her history.
Plus, she was adamant that she was head over heels in love with Ron, and would be the best wife he could ever have. I didn’t actually doubt her sincerity.
Despite the risks, I said, she had to tell him. I was pretty blunt in my advice. She cried. That’s not what she wanted to hear. She wanted me to tell her it was OK to keep living her fraudulent life. I told her that Ron, given his personality, would probably not change his mind about marrying her, but she had to take that risk. There was no other way.
We argued. It was not an angry argument, but it was intense. By the end of it, hours later, I thought she had accepted my view. I asked her if I could talk to Ron about it, but she said no, and reminded me of my promise. She said, and I agreed, that everything Ron heard about her real history should come from her, and no-one else. She was clear that it was her risk, and therefore her call what she would tell him, and when.
That still left me with a dilemma, of course. I had promised to keep her secret, and Ron had, without knowing what she was going to say, told me to let her trust me. On the other hand, my friend Ron was going to marry someone who had fed him a lie – and a big one – and he had no idea it was untrue. Would it change his mind about the marriage? I didn’t know, but surely that wasn’t my call.
It came down to two values, trust vs. loyalty. Which should take precedence? I still don’t know whether I made the right decision, but in the end I decided not to tell Ron, and to hope that Anne would do the right thing.
I don’t know whether I would make the same decision today.
I was busy the next couple of days, so I didn’t see Ron and Anne before I left Hong Kong. The next thing I knew, a couple of months later I received a wedding invitation. I couldn’t go, as it turned out (business trip), but I wished them well.
Shortly after their wedding I had dinner with them, and they announced that they were moving to another Canadian city, where Ron had been offered a position in a very good law firm. Ron said nothing to me about Anne’s secret. When Ron left the table for a minute, I asked her whether she had told him. She said she had told him some of it, but not all. Then Ron came back.
After their move, I saw them occasionally, either when they were in Toronto or when I was in their city. It was all very sociable. Anne continued to tell stories about her past life as an athlete, but that slowly receded into the background as they had their first daughter, Danielle, then Anne started working in a major charity, and life continued to unfold for them. They lost a baby, which was a terrible emotional upheaval, but then they had Susan, and their life was good. They were a very happy couple, a success story of sorts. I still had some nagging doubts about how much she had told Ron, but as time went on it seemed less and less relevant to their lives. (I have long since stopped giving blind promises of secrecy.)
Fast forward to early 2014. Ron called me out of the blue. He was clearly upset, perhaps more angry, perhaps more flustered. I couldn’t really tell. “Susan is going to find out about Anne’s true past”, he said. “I don’t know what to do.” He may have also called me an idiot, and some other names.
The story, when I finally got it out of him, was that teenaged Susan, armed with the power of the internet, decided to find out everything she could about the 1984 Chinese women’s volleyball team, “her mother’s team”. Susan can’t really read Chinese very well, but by 2014 there was a lot of information in English, and she was able to find the names of some players on that team born in the same year as Anne, but not with the same birthday. While she knew her mother had a different name in China (which Anne had always refused to discuss), she wanted to know which player was her mother. When her mother brushed off her inquiry, she went to her father.
What happened then should have happened twenty-five years earlier. When Ron mentioned Susan’s quest to Anne, Anne spontaneously told Ron the whole story, leaving out nothing. He told me it was like a dam broke, and the story – and tears – came tumbling out.
It was the first time he had heard any of it.
Ron at 56 is perhaps not the same man as he was at 31. He told me that hearing the truth hurt him deeply, not because he particularly cares about Anne’s past (“old news”, he called it), but because of the fact that she lied to him, about so much, for so long. His faith in her was not completely shattered; they had a long shared history as well. However, he did spend some time agonizing over everything she had ever told him, trying to discern what else might be lies. He said they had a lot of “What else haven’t you told me?” discussions.
He didn’t, I noticed, comment on his reaction to me knowing all along. I think he was so focused on her lie, he couldn’t pay attention to my lesser betrayal. (We got into that later.)
When he called me, it was because he realized he could only put off his curious teenager for so long. At some point, he and Anne had to talk to her, or she would keep digging until her trust in both her parents became an issue.
The way Ron (and Anne) saw it, they couldn’t tell Susan the truth, because at 15 she would probably not be able to handle it. The truth could easily generate confusion in Susan’s mind, even push her in negative, self-destructive directions. On the other hand, they agreed that lying to her even more was also a bad idea. She would find out eventually. Trust would then be further compromised. You can’t lie to your kids. It will come back to bite you in the ass. They knew that.
There is no fairy tale ending here.
Ron and Anne talked to Danielle. They wanted to tell her the truth first, but to their surprise she said she didn’t want to hear it. Instead, she suggested that when Susan was older, Ron and Anne should tell both daughters the secret – whatever it was. Her central point? “What, you think you could have done something bad enough that Susan and I wouldn’t love you any more?”
So Danielle talked to her little sister, who agreed to be patient, but no-one knows for how long. She has held her fire for six months so far. Who knows how long it will last? Every once in a while, she mentions it to Anne, so she has certainly not forgotten.
Ron remains angry that I knew Anne’s secret before he got married, and didn’t tell him, but when I asked him what he would have done in my place, he wasn’t sure he would have acted differently. Perhaps because we are both lawyers, and used to keeping secrets, he understands why I said nothing, and it hasn’t stopped us from being friends. I sense that it may come up again, though.
And Ron and Anne? Like most married couples, sometimes they argue. Ron told me that, in one very heated argument recently, he threw the lies in her face, but then immediately felt guilty. He says it stopped the argument in its tracks, because they are both afraid to go there. Anne tells him, he says, that she is very worried her past will end up coming between them. He assures her that it will not, and he means it. What he does not say, though, is that her years of lying is still a problem for him, which he hopes to overcome eventually.
Danielle, just finishing her first degree and entering law school next year, has a different take on all of this. Responding to her mother’s worrying recently, she told her: “Look at us, mom. We’re almost the perfect family. Don’t let this stupid secret fuck that up.”
I wish I could be confident of that ending. I’m not. Anne is in many ways the person she always said she was, even though her history was not the truth. Anne and Ron, along with their kids, have more years of a life together than years of fraudulent backstory. There is a lot of reason to think Danielle’s pointed words should drive the rest of the story.
But relationships are based, perhaps more than anything else, on trust. When that trust is destroyed – between husband and wife, or between parent and child – it is not always possible to rebuild it.
All I can do is shut up and hope for the best. My role in this story is not my finest hour, but in the end this is about a loving family trying to overcome a massive jolt to their mutual trust. I know they want to. The question is whether they can.
– Jay Shepherd, December 29, 2014