Do people really change? Are we our best self, our worst, or both? When a person leads a double life, is one of their lives a lie? How do a person’s various faces cohere as one self — or break down?
New York Times op-ed writer Frank Bruni writes in “The Many Faces of Brett Kavanaugh” about the different, sometimes conflicting facets that make up the people we know, or think we know.
His comments resonate in part with some of my own recent thoughts regarding Bill Cosby, Theodore McCarrick, and other predators who appear to have led convincing double lives — but there are important moral angles on the topic omitted in his discussion.
Brett Kavanaugh’s wife, Ashley, told Martha MacCallum of Fox News: “I know Brett. I’ve known him for 17 years.”
But that’s hardly his whole life. And that’s hardly the whole Brett. She knows him mainly as a husband and a father, moved by the emotional currents that those roles stir up, distinguished by the traits that they tease out…
But he may be nothing of the kind to women in the abstract or women who were in his path when he was very young, very inebriated and very insistent…
We show different colors at different times in different situations. We age, sometimes in ways that make us better, sometimes in ways that make us worse. We fashion ourselves, with or without cunning, into who and what we need to be for friends, lovers, parents, children, bosses and employees based on their diverse expectations and ever-shifting demands.
We are genuinely saints and we are genuinely sinners. We are pieces that add up to an incoherent whole.
Whether or not the accusations against Kavanaugh have any merit (a question regarding which at this point I have no firm opinion), Bruni’s account of human nature generally gets at some important — but limited — truths.
One thing that is clear is that all of us, even the most unsullied and irreproachable, wear different faces, not only at different points in our lives, but also in different circumstances and with different people.
Different groups of people we know, different social circumstances, engage varying elements of our personality and draw on different shared memories, assumptions, responses, and behaviors.
For instance, the parish anecdotes or seminary stories that my diaconal classmates and I might chat about or laugh over at a class get-together engage one part of me, while the stories and jokes that would come up at a family reunion engage a very different part.
Even the way we talk — including accents, vocabulary choices, sentence structure — can change as we move from one setting to another. (Such code switching can be calculated and phony in some cases, but natural and authentic in others.)
One way to express this is to say we all adopt or become different “social selves” in verying social situations. There’s nothing necessarily deceptive about any of this — as long as all the various faces we wear are fundamentally in harmony with one another.
Needless to say, this is not always the case.
Masks and deceit
Sometimes people adopt faces or personas that are simply masks worn to deceive — false identities completely at odds with the true self. Take Ron Stallworth, the black detective played by John David Washington in Spike Lee’s The BlacKkKlansman, who adopted the identity of a white racist in phone calls with local Klan leaders, even befriending David Duke. (This kind of wholly fictitious role-playing has become much easier and more common in the Internet age.)
There are also partial masks, varyingly deceptive elements woven into the way we present ourselves to others for a variety of purposes. For instance, a young man meeting his girlfriend’s parents for the first time might pretend to agree with her father’s political opinions in order to make a good impression.
Some masks are more persistent and deceptive than others, and the person using them effectively leads a double life. Notorious examples include Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, whose crimes included sexually abusing boys and teenagers, keeping mistresses, and covering his tracks with large amounts of cash and the authoritarian religious culture he fostered.
Outwardly Maciel presented himself as a man of deep holiness and piety, but in private he led a life “without scruples or authentic religious sentiment,” in the damning judgment of the Vatican’s Apostolic Visitors. Whatever genuine religious devotion he may have had at one point in his life, in the end it was a false mask hiding the dissolute reality of his life.
The contradictions in the lives of men like Cosby and McCarrick present similar problems.
Cosby had a well-established pattern of drugging women in order to rape them. In all, 60 women accused him of sexual misconduct ranging from rape and sexual assault to sexual harassment. Despite the evidence, Cosby continues to maintain his innocence.
On some level, Cosby appears to be a long-term predator without remorse or empathy — the kind of predator sometimes popularly called a psychopath or sociopath.
Yet, when the accusations finally began to hit headlines, Cosby’s longtime costar and friend Phylicia Rashad defended him, presumably in earnest. The man she had known for decades and worked with on “The Cosby Show” would never do such a thing.
It seems that in certain situations Cosby could relate to the people around him as the decent, caring, humorous man we all thought we knew — even those who actually knew him thought they knew — as “America’s Dad.”
This wasn’t just a scripted role on a TV show. This was a persona that Cosby inhabited in real relationships with real people for much of his life.
People he knew thought of him as a good guy, a friend, a mentor. They had reason to feel gratitude as well as affection toward him.
Then in other situations Cosby became a raging sociopathic narcissist and a sex predator. The contrast is so extreme that he can be said to have led a double life.
Was Cosby’s charm and caring all a smokescreen? Was it simply manipulative, grooming behavior crafted to hide his true predatory nature and further his exploitative goals?
Probably Cosby did deliberately use his charisma and engaging personality to manipulate others, to lower their defenses and provide cover for himself. Yet it doesn’t seem to me necessary to conclude that all his seeming decency was entirely calculated or manipulative.
I think there is probably a sense in which a person like Cosby, at least at some point in his life, was able to become a genuinely caring person in some circumstances and a predator in others.
For some, this might suggest a case of literal split personality, of dissociative identity disorder. For others, it could suggest literal demonic possession.
I wouldn’t want to exclude the possibility that Cosby’s double life had clinical or demonic implications or both. Still, I doubt either of these frameworks provides the best model for understanding such behavior.
In any case, I tend to see the business of leading a double life fundamentally in a moral framework, as a question of virtue.
I said above that there’s nothing necessarily deceptive about switching between different social selves, as long as all the various social selves or faces are fundamentally in harmony with one another.
Sometimes, though, contradictions and conflicts arise among these selves. Actions that would be unthinkable in one context become thinkable in another. To allow this to happen is to begin to compartmentalize who we are morally in different social selves.
Perhaps we are especially prone to such compartmentalization when we are young and still figuring out who we are. A young person goes away to college and begins to change — then comes home and finds himself or herself naturally inhabiting a version of themselves familiar to those who knew them before they went away, one in some way at odds with who they were becoming or had become. (The third act of the movie Brooklyn turns on a moral conflict of this kind.)
As moral divides among one’s different social selves deepen, the virtue that is lost is the virtue of integrity.
The integrated self
The word “integrity” is widely overused and diminished as a synonym for virtues like honesty and reliability. Integrity includes these things, but has a larger and more important meaning: one suggested by non-moral usages in fields like engineering (structural integrity) and medicine (skin integrity), or in the verb forms “disintegrate” and “integrate.”
What all these usages have in common is a sense of things being firmly united (or not) in a stable unity or continuity.
This is what the virtue of integrity is, then: It is the virtue uniting, connecting, and harmonizing all the various parts of ourselves in a cohesive, harmonious whole.
To be a person of integrity means to be the same moral person amid all of one’s various social selves. It means not compartmentalizing what is morally licit in the various spheres of our lives.
To aspire to integrity means that even though people at work see one side of you, people at church another, your family of origin still another, etc., all of these sides or pieces of you should all be integrated in a way that has a kind of “structural integrity” or stable soundness.
Coherence in Christ or disintegration of the self
Bruni’s assessment that we are all “pieces that add up to an incoherent whole” is accurate only to the extent that we lack integrity. Integrity is the virtue that calls us to coherence.
Without this, without integrity, we ultimately succumb to disintegration of the self. Compartmentalization leads to deepening divides among one’s social selves — and, while these divided social selves can remain “real” enough for a time, eventually the disintegration of selfhood becomes progressive. What was once at least a real facet of one’s personality decays into façade — a façade behind which, if we continue that path to the end, nothing real remains.
How do we find coherence in our lives? For Christians, whatever social selves emerge in our relations with others, our central, defining relationship with Jesus Christ must stand over all others. Whoever we are in one social context or another, it is in relation to Jesus that we must find our true self, and in all our relations with others we must always be that self.
I imagine that, for many souls on the path to damnation, the progressive loss of integrity and the gradual disintegration of the self into multiple incompatible social masks foreshadows, or even begins in this life, the process of dissolution or loss of the true self that is the hellish antithesis of finding our true self in Jesus in heaven.
I think about men like Cosby and McCarrick in this connection, still insisting on their innocence, and I shudder.
Among questions raised by defenders of Kavanaugh is whether, granted that a man committed seriously bad actions at age 17, he should be forever defined by those actions.
The answer is not necessarily, but possibly.
On the one hand, the sins and offenses of the past are not erased by the mere passage of time or the acquisition of years. On the other hand, integrity is not an all-or-nothing, lifelong chain that, once broken, can never be restored.
To develop integrity where it is lacking involves a process of conversion. This includes genuinely repenting, accepting responsibility for one’s past misdeeds, and, where practicable, making satisfaction, including apologizing and asking forgiveness.
Accepting responsibility doesn’t necessarily mean telling the world what one has done. Nor is it always possible or practicable to find the people one has injured and apologize to them. Indeed, trying to do so in some circumstances could do more harm than good.
But if one is found and confronted by an injured party with a real claim, a person of integrity must be prepared to admit the wrong and apologize for it. One cannot deny the wrong one has done, especially if it means calling the injured party a liar. To do so would be to harm the other person all over again.
Whether a man who did what Kavanaugh is accused of doing at 17 could ever be deemed fit for an office of such immense authority and honor is a question on which I think people might reasonably disagree.
But there are no two views of a person who actually did what Kavanaugh is accused of doing and denies his accuser’s charges as adamantly as he has done. One must either judge Kavanaugh wrongly accused or unworthy of high office.