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Supernatural University: Keeping Secrets


Supernatural University:  Keeping Secrets


Secrets are a Winchester stock-in-trade. From the beginning of the first season, John Winchester was the master secret-keeper, but his two sons have also done their share. And in part one of the season two finale, we learned that Mary Winchester had kept some pretty whopping secrets of her own, ones we and her sons still have yet to learn and understand.


Like the Winchesters, we all keep secrets. But what do they – and we – keep secret, from whom, and why? Welcome to another psychology seminar at Supernatural University!


My thesis for this class is relatively simple. The things we keep secret will vary naturally according to our lives and circumstances, as will the people with whom we share or from whom we conceal our secrets. Our propensity for keeping secrets also varies widely, based on our own personalities. I believe, however, that the reasons why we keep secrets are more universal. I would posit that we as humans have four primary reasons for keeping certain things secret:  to protect ourselves; to protect others; to fulfill demands of duty; and to preserve a tactical or strategic advantage. I would also submit that our reasons for keeping things secret relate directly both to the nature of those secrets and to our personalities, and that relationship will often dictate more than one reason for keeping or revealing a given secret. As ever, I’ll use the Winchesters and their secrets to explore these concepts.


Protecting Ourselves


Self-protection on many levels is a major reason for keeping secrets. We keep secrets to avoid painful social, physical, and emotional consequences to ourselves that could arise from others learning about things we’ve done or believing things about us on the basis of learning things we’ve hidden.


Simple examples are obvious. Just remember a time when you broke something or failed in a responsibility and tried to hide it to escape punishment, embarrassment, or shame. Many Winchester secrets fall into this category, including the obvious social ones involving avoiding being caught and imprisoned for breaking the law while dealing with supernatural phenomena that the law wouldn’t understand. As Sam put it succinctly in Route 666:  Our big family rule number one: we do what we do and we shut up about it.  One of the primary reasons that the Winchesters and other hunters keep their vocation secret is that society would punish them severely for the things they do in pursuit of it:  they kill, they desecrate graves, they destroy property.


But I believe that the secrets that matter the most in this regard are the ones we keep to guard against the pain we often fear the most: emotional pain from shame, guilt, and the loss of love, respect, and trust from ourselves and from the people we need and love the most. I would put into this category the secrets that Sam has kept from Dean about himself, for example. Think back to Sam’s first reluctant admission to Dean in Home that he had clairvoyant dreams, and his hesitation in telling Dean in Nightmare that he had moved the cabinet with his mind after seeing a vision of Dean’s death. Sam knew better than anyone how Dean felt about supernatural things and psychic abilities, and I would posit that the largest part of Sam’s hesitation in admitting his gifts to Dean stemmed from the fear that Dean would look at him differently because of that knowledge, that Dean would treat him like a freak. Sam himself was afraid, ashamed, and guilty about being different. Every time Sam mentioned his visions, he waited for Dean to weird out. Dean never did, staunchly maintaining his unchanged love for his brother even though he didn’t know what to make of the new information any more than Sam did.


Even so, Sam apparently still hasn’t told Dean about his vision of the Yellow-Eyed Demon feeding him demon blood as a baby, and I think that goes back to the same fear – his concern that Dean would be revolted not just by the image, but by what it implies about Sam himself. This is complicated by Sam not entirely knowing or understanding what he himself feels about the secrets he knows, because they are all incomplete. He doesn’t know what they mean, and he fears that they portend a fate he can’t avoid: becoming something evil, something the man he currently is would hate and fear. Since he’s afraid of them, he assumes that Dean would be afraid of them too and would fear him as well because of them, and would possibly even resent him for causing the fear.


I would put half of Dean’s “game face” into this same category of self-protection. Dean can occasionally share his fears and uncertainties with others – witness his discussions with Gordon in the bar in Bloodlust and with Bobby at the end of Sin City – but he has had the greatest difficulty exposing fear to Sam. While there’s definitely a strong element of protecting Sam involved in that – it’s obviously a habit he developed when Sam was a child, hiding his own fear and pain in order to keep Sam from becoming afraid – it also seems to involve keeping Sam’s trust in and good opinion of his older brother as confident, brave, and strong, someone Sam can count on always to be there. As much as Sam doesn’t want Dean to look at him differently because of the demon’s influence, Dean doesn’t want Sam to see him as something less than the hero big brother he’s always tried so desperately to be.


One of the most riveting recent developments of season three has been Dean lowering his walls to let Sam see his regrets and his fears, at least the ones about his own looming fate. I would submit that this happened only because Sam removed the need for Dean to keep those particular secrets hidden when he demonstrated three things to Dean in Fresh Blood: first, that he could already see through the mask to the fear; second, that knowing Dean was terrified didn’t diminish him in Sam’s eyes; and third, that Dean trying to mask his fear and keep his emotional distance from Sam was hurting his brother far more than sharing the fear would. Sam dissolved the reasons for keeping the secret, and the secrecy ended.


Protecting Others


By far the largest and most important driver behind Winchesters keeping secrets is the desire to protect others, and that applies to all three of the Winchester men. I already mentioned protecting Sam in connection with Dean hiding all of his uncertainties and fears in order not to exacerbate Sam’s own fears. We know from both All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2 and A Very Supernatural Christmas that protecting Sam from fear and from having to grow up too soon was Dean’s prime reason for dodging Sam’s childhood questions about why they kept moving around, what their father did, and why they didn’t have a mom.


I think that protecting Dean is largely behind Sam keeping secret the knowledge that their mother recognized the Yellow-Eyed Demon the night she died, and that everyone connected with her, apart from her two sons, is dead. Part of keeping silent may be uncertainty about just how much of what he was shown about the night of the fire was the truth – after all, we know full well that demons lie – as well as not understanding what the deaths of all those other people mean. But I think that protection matters more than the uncertainty. Sam has always known that Dean idolizes their Mom, that his close-held memories comprise her shrine. We saw that early in the pilot when Dean turned angrily on Sam the moment that Sam said that Mom was gone and never coming back. We saw the wonder, love, and loss on Dean’s face when the boys saw Mary’s spirit in Home.  We caught a glimpse of what Dean remembered when he talked about Mary in Houses of the Holy. And if there was any question about just how deeply his love and desire run, it was answered last season in What Is and What Should Never Be. Revealing what the Demon showed Sam, with its implication that Mary was less than innocent of a supernatural taint in days before any other Winchester even knew that the supernatural was real, would at a minimum trigger Dean’s anger and refusal to accept the information, and could at worst, if he accepted it, shatter the last pure memory of innocence and joy that Dean possesses and still believes. Neither outcome is one that Sam would wish, not loving his brother as he does. Thus I believe that he keeps this secret to protect his brother, as Dean protected him and his innocence.


I would say as well that protecting his sons was the primary motivation for John keeping secrets from them about his hunts, the hunter community, and the things he learned – especially anything he learned about his younger son. I would suspect that his initial reason for keeping secrets fell into the categories he’d been trained to observe while in the Marines – preserving tactical and strategic advantage (the principle underlying the doctrine of “need to know”), and fulfilling duties owed to his benefactor hunters to protect their identities – but that those reasons would largely have been subsumed within the higher priority of protecting his sons from danger and from pain. We learned in the first two seasons that there were things missing from John’s journal – any mention of the shtriga, vampires, or rituals to summon demons being cases in point – and looking at the nature of some of the missing things, such as the shtriga and demon summoning, it’s not hard to see protection as the point of the exercise. John had to figure that sooner or later, one or both of the boys would see the journal, and we know from the Christmas episode that this happened far sooner than he would have intended. As a personal aside, I suspect that the shtriga incident was left out largely in order not to be a reproach to Dean, but also because John may have regretted how hard he’d come down on his oldest boy and been ashamed of his own shortcomings.


It’s fascinating to see now the fallout from John’s secrecy. Only after his death did the boys discover that there was a whole network of hunters out there, not just the select few (including Pastor Jim, Caleb, and Bobby) to whom John had introduced them. There, John’s secrecy worked against his sons, putting them at a disadvantage in encounters with hunters who knew all about them, but whom they didn’t know at all. It also may have been extremely protective, however, especially once John began to realize that there was something about his younger son that would raise the hackles on hunters’ necks. The boys didn’t know about the world of hunters, but few hunters ever got close enough to take their measure before they were fully grown.


In Bad Day at Black Rock, the boys learned another piece of the puzzle when they found out about John’s storage locker. Again, John had never placed information on it in his journal, where it might have been discovered, and he never told the boys where the truly dangerous things he’d encountered  but not destroyed – perhaps was unable to destroy – were safely locked away. When they were young, preserving their ignorance clearly would have been protective, keeping them from knowledge they weren’t ready to have and preventing any potential mischief from meddlesome curiosity by inquisitive and stubborn boys. I suspect that by the time they were old enough to have been let in on the secret, keeping it had become habit with John, part of his standard operating procedure, and until they had a need to know, operational caution dictated preserving the advantage of the information.


Fulfilling Demands of Duty


I mentioned John likely having had to protect the other hunters with whom he worked, in terms of keeping their identities secret even from the boys. And many of the routine secrets that both boys keep were always maintained out of the need to obey orders and fulfill their duty to their father and each other. Duty is right up there along with protecting themselves in terms of dictating that the secret of the Winchester family business be kept closely held. Thus, Sam lied to Jessica about his past through the whole of their relationship (although self-protection also likely factored into that one, since, as Dean independently learned to his loss, telling your girlfriend something totally insane about your life could lead to a quick end to a relationship), and both boys kept the secret in the schools and neighborhoods where they grew up while on the road with John. Keeping that secret from most people wasn’t a problem for any of the Winchesters.


But it created a unique problem for Dean in specific instances, and this is one of the areas where the personality factor I mentioned earlier comes into play. We’ve often noted the personality similarities and differences among the Winchesters, and I would submit that they factor into both the tendency to keep secrets and the choice of which secrets to keep. I would also posit that this is one area in which the similarities between John and Sam come sharply into focus, and point out a key difference between Dean and the others: that Dean, alone among the Winchesters, is not a committed secret-keeper, at least when it comes to keeping secrets from those he loves for any reason other than protecting them. We learned this early on in the first season in Route 666, when Dean, to Sam’s utter mystification and surprise, reluctantly admitted to Sam that he had told Cassie about the family business, and confessed to Cassie that he had told her because he couldn’t lie to her – not to someone he loved. That was something Sam had never realized about his brother, given how few people there were to whom Dean ever gave his heart, and I suspect that John never knew it either. In the aftermath of those flashback moments in A Very Supernatural Christmas, I would bet that John, seeing his younger son coming up with information he shouldn’t have had about the family business, attributed it to his native intelligence and ingrained, stubborn curiosity giving him the incentive to purloin the journal and the ability to winkle additional pieces of knowledge out of his older brother, not to the simple truth that Dean couldn’t long resist Sam’s puppy-dog eyes even on his father’s orders.


So John laid an incredibly harsh duty on Dean when he gave Dean the burden of his secret (Watch out for Sam. Save Sam. Nothing else matters. If you can’t save him, you’ll have to kill him.), and ordered him not to tell Sam. John clearly understood the love between his sons and the strain that having to contemplate possibly needing to kill Sam would put on Dean, but I don’t believe he comprehended the additional tension that keeping the secret would cause. I don’t think that John realized what would happen when he pitted his duty order for secrecy against Dean’s soul-deep need not to lie to the most important person in his life about something so essential. Trying to deal with the burden of that secret throughout the first half of the second season, particularly keeping it from Sam, nearly destroyed Dean; we saw him on the edge in Croatoan, and it wasn’t until after he revealed the secret to Sam in Hunted that Dean began to find an effective way within his own mind to deal with the pressure, culminating with his resolve in Born Under a Bad Sign that he would save Sam if it was the last thing he did.


Preserving Tactical or Strategic Advantage


Judging from his behavior throughout the series, but particularly as demonstrated in such episodes as Scarecrow and Dead Man’s Blood, John’s Marine Corps training, with its automatic acceptance of the doctrine of “need to know,” came to the fore when he became a hunter. John kept operational secrets from his sons not just to protect them by keeping them out of certain activities, but also to avoid tipping his hand to his opponents. Remember his phone call in Scarecrow, where he refused to tell Sam where he was or any specifics about what he was doing, saying only, This is bigger than you think. They’re everywhere. Even us talking right now, it’s not safe. In hindsight, we know that he was in part concealing from Sam the knowledge he was in the process of acquiring about his youngest son and the Demon’s plans, but he was also clearly concerned about both the potential interception of his message by enemies and the chance that any contact could provide a link that enemies could follow from him to his boys. While keeping them safe, he was also preserving whatever advantage he could obtain from hiding his own knowledge from both his enemies and his sons.


John’s habit of maintaining operational secrecy even from his boys was obviously part of what caused the rift between John and Sam. Think of Sam’s immediate irritation in Dead Man’s Blood with John’s habit of simply giving orders without providing explanations, expecting unquestioning obedience as he had always done. I would suspect that John may have been similarly irritated by being kept partially in the dark by other hunters in the days when he was first learning the ropes as a hunter himself. I would posit that at their cores, John and Sam are both seekers after truth and understanding, first and foremost: being denied information is being baulked in an essential facet of their personalities. Dean, on the other hand, is at heart a protector and defender whose interest in information is limited to knowing what he needs in order to be effective in his mission. Accordingly, I would say that acquiring knowledge and keeping it secret are more automatic and intrinsically important to John and Sam than to Dean, and that this further demonstrates that personality has an impact on seeking and keeping secrets.


The current champion at maintaining secrecy for tactical or strategic advantage is not a Winchester at all, but Ruby. Neither we nor the Winchesters know what Ruby’s goals are, or what plans she has for Sam in the long run. Everything about her intent remains hidden. She knows what she’s after, but no one on the Winchesters’ side does. That gives Ruby a tremendous advantage in dealing with the brothers, particularly when she does understand what their goals are. Because of that, she can predict them and their likely actions and reactions with some degree of certainty; they can’t predict her at all. 

Past and Future


What was the nature of Mary’s secrets, and what prompted her to keep them? At present, I think that we don’t know enough to allow informed speculation. We don’t know whether what the Demon showed Sam was the truth, but even if it was, we still don’t know how or why Mary recognized the Demon. Without knowing something about those circumstances, I couldn’t guess whether she was protecting herself, her husband and sons, her duty, or her tactical position by not revealing to them the existence of the supernatural and her relationship to it. From what we have seen of her, I would suspect that she, like Dean, was a protector and defender – but since all of our glimpses of her, save for the opening moments of the pilot, have truly come through the eyes of her husband and sons, all that we know is flavored by their feelings, their love, and my guess is really nothing more than the expression of Mary through her husband and her oldest son.


What role will secrets play between the brothers from this point on, and why? I would suspect that Dean will continue to try to hide from Sam his fears about whether Sam came back from death changed, mostly in an effort to protect Sam from being harmed by the knowledge of his doubts while Sam is struggling with his own. But I think Dean will be less and less inclined to keep other secrets from his brother, having learned both from watching interactions between his father and brother and from Sam’s reaction to his own falsely fearless, carefree façade that Sam is hurt by perceiving secrets being withheld from him. Dean’s concern with preventing injury to Sam would override most of the other incentives for keeping most secrets.


I think that Sam will continue to try to keep the secrets of his vision of Mary recognizing the Demon and of him being fed demon blood as a baby to protect Dean and to protect himself, respectively. And I think that Sam will also continue to try to keep secret most of his interactions with Ruby, and what transpires inside him as a result of them, to protect both his brother and himself. However, given that he can’t hide that he’s accepting becoming inured to taking whatever actions he feels are necessary to save his brother, even where those actions contravene his earlier philosophy on life, I think that all of those secrets will be in jeopardy precisely because Dean will resist Sam becoming something other than the brother he loves through his attempt to save Dean. While Dean is not normally a seeker after truth, he may become one when it comes to understanding what’s going on inside Sam, because that understanding will be required for him to fulfill his own imperative of being able to defend and protect his brother.


What can we learn from the Winchesters about our own secrets? First and foremost, we can understand why we keep certain secrets from specific people around us, and weigh whether or not keeping those secrets will actually accomplish our goals. Further, we can become sensitive to why the people who are important to us may keep certain secrets from us, and factor that knowledge into tempering our judgment of them when we either suspect the existence of a secret or learn the information for ourselves.


We can also understand that most secrets have finite lives, because hidden knowledge inevitably comes out whether we choose to reveal it or someone else betrays it despite our efforts to keep it concealed. Knowing that, we can consider what impact the revelation of the secret would have on us and on the people important to us, and determine whether the secret is actually worth keeping, or if the cost to us in shame, pain to someone we love, the loss of the respect of others, or similar stakes when it eventually comes out would hurt us more than declining to hide the information in the first place.


Finally, we can acknowledge when secrets have to be kept, no matter the price: when duty is vital, when harm can be averted, when the safety of others depends on them.




This will likely be the last Supernatural University class of the year, so – Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and see you – and the Winchester brothers – next year.

Tags: dean winchester, john winchester, meta, psychology, sam winchester, supernatural, supernatural university

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