Watching W. Mark Felt appear alongside his daughter and grandson on Tuesday to affirm that he was Deep Throat, one could be forgiven for suspecting that he was not the driving force behind this very public admission. Smiling like an eager-to-please child, his pajama top tucked poorly into mismatched bottoms, the 91-year-old looked like a man who no longer made many decisions for himself. Any evidence that he was once among the nation's most powerful lawmen was long gone. The two faces framing his, however, seemed to be very much in charge. His attractive, determined daughter Joan and his clean-cut, law student grandson, Nick Jones, positively glowed with purposefulness. It was hard not to think that they were the ones behind the revelation, not the shaky figure clutching the walker.
While the professional ethics of Felt's Watergate conduct will be debated for years to come, what privately transpired within his family leading up to the publication of the fateful Vanity Fair article is equally compelling. Why would Felt come forward now, after more than 30 years of tight-lipped silence? Was it because his family discovered his secret and pressured him to reveal himself? Just how willing a participant in the decision to go public was a man whose "health and mental acuity" are described by Vanity Fair as being in decline?
All families have secrets. Occasionally they are as monumental as the Felts', though most are common things, deeply emotional within a household but unexceptional to those outside -- a father's alcoholism, a daughter's unwanted pregnancy, a mother's infidelity. What happens after these secrets emerge often defines a clan. Will the family pull together? Or will the secret tear it apart?
This is why so much great literature is based upon the revealed secret -- it is the ideal lens through which to observe a family's true nature. Hamlet's fate (and his kin's) is sealed by the disclosure of his mother's murderous adultery; Hardy's Tess is undone after confessing her non-virginity to her new husband. Oedipus comes to ruin by insisting that he be told the truth about his family's hidden past, while Lear and his children are destroyed when his youngest daughter refuses to keep her true feelings to herself.
What is notable about these stories is that it is the revelation of the long-suppressed truth that leads to tragedy, rather than the existence of the secret itself. Without the visit from his father's ghost, Hamlet would have soldiered on in his melancholy funk, grumbling about Claudius but willing to accept him in the end. Tess and Angel would almost certainly have lived happily ever after if they hadn't shared their sexual histories; Oedipus and Jocasta would have survived if he had not pressed the soothsayer Tiresias. Lear and Cordelia, meanwhile, could have avoided tragedy if they had not insisted on speaking their minds. When it comes to family secrets, it is often a case of the less said, the better. One person's honesty can lead to another's destruction. Many times, the only thing holding a family together are the truths its members keep under wraps. There is, after all, a good reason why grandfather doesn't tell the kids what he did in the war, or dad refuses to divulge the details of his bachelor party.
The virtues of keeping family secrets did not seem to be on the minds of the younger Felts as they stepped into the California sun on Tuesday, however. On the contrary, they looked like people who believed that their disclosure would bring them nothing but happiness and prosperity.
But will it? Or have they instead broken an unspoken bond that has held three very different generations of a family together? There is no reason to doubt that Joan Felt and her son sense that they are doing what is best for Mark. Neither seems to believe that going public has a downside for the FBI veteran; both appear mystified by his long refusal to claim credit for his role in Nixon's resignation. To them, he is a national hero, not a sinner. By urging him to reveal himself, Joan believes that she is ensuring him "some closure, and accolades, while he was still alive." She also said, in the Vanity Fair article, that the family will be able to "make at least enough money to pay some bills, like the debt I've run up for the kids' education." College is expensive, and if Mark Felt is owed a debt of gratitude by the nation he helped save, what better way for America to show it than to help put Nick through law school?
But Mark Felt and his daughter do not necessarily see eye-to-eye on the value of "closure" or the certainty of public honor. Joan is a college professor and single mother who is described in the Vanity Fair article as "high-strung and overworked." She is, in other words, a creature of our times. As a young woman, she was estranged for a while from her father after she joined a commune at the very moment that Mark Felt was leading a government crackdown on radicals. Is she really capable of understanding her father's apparent shame at violating the FBI code of secrecy -- a feeling profound enough to keep him silent these past three decades?
As she pressed her father to reveal himself, did Joan ever really ask herself why he guarded such a potentially lucrative and accolade-attracting secret all these years? Or why he demanded it be kept hidden until after his death? To a person who has never belonged to a rigid, code-bound organization like the FBI, it is difficult -- if not impossible -- to imagine the pain of such a confession. Cultures like the FBI see themselves as families. To take a secret outside this charmed circle is a special kind of betrayal, no matter how justifiable. Until Tuesday, perhaps the only aspect of his role as Deep Throat that gave the old G-man peace was the knowledge that his brethren would not know he had broken their trust until after he was gone.
We can only speculate now, since it is clear that the one person who can tell us for certain how Mark Felt feels no longer speaks for himself. The secret is out, and there is little doubt that the younger Felts consider themselves better off for this unburdening. The child of the commune has received her "closure"; the grandchild of the dot-com era may get some of those staggering college bills paid. But what does W. Mark Felt get for his brief moment in the sun? Will he really die happier now that his true identity is known? Will the family be closer than when they were keepers of his deepest secret, and perhaps his deepest shame? Or has Joan Felt instead opened a Pandora's box that will create fissures in her family? The greater risk is that, like some modern-day Cordelia, her frankness may make her father's last days as troubled as Lear's.
Stephen Amidon is the author of "The New City" (Doubleday), a novel that describes the intrigues among three families in a Watergate-era D.C. suburb.