Dear Drama Observers,
In the stories we tell, there’s just about always a good guy and bad guy, a protagonist and an antagonist, a hero and a villain, a light force in opposition to a dark force. In fact, it’s the competition between these counterparts that makes for a compelling tale and, without such tensions, most stories would have all the appeal of a toenail fungus commercial.
We tell stories all the time about relational aspects of our daily lives—the guy who cut us off in traffic, the nice lady who let us go ahead of her in the grocery store checkout line because we had fewer items, the neighbor who cut our grass because he had extra time on his hands, or the coworker who treats his wife like dirt and thinks nobody notices. These stories often contain heroes, villains, and something about the competition between the two.
Normal People tell stories that accurately reflect reality and can admit—though perhaps reluctantly—to personal wrongness when such is the case. But in the stories Drama People tell, they’re always on the side of the angels. They have no compunctions about rearranging the elements of a storyline to make themselves the good guys locked in battle with bad guys.
As American memoirist, Patricia Hampl wrote, “I Could Tell You Stories.” Let me tell you one such story.
In 1988, Walter McMillian, a black man from Monroeville, Alabama was accused of murdering a white woman who worked in the town’s dry cleaners. For reasons that were almost certainly racially motivated, he was tried and convicted of murder despite scant evidence and what was later determined to be coerced and perjured testimony. Despite the jury’s initial sentence of life imprisonment, the judge in the case—under an arrangement called “judicial override”—sentenced McMillian instead to death, and he spent the next six years on Alabama’s death row.
The recently released movie, Just Mercy, recounts the story of how McMillian’s case was taken up by Harvard educated attorney, Bryan Stevenson, who had moved to Alabama to found the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that provides legal representation for prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted. Through Stevenson’s relentless and heroic efforts, McMillian was proven innocent, his case was eventually overturned by Alabama’s Court of Criminal Appeals, and he was cleared of all charges.
After his exoneration and release, McMillian was interviewed about his years on death row and he made this statement: “It’s rough on you when you’re guilty but worse when you’re innocent.” Yes, he was set free but bore the scars of that experience for the rest of his life.
We’re all familiar with the Ten Commandments, the ninth of which states (in the King James version): “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” The modern expression of that usually sounds like this: “Thou shalt not lie.” So, if we’re invited to a party we’d rather not attend and decline the invitation by saying, “Oh, I hate that. I already have plans that evening” (but we don’t), we think we’ve broken the ninth commandment.
But the likely intent of the prohibition was to prevent something far more sinister—the creation of a false narrative that destroys the standing or reputation of another. A good person is portrayed as bad so the bad person can be seen as good. The ploy is so egregious because once a reputation has been damaged, it’s difficult—and in some cases impossible—to repair.
“The world of the conceptual,” wrote psychologist and author Gregory Lester, “is as dangerous as the physical world. ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me’ is the most precisely inaccurate saying of all time. Words can hurt. Words can kill.”
Words of false portrayal hurt when Drama People engage in their good-bad switch-arounds. Indeed, they almost killed Walter McMillian.
It’s rough on you when you’re guilty but worse when you’re innocent.
Till next week.