I’ve been thinking a lot about the episodes to do with Rob Porter and David Sorensen, two White House aides who left because their ex-wives said they were abusive. Not just about them, but about people generally who are successful, powerful, and highly regarded at work, and exhibit an entirely different aspect of their personalities at home.
My father used to beat me very badly when I was a child. I’m not talking spanking here, some East European shtetl sense of how to raise children, or even a spare the rod, spoil the child approach. I’m talking about a man with accumulated anxiety and stress from work and marriage who came home and released it by beating a little girl. A man who, if he felt thwarted in plans to go out for an evening, if he had an argument with his wife or didn’t like the food served at dinner, would come into my room, shut the door quietly, go from window to window, shut each slowly and methodically, then close the blinds, and proceed to beat me.
I learned from a young age that these outbursts were rarely triggered by things I said or did. Not that I didn’t have an attitude, I did, but there was no proportion between what I said and what ensued. I knew what it felt like to be the scapegoat for someone’s frustrations many years before I heard the word scapegoat. I knew how it felt to be one’s punching bag, literally, and the marriage of helplessness and hopelessness that ruled the fabric of my life in those days.
From a very early age I learned to fear the sound of the front door opening and closing in the early evening, and to watch and listen for his moods and the dynamics at home as if my life depended on it.
And here’s the thing. My father was highly thought of in the community. He didn’t work in the White House, he was a beloved high school teacher and principal. His students used to visit our house again and again to talk things over with him, and they’d stop me on the streets to tell me how they wished they could talk to their fathers as they did to mine, how they wished they had a father like mine.
When I was in my 30s he wrote me letters to tell me how sorry he was for the violence of my childhood and youth. He described his own early life, which smacked of the same things. I forgave him with all my heart, but that didn’t undo the damage.
When he died shortly after the age of 90, hundreds of people came to the shiva to tell my siblings and myself what a great father we had. A few were the very ones who loved him back in those early brutal years, to whom he was a surrogate father.
I remember sitting in the house and listening to them, filled with a deep feeling of I know a secret about this man that you don’t.
That’s the thing, you see, the secret. In a way he led a secret life. We’re not talking about No man is a hero to his valet; people closest to you will always know things about you that others don’t. What I’m talking about are brutal attacks and violence on a helpless child, that’s the secret.
And that happens when we believe in secrets, when we believe in segmenting and compartmentalizing. That’s when you can be beloved in the office, in art, in literature, in films, and a monster at home. Because we live in a society of secrets.
There’s nothing I advocate here. What to do when these situations come to light is a challenge for all of us. I don’t think the cure is to fire folks from their jobs, destroy their careers, break all relations. If we’re serious about healing people and society we can’t depend on social media but patiently, painstakingly (which means taking up the pain), work skillfully from bottom up, give names to the unspeakable and a voice to the mute, and never exclude anyone from the country called compassion.
Over many years Bernie has often said that there are no secrets. If we’re all one, then we know—maybe not the details, maybe not everything—but something. Is that true? I’m no longer so sure. I feel I know just one thing. Basically we’re broken, and each fragment is whole.