At a recent gathering my wife had an unexpected encounter with a woman who had done us wrong. When my beloved met her eyes and said hello without emotion, the shadowy figure broke eye contact. She looked surprised — taken aback. Ashamed? Shame doesn’t connote self-awareness or guilt, so much as being caught with your hand in the cookie jar.
Who is she? As a teen she’d been a rebellious, angry hell-raiser, the product of a broken home: not divorced parents, but shattered and shattering, sham adults. Time passed and this dark lady appeared to become sociable, energetic, and funny — an academic failure, but a business success. Failed marriages and friendships revealed that intimacy was a challenge. For all her charm, depression was a life-long battle never surmounted, loneliness her closest companion. A sad story and, I admit, I fell for it. No, that’s unfair. The tale was real enough, but failed to include a description of the shabby baggage she carried.
Madam X is a person for whom truth is only a convenience, like a garment to be discarded when out-of-fashion, not the internal necessity of a more principled life. Honesty is tossed aside like a burned out cigarette. To get what she wants she is unrestrained and unrestrainable.
I am reminded of Oscar Wilde’s character Dorian Gray as I think about Madam X. Wilde’s novella describes the protagonist as a beautiful, upper class Englishman whose bloom of youth and stunning features are captured in a commissioned portrait, upon which he makes a wish: to remain forever young while his canvas likeness ages. But the painting becomes a scold, reflecting and reproving his increasing corruption. The art deforms itself to the point that he must place the thing in an attic. Meanwhile, Dorian Gray’s face and stature honor the wish he made by retaining their handsome allure — the internal rot disguised.
Might life be better if we were required to wear a meter displaying a measure of our integrity? Color coded, perhaps. White would signal a godlike character, black its opposite, with all of us somewhere in between, depending. Then we wouldn’t need to study others, play the back and forth game of risking disclosures, judging facial expressions and body language, and taking the small but tentative steps of early intimacy.
Relationships are about what we will risk and with whom. Part of the dance depends on our own security, part on our ability to judge the trustworthiness of others. None of us is either perfectly secure or gifted with x-ray perception and an internal lie detector to evaluate the soul of another. Some just stop trusting altogether.
Acceptance of human frailty is the therapist’s Achilles heel. We must think the best of our patients, be optimistic, free ourselves from judgment. We have seen people change and so believe in “possibility.”
Having never seen or felt the bite of the potential masked viper sitting before us, we sit disarmed. He offers us no rap sheet of past iniquity. In a certain sense we are wise innocents who intentionally obscure our own vision: an occupational risk we take on knowingly.
Therapists also have experience (though not so much as criminal law attorneys and police) with those who don’t play fair, to the point of becoming inured to the usual warning signs. We are prone to be a little stupid or very generous and forgiving (take your pick), unguarded both inside and outside the office. Not fully, but just at the margin. With time, if the evidence pours in on who the individual really is, we adjust our opinion as necessary, just as you do.
A small number of our clients believe in their own innocence regardless of their history of turpitude. They don’t know the truth of things and are so defended and well-rationalized that even their mirror offers a false reflection. No inward inspection is permitted. The woman in question had been in plenty of therapy, but reported no benefit.
The scary thing is, you’d find her charming, funny, and bright. She might even be generous to you until and unless you found yourself in a situation where her self-interest kicked in and revealed a self unchanged for decades. You might say she lost herself. I’d say, however, Madam X never had a self to lose, only one to disguise. A street fighting sixteen-year-old’s identity was hidden, just waiting for an excuse to emerge and mess with people.
Perhaps you are asking, do I carry continuing resentment? No, though I would not again associate with her. She is too dangerous.
As to retribution, Madam X has been punished enough. Her sentence? To live the life she is living: a person on the outside of true companionship, capable only of sham friendship. Unlike Dorian Gray, she takes the round shape of a human wrecking ball. Wrecking balls possess no lasting friends. They languish in a junk yard of their own creation, surrounded by the things they have broken and the broken thing they made of themselves.
My knowledge of her sadness lingers. I know the heartbreak at her core and do not wish her worse. Indeed, how nice it might be to chance upon information of something better, more hopeful about Madam X than the closeted life she lives, on the outside of love, honoring only a perpetual undercover assignment of her own making. She was a beautiful child and has her moments still. A dear person is somewhere in there, if only she could find her.
The Jester (or Fool) image comes from a turn of the last century book: Bill Nye’s History of England. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.