Dear Drama Observers,
Remember me? It’s been a while since I’ve posted an installment of The Drama Review. What with everything I’ve had going on in the last several months, I’ve busier than a mosquito in a nudist colony.
Back in December of 2017, I referred to It’s a Wonderful Life, one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies, to illustrate how manipulators stage dramas.
I hope this is helpful.
In the fictional town of Bedford Falls, the good guys in the movie, the Baileys, run a mom-and-pop savings and loan. The protagonist in the movie is George Bailey, the president of the institution and portrayed by Jimmy Stewart. Everyone in town loves the Baileys—they are good and generous people. The antagonist in the movie is a crusty old curmudgeon named Mr. Potter who, in my humble and accurate opinion, is an Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder.
OCPD is not to be confused with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). They sound the same but are different phenomena. OCD is about systematized rituals like counting things, excessive hand-washing, or not touching door knobs. OCPD, on the other hand, is about one’s need to control people and surroundings. It’s a relational arrangement in which the unspoken set up is: “My job is to be in control; your job is to do what I need you to do and be who I need you to be.” I sometimes refer to this as the “Master Drama.” I use the master word to suggest control, not enhanced proficiency.
Mr. Potter had a pathological need to control every aspect of Bedford Falls including the Baily Savings and Loan (which they referred to in the movie as the “Building and Loan”). But he couldn’t. At one point, he summons George to his office and says the following:
I am an old man and most people hate me. But I don’t like them either, so that makes it all even. You know just as well as I do that I run practically everything in this town but the Bailey Building and Loan. You know, also, that for a number of years I’ve been trying to get control of it. Or kill it. But I haven’t been able to do it. You have been stopping me. In fact, you have beaten me, George, and as anyone in this county can tell you, that takes some doing.
This may sound like a flash of self-awareness for Mr. Potter but it wasn’t. It was the lead-up to a scam attempt. He butters George up and then offers him a huge salary to come run his operation which would, of course, necessitate the liquidation of the Bailey Building and Loan.
To George, who was perpetually cash poor, this appeared to be a your-ship’s-just-come-in job opportunity. In reality, it was a sleazy move to eliminate the one thing Mr. Potter couldn’t control—George’s company. You’ve heard the phrase, “The gift has strings attached.” Mr. Potter offered George a tantalizing gift which was actually bait concealing a hook and string.
The salary offer was so sweet that George bit the bait and reached across the desk to shake Mr. Potter’s hand. But while he was shaking that hand, it dawned on him that he’d just been scammed. He recoiled. He stepped back and wiped his hand off on his jacket like a man who’d just fished something valuable out of a toilet. He then said this:
You sit around here and you spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Well, it doesn’t, Mr. Potter. In the whole vast configuration of things, I’d say you were nothing but a scurvy little spider!
Notice two things here. First, George didn’t usually talk to people that way. He was so frustrated at the near-success of Mr. Potter’s manipulation that he used words that were out of step with his normal gracious manner. Healthy relationships bring out our best. Manipulators bring out our worst.
Second, he was repulsed by the attempted con. But he was also furious with himself for almost falling for it. When the veil draws back revealing who manipulators really are, we’re disgusted . . . and mad at ourselves for not seeing it sooner.
A number of years ago, there was a Saturday Night Live Christmas skit portraying what they called the “Lost Ending” of It’s a Wonderful Life. The skit begins where the real movie ends, with the citizens of Bedford Falls celebrating the financial rescue of their beloved friend, George Bailey. Just then, it’s revealed that Mr. Potter is in possession of the money that George was in trouble for losing. Filled with rage and indignation, the citizens turn into a lynch mob, storm Mr. Potter’s house, and beat the stuffings out of him.
This “lost ending” probably taps into something for which we all long—justice. But, with manipulators, we often don’t get to observe the kind of justice where the person admits wrongness and/or suffers consequences. Many manipulators “get away with murder” either literally or figuratively.
Like Mr. Potter, they admit nothing and seemingly experience no adverse consequences for bad behavior. Trying to establish justice—to force a manipulator to acknowledge personal wrongness against his will—has a button pushing effect and provides a way for him to keep us wrapped up in the drama.
In the scene described above, George didn’t reason things out with Mr. Potter because Mr. Potter lacked the internal attributes that would make reasoning possible. As the saying goes, “You can’t reason with an unreasonable person.” But George did do something significant—he resisted a drama enticement that would’ve made his life much more difficult.
And that’s a big deal!
Till next time.