Flawed Public Figures

In On Writing, On Writing-General by Louisa Leontiades

I recently reviewed a new book by Franklin Veaux on a polyamorous relationship he’s named The Game Changer. He’s a relatively well known blogger in polyamorous circles and there’s no doubt that from afar, Franklin Veaux comes across well. He writes non-fiction which is articulate, compassionate, and he’s clearly extremely bright. Emotionally intelligent too, if his words are to be believed, because the Franklin Veaux in these pages admits his flaws. Or does he? When I posted the glowing review of him and his work on goodreads, another reader commented,

‘Yeah. Well. Let’s just keep in mind that people have flaws, some major, that words cannot convey, and leave it at that.’

I have little interest in what major flaws he or she referring to because the comment doesn’t reveal anything to me I didn’t know before. He’s human (as is – evidently – the person who made this comment). So my first thought on reading that comment was, doesn’t everyone?

How many of us believe that one person’s public persona or piece of writing can possibly encompass the totality of our humanity?

It turns out, we all do or at least we all want to, including me. Quotes from the exalted pepper my facebook page, Maya Angelo, Eckhardt Tolle, Walt Whitman. What were these people really like? Not angels.

“I am not an angel,’ I asserted; ‘and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself. Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me – for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you: which I do not at all anticipate.” 

― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

But Jane Eyre wasn’t human, she was a literary archetype. She was Charlotte Brontë’s way of rewriting her own stories, and learning her own lessons, making sense of her own mother’s death and the typhus that took her two sisters. Fiction and non-fiction are remarkably similar in this way, because all writing tries to create a narrative that informs, entertains and challenges the reader…and the writer.

It’s why we write.

We cannot accuse Charlotte of being her persona Jane Eyre, no matter how similar they might appear. But in non-fiction we are not our persona either, because none of us are our personas. These are simply aspects of our characters, like two dimensional glass panes which show only one perspective. And no matter how many flaws we allow people to see in our writing, we always have more.

In writing character flaws are classed as minor, major or tragic. Minor character flaws – like biting your nails – make a character more accessible. Major character flaws are those that impair the individual, physically, mentally or morally. We all have the potential for them. Ironically they only become major flaws when someone tries to overcome them. Otherwise there is no struggle, no contrast. Only in those who risk more, do flaws become major impediments to the big goals those flawed people try to achieve.

After Mother Theresa’s death, several studies revealed her to be human, and thus flawed. She allegedly demonstrated a love for suffering and poverty due to religious dogmatism which prevented her patients from getting proper medical attention. She hung out with dictators and accepted their money for her cause. She questioned her faith in letters which only came to light after her death, but preferred to keep quiet about it supposedly so as not to shake the faith of her supporters. She wasn’t the saint the media spun her to be. And…?

Why do we have a tendency to forget that public figures, like everyone are without exception flawed? Why are we so outraged to find out that they’re deeply, darkly human?

Only I suppose because we want to believe it’s possible to lose our flaws, to attain perfection. We aspire to being like them, and no one aspires to being flawed. Flaws are apparently by definition negative. And this in itself I believe, is untrue. Flaws can be amazingly positive things. To deny the inevitability of having flaws as well as our enormous capacity to acquire new ones just as soon as we heal old ones, is part of what keeps us trying to be better people. Without them, where would be the impetus to invent, create and to explore?

What we call flaws are also what often makes us the most beautiful. Not in a magical, perfect Disney way. Flaws make us multilayered, fascinating, complex. Our flaws and how they interact with the world, propels us to deeper understand of ourselves and how we operate. That we seek understanding, that we seek to forge meaning out of our lives is uniquely human. It is an amazing thing. Without our flaws, without the problems they create, none of us would be driven to be better people.

And whether the world would be better off without us flawed beings, is a philosophical question better left to the Wachowskis.