To Trust or Not to Trust: A Con Artist Story That Leads Back Home


The old guy was an easy mark. He’d had a stroke a few years before, made a good recovery with no evident physical effects, but certainly wasn’t the bright young man of his youth. And he wasn’t just any old guy. He was my dad.

“Rain or Shine” Milt Stein, an appellation that referred to his reliability and work ethic, was 83, but still active. Early every morning he took a walk of perhaps a mile in the area near the condo he shared with my mother, who was seven years his junior.

It was the very steamy summer of 1995, the hottest in Chicago’s history, topping out at 106 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius). On the day in question the temperature was already in the 90s, although not yet 7 AM. A relatively young couple with a small boy approached him.

“Our car broke down, sir. Do you have any water — water to drink?” It was a Sunday and stores would not open for three hours or so.

Milt Stein was a gentle and decent man. Perhaps he noted that the family wasn’t especially well-dressed — that their clothing was damp with perspiration. Approximately 750 deaths by heat and dehydration had been reported in the news recently. The condo was only a couple of blocks away. He led the family there.

My mom was shocked when dad unlocked the door and the family entered. Much less trusting than my father, Jeanette Stein never would have permitted this if she had been given a choice. Beauty, charm, and a quick wit were my mother’s strong suits. Faith in humanity wasn’t high on the list. She often said that “no good deed goes unpunished.” Mom knew this wasn’t exactly politically correct and wondered what others might think of her lack of trust. She sometimes made her suspicions known by saying (always with a twinkle in her eye), “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?”

As she would have viewed it, the “aliens” were now inside the gate. But what could she do? Dad was already on the way to the kitchen to get some glasses and fill them full of water. Meanwhile, the man and woman began to talk excitedly to my mother.

The boy disappeared.

It all happened quickly. Within just a few minutes everyone had been hydrated and the trio departed. But when my parents went into their bedroom, they noticed that a closet door was open and a card board box on a shelf there was ajar. The box was empty of the $10,000 in jewelry it had contained only a few minutes before. The little boy had done his crafty worst. He had taken the treasure.

The police were engaged quickly. A report was filed and the officer told my parents that there had been similar episodes in their neighborhood recently. None of this made my dad feel any better. He felt the fool and, unfortunately, my mother’s criticism of his trusting nature didn’t encourage a quick emotional rebound from the event.

Surprisingly, the police actually were able to recover more than half of the jewelry within a few weeks. But Mrs. Stein’s approval wasn’t so quickly retrieved by Mr. Stein. Mother would tell people the story and father would have to admit that, yes indeed, his kindness had not been repaid in kind.

So what we have here is a difference of temperament or personality on questions of trust and compassion — two models of how to live. You probably have a few family stories yourself, the kind that illustrate similar things, get repeated, and eventually become amusing, even if they didn’t begin that way.

As time passed, my always-clever mother found a humorous way to tell this tale. First she would explain the details of the “con.” Next mom would comment about my father’s naivety and mention the recovery of some of the jewelry almost as an afterthought. But you just knew she couldn’t end it there and the twinkle in her eye gave away that she was getting ready for the knock-out punch. Mrs. Stein pointed her index finger at the man to whom she had been married for nearly 45 years, took a deep breath, wound up and delivered:

People keep telling me that I should change the locks on the condo. But the problem is, he’s got a key!

The image above is my mother as a young woman.

Who are You to Judge?

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Judgment is problematic. We need it, but not too much of it. Sort of like food.

While I will say more of a secular nature, the most famous comment on judgment comes from the New Testament — the Christian Bible — and is attributed to Jesus:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

The point here is about the potential hypocrisy: for us to judge others by a standard that is harsher than the one that we apply to ourselves. It is akin to the famous late addition to the Christian Bible about Jesus turning away the men who were about to stone a woman who had committed adultery, with the comment “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” He later advises her to go and “sin no more.”

We judge lots of things. We need to judge the accused in the court room, lest wrong-doers do wrong with impunity. We judge ourselves and, one hopes that it improves our future behavior and helps us make good decisions.

We judge for self-protection, too; to comfort ourselves with the belief that the misfortune of others is due to their bad decision-making. By implication, if we make better decisions — display better judgment than they did — fate will be kinder to us. If we are careful, thoughtful, smart, do our homework, live by the Golden Rule, and so forth, good things will happen to us and we will avoid bad things.

This view seems to look at misfortune as some sort of anomaly, something that is outside of the normal course of events when, of course, it is not. All sorts of bad things happen to the innocent or unlucky. This is a troubling thought and our negative judgment of others — our attempt to make sense of their troubled lives or bad luck — makes it easier to sleep at night.

I’m not trying to justify all poor decisions here, many of which surely lead to disaster. Rather, it’s simply that not every bad thing is the result of some fatal flaw in the nature or conduct of a man or woman. Sometimes you can do everything right and have a bad result. Sometimes things just happen.

Judgment serves, too, as an attempt to guarantee immortality. Since most people see death as the worst possible outcome in any life, it shouldn’t be surprising that harsh judgment is often characteristic of religious fundamentalism. For the “by-the-book” parishioner, following all the rules of his or her particular religion guarantees a heavenly reward. And, for those who violate the doctrine, the faithful believe that there will usually be a trip to a darker place.

Judgment in this instance provides some comfort that death is not final; and perhaps the self-satisfaction of believing that in visiting judgment on the unfaithful, one is only trying to move them onto a path that will lead to heaven. For some of the religious fundamentalists I’m sure that it is; for others, however, it might only be a justification for venting angry condemnation of those who are different and who do not believe what the self-righteous might wish they did believe.

Judgment is often made by those who have no experience of the situation or circumstance in which the “judged” behavior occurred. To take a current example, consider Tiger Woods (or some other celebrity) reported to be unfaithful to his spouse. I am certainly not here to apologize for, or attempt to excuse Tiger Woods’ behavior. But I would say this: I suspect that non-celebrities have no idea of the temptation available to a man or woman in Woods’ position nearly every day of his life. And, as Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist anything but temptation.”

But, let us move away from the always controversial area of sex to give this idea a different look. I once asked the great Italian symphony conductor Carlo Maria Giulini about his judgment of the behavior of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Furtwängler chose to stay in Germany during the period of the Third Reich, although he was not a Nazi. While he was helpful to some Jewish musicians, he also was used (and allowed himself to be used) as a propaganda tool by the Nazis.

Giulini , who began his career as an orchestral violist, had played under Furtwängler in Italy before the war. Moreover, during World War II, Giulini, never a fascist, had defected from the Italian army into which he had been conscripted and went into hiding for nine months, during which time he was a “wanted” man. But when I asked him about the controversy surrounding Furtwängler’s decision to stay in Germany and to allow himself to be a representative of a corrupt regime, Giulini was hesitant to judge:

It’s very, very difficult to judge the position of a man. It’s difficult for you in America to understand the problems we had in Europe. It’s difficult to put yourself in a position, in a special moment (in history), that is absolutely impossible to imagine if you didn’t live in that time. That last thing I should do is to express my opinion on this point. I had my personal political opinion, I took my position — very precise. I was not a fascist (laughs), and at the moment that I had to make a strong decision, I took it. But I am not in a position to do any criticism of another person.

We judge ourselves and others, to the extent that we do it, with the perfection of 20/20 vision that only comes in looking back, in hindsight, at what was done. We sometimes say “he should have known better than to” (make that business deal, marry that person, visit that neighborhood, smoke, drink — take your pick). Well, it is sometimes true. And, after all, I’m in the business of trying to help people to make better judgments. But mostly, that experience tells me that all people make mistakes and, assuming that they don’t mean to injure others, they mostly pay for those mistakes with their own blood, tears, and sweat.

As much as I recognize that judgment has its place, as a therapist, I try to meet people on their own terms, not coming from “on high” as a stern taskmaster or a fundamentalist-style religious figure “laying down the law.”

No, if you want that, you shouldn’t consult me. I am not here to condemn, although I don’t shy away from identifying right from wrong when it can be clearly seen.

Instead, I am here to help, to understand, to provide a bit of solace, to be a guide to a better way, if I can.

The gavel at the top of this essay is the work of Glentamara and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Beautiful and Smart, But Unlucky in Love: The Reasons Why

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I have treated many beautiful women who reported a history of bad relationships: unfaithful boyfriends or husbands, frank physical or verbal abuse by their partners, or a loss of interest by the men from whom they most wanted that interest. There are lots of reasons for this. Here are a few:

1. If you came from a home where you were neglected, criticized, or abused, your self-worth is likely to be less than what it should be. Recall Marilyn Monroe: famous, beautiful, and talented, but insecure and unlucky in love. A woman with the background I’ve described often looks for approval from someone who unconsciously reminds her of the person who failed to love her as a child. It is as if the unconscious mind is still looking for the thing never achieved before (love or approval), and it only has value if it comes from a similar person. Since the parent in question was neglectful or critical, the chosen substitute will likely be that way as well, providing the woman with another chance to win loving attention. Given her poor choice of a partner, the sought-for affection and approval are no more likely than they were in childhood.

2. Whether male or female, if you moved too often as a youngster, the insecurity of being the new kid on the block is hard to shake. You may also feel the never-ending need to prove yourself. Once again, insecurity can lead to choosing someone less good and kind than you deserve.

3. Are you too needy? Are you dependent upon your boyfriend or husband to make decisions for you? Are you unable to support yourself financially? Can you bear to be without a boyfriend for very long? Do you need regular reassurance you are “the one and only?” This gets old. While that reassurance will temporarily calm your fears, your lover will almost surely tire of it, leaving you insecure if you don’t ask repeatedly for confirmation of his devotion (or him feeling put-upon if you do). As with a number of the concerns mentioned above, therapy is suggested if your self-worth requires an ever-present escort who constantly bolsters you; and a tendency to lose your sense of self in the relationship, forget about your friends when with a romantic partner, and give-in to the new love-interest for fear he will otherwise leave you.

4. Is your beauty (or sex) all you believe you have to offer? There are tons of gorgeous, sexy women out there and, unlike you, they won’t age! (Or at least it will seem so, since, as you get older there will be a new cohort of young females who eventually will look preferable in purely physical terms). Although men can be pretty primitive in their response to the physical characteristics of women, qualities like wit, kindness, intelligence, good humor, and integrity grow in their value to all but the most unenlightened men. As someone once said, “Beauty fades, but stupid is forever.”

5. If a man shows interest in you too early, are you turned off? It’s true that there is an element of gamesmanship in dating and mating, but don’t choose the intrigue of a man who is hard to get and miss the devotion and decency of another.

 

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6. Are you entitled? Do you believe your boyfriend or husband should keep you on a pedestal, shower you with gifts, and buy the best house in just the right neighborhood? Do you value money, status, and material things too much? If you do, a well-grounded man will tire of you or avoid you. One who is less secure or less enlightened may simply become weary of your demands for “more,” and instead seek a woman who is less self-involved and shallow.

7. Are you a good listener? I hope so, because relationships demand this. If you aren’t, your partner will not feel understood. Unless you respect the differences between yourself and your lover (which very likely were initially attractive), you will find the relationship works poorly or not at all.

8. As I’ve said before on my blog, sexual interest and enthusiasm are necessary parts of a good relationship. Abandon them at your own risk. However, this is not to suggest you should have sex simply because your partner wants (or worse) demands it.

9. Do you allow yourself to be demeaned in public by the man you are with? I always ask marital couples seeking therapy what attracted them to each other. One male I recall said, “She ‘shows’ well,” about his beautiful wife. The words and tone were demeaning, in no way a compliment. Indeed, the man might have said the same thing about a show dog or show horse. The lovely lady remained silent. A more self-respecting woman might have walked out of the room.

10. Do you have a drinking or drug problem? Does your male friend? How do you know you don’t? Just because friends and acquaintances drink as much as you doesn’t mean you can avoid the alcohol or drug-driven downside of heartache, arguments, and a bad end to the relationship. Read up on alcohol abuse to get a sense of where you stand: http://www.alcoholscreening.org/

11. Do you wind up with men you feel sorry for? Not a good choice. Do you give in to men who pursue you relentlessly, even though you aren’t enormously attracted to them? Again, this is not destined to lead to a successful match.

12. Do you believe you can change the man you are with? A miraculous transformation is unlikely to occur. Meaningful alternations in any of us take their own time and much painful effort. As the old therapy joke goes, “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “One, but the light bulb has to want to be changed.” Take a measure of who you are with while you are still capable of being objective, which means your evaluation needs to be done early in the relationship. Once your heart takes over, rational judgments are either too late or altogether impossible.

13. As a father two two career-minded, married daughters, I applaud independent women who forge careers. But just as a man needs to remember his wife and children require attention, so do women in high-powered careers need to live by the same rules. If you are neglectful of your partner, mentally or physically exhausted by the work you do between 9 and 5, and consumed by issues related to your vocation, the relationship is at risk.

14. Are you too critical? If you experienced or observed a fair amount of criticism growing up, it is easy to become like the person who did this. Indeed, we are often at risk of becoming the thing we hate, or of normalizing the unfortunate characteristics we observed in our parents because we had no other family to compare them to. Compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and acceptance are needed in any good relationship, and in large quantities.

15. Do you expect your boyfriend or husband to fulfill your life and make you happy? No one can really do that for you, although having a companion can be worthwhile and important. But a relationship will not solve all problems or make life perfect. Don’t expect it to. The weight of that expectation is more than most lovers can bear.

16. One final point, and a sad one. If you are smart and beautiful, and especially if you are professionally accomplished, there are men out there who will be intimidated by your competence, intelligence, authority, and attractiveness. As a result, you might have to generate more than the usual amount of effort to find a good match. Unfair, but true.

In closing, I should say that making a good choice of mate, regardless of whether you are a man or a woman, is challenging. But there are a lot of good people out there (albeit fewer men than women), so if your history shows a pattern of failed choices, its best to look in the mirror and ask why. And, if you can’t come up with an answer or change your pattern even though you are aware of repeating the same mistakes, therapy often helps.

This post has generated one very heated and critical comment. You might want to read it and see what you think: Dealing with Online Criticism of that “Bald, Ugly, Old” Man: Me.

The top photo is of Marilyn Monroe, a cropped frame from her 1953 movie, Gentlemen Prefer Blonds. The second image is of Céline Du Caju, Miss Belgian Beauty 2006, taken by Eddy Van 3000 and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.