The view is clearer from a glass house [March 2010 / CCT]

A Harvard PhD with great promise guns down academic colleagues.

A widely admired advocate against hate crimes gets a sexual charge from images of children being abused.

One of the great athletes of our time with an exemplary public image turns out to have had numerous extra-maritial sexual affairs.

The level of seriousness of differs from example to example, but these recent headline cases share a common theme: a dark or less savory side hidden from others. It happens all the time. How many times have we heard the interview with the mass murderer’s neighbor: Gee, he was always such a nice guy, kind to dogs and kids; who’d a thunk it?

One thing these recent headline revelations share is a similar reaction from the public. A certain shocked, virginal innocence: Oh my goodness, imagine that? What is wrong with some people? How could he do such a thing?

There is something disingenuous (or at least incomplete) about this response, as we if don’t, each of us, have a strong experience of darker, less presentable sides to our inner life. Like the people in these headlines, we have a part that is upstanding citizen; and other parts that may be less presentable.

To listen to the public outcry, you would think that most of us have no anger that on occasion gets out of control, no unfaithful impulses, no unsavory sexual imaginings we might prefer others not know about. (There’s a billion dollar porn industry but not for you or me or our friends.)

From the public shaming Tiger Woods has been getting, you wouldn’t guess that marriage in our culture is a fraught institution at which about half of those trying it fail. Statistically, infidelity and domestic abuse are pretty common features of marriage. But we know nothing of such darker urges.

For about 25 years I have sincerely desired to lose an extra 20 pounds, for all the usual perfectly sensible reasons of health and vanity. It is more accurate to say that part of me desires that. There is another part that doesn’t care at all about losing weight, is interested only in fun times with food and drink. Some years back I started thinking of these two contentious characters as my inner Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

I am officially on the side of weight loss, but the fact is, Jekyll and Hyde have been fighting to a standoff for all those years. So who is that official “I”, anyway, my PR man? The CEO of BH Inc? Not, in any case, a reliable spokesman for the truth of me, which is that I am so divided that I don’t lose the weight. (Haven’t so far anyway. Plan to start real soon, however.)

The monolithic way of presenting inner life extends to our nation’s revisionist view of Nazi Germany. Ever since then we have puzzled (whole books written): How could a nation of civilized, upstanding citizens have allowed fellow humans to disappear from their midst? How could they have elected—elected!—a Hitler? Where did that darkness, that evil come from?

As Philip Roth does a pretty creditable job of showing in his historical novel “The Plot Against America,” although we ended up being the good guys in WW2, given prevalent anti-semitism and the pro-Hitler sentiments of such exemplary Americans as Lindbergh and Ford, it was a close call. We don’t have quite as much to brag about as we like to think, nor do we have as much reason to be puzzled about how it could have happened there. It almost happened here.

Yes of course it is terribly important that anti-fascism won out in WW2 and much more important that Amy Bishop’s Hyde got the upper hand than that I fail to lose 20 pounds. People finally need to be held accountable for the outcomes of their inner struggles in terms of action.

But a unitary, monolithic way of reporting our inner experience…or reacting to the failures of others is misleading. A view which admits the existence of divided, minority selves allows us the insight that comes with acknowledging at least some kinship with the perpetrators.

The view is clearer from the glass houses we all live in.


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