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Archive for December, 2010

Schadenfreude

The problem started when women like Chris and Norma were allowed ‘in.’ No one had ever come to Rigdon like Chris and Norma in the first place; and certainly no one had come to this patrician New England town who looked like they did.

Built like huge pieces of timber, one a solid round and the other a solid square, they were homely women; nay, downright ugly, and they stood out like infected toes on an otherwise perfectly pedicured foot in this town of blonde, long-limbed, old money men and women.

Chris, nee Christina, was first generation Mexican, and mad as hell, it seemed, at all gringas everywhere.  She attempted to hide her origin by giving herself an English last name, but her predilection for obesity and greasy foods (which she ate with abandon in our meetings) sadly bore the telltale signs of her heritage.  She was madder than a hatter, and her pie shaped face was red in fury, her eyes bulging from their sockets as if to escape, and her lips were chronically pursed in a “tsk-tsk” way, giving them a sad resemblance to an anus.

Norma, her friend, looked like she had been hit in the face with a two- by -four, her features never having re-emerged.  She had no neck, her shoulders coming even to her chin, her enormous arms held to the sides, forced there by her size.  But the most unforgiving characteristic of Norma was her voice – a most unfortunate nasal whine which set one’s teeth on edge.

Norma felt it her duty to talk no matter what the topic and being forced to endure this terribly odious face along with the voice – well, it became too much for most of us, and we found we were avoiding the very group we had started in our meeting hall on Wednesday nights.

I felt particularly responsible for these problems, having started our women’s group.  I am a psychologist, and I offered to facilitate a group for like-minded people of the feminine persuasion to meet and speak about whatever they wished.  This was really just a way for women who could not qualify for the Junior League or the seriously ensconced chapter of the Rigdon DAR to feel as if they belonged in this small town.  I was proud of my efforts, which, until this point, had remained minimal.

But women like Chris and Norma did not move to Rigdon.  They did not come to these meetings.  And suddenly we were all confronted with our bigotry, our racism, and our serious contempt and dislike for these women, who did nothing to try and change our minds.

Bitsy Mullins spoke up first, and she spoke pointedly:  “How on earth did women like those two afford a house in Rigdon?”

It was a serious question, and one not to take lightly.  Each home in Rigdon, zoned within a tiny margin of historic collective, was a New England clapboard home, built before 1800, and maintained according to strict covenants and guidelines.  Most homes were not for sale.  Only a few were rentals, and these rentals were strictly supervised.

So it shocked us to learn that Chris had inherited a home from her former employer, as she had been a housekeeper to this woman, a woman we all knew well until she had become ill and disappeared into her illness, and Norma – God, we shuddered to think or say it – was her lesbian lover!

The home, at 3241 Cranberry Lane, had been willed to Chris, and rather than sell it, Chris had decided to live in it, and bring her hideous lover with her, to boot.  Our aquiline noses were to be rubbed in this fact again and again, and we had little recourse except to examine our hypocrisy, something the women of Rigdon knew little about.  It was not as if we were incapable of self-examination; we were incapable of understanding why anyone would put themselves in a situation such as Chris and Norma had done, thus forcing upon people like us the need to examine it.  Nothing made sense.  If these unseemly two were out to make a point there were far better ways to make it, such as voicing opinions at town hall meetings, refusing to vote in agreement regarding covenants and restrictions regarding property ownership, etc.

But to simply show up at a so-called “spiritual” group and sit there, week after week, pusses as sour as rotting ground- grapes, well….it just was weird and uncomfortable, and highly unusual.

Our husbands were no help.  The “good ‘ol boy” of the Yankee variety, these men spent weekends only in Rigdon, preferring their leather chairs at their clubs in the city, their Pratesi sheets turned down just so by the housekeepers in the pied a terres we all maintained in the East 70’s or 80’s in Manhattan, their aging bodies buffed and polished by the Russian and Swedish professionals at the approved health clubs on 53rd Street.

So we women were alone with our dilemma.  Chris and Norma were firmly planted in our Wednesday group, their faces uglier and more sternly resolute with each passing week.  Try as I might to sweet- talk them; nay, try honestly to get to know them, they planted their unkind refusals and mannerisms like donkey-stalls, and I found myself hating myself even more for trying.  There was simply no getting around the fact:  we had to do something about these outsiders, and it was up to me, as the de facto leader, to decide Chris and Norma’s fate.

At about that time, Betsey Morrisey fell on the ice and broke her ankle.  Not only did she break her ankle, she broke it so badly she was unable to put any weight on it at all for six weeks, thus preventing her from attending or chairing her favorite annual event:  the New York Ballet held at the  Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It was her favorite charity, and she was known for it.  It was because of this terrible news I found out the key to unlocking a way in to rid our group of the Chris/Norma vermin:  these miserable two celebrated misfortune.  They epitomized schadenfreude.

Imagine, if you will, leprechauns and sprites dancing a jig with glee, kicking their heels together.  Now, put in place of the spry and agile leprechauns, two huge and homely dykes, clumsily dancing and clicking their army boots together, and you will have a semblance of what happened when Chris and Norma found out about Betsey Morrisey’s accident.  Try as they might, they could not contain their smug pleasure and downright joy at Betsey’s plight.

My understanding of schadenfreud encompasses the wonder of mental illness at its’ neurotic best:  the mind eclipsing the natural ability of the heart to find pleasure in the misfortune of others.  Chris especially, her globe-like face pursed and smug, actually made sideways comments about Betsey’s ‘clumsiness’ and seeming predilection to hurt herself.  It could have been comical, so unenlightened was she, so without psychological insight of any kind, but it came from a heart so black, so unkind, that even off-the-cuff comments made by this Mexican maid stung and stuck and made one do an auditory double-take.

We were lost.  We were mad.  We were unusually inarticulate.  We simply did not know what to do.

One by one, the women abandoned our group.  One by one, they made half-hearted and weak comments on my voice mail, carefully constructed to be left when they knew I was in session with a patient.  I became agitated and frustrated, walking around talking to myself and what I would say had I the opportunity to address the issue with them.  My calls went unreturned.  I was a ship, left to roil and sink in strange waters.  I was alone.

But I reconnoitered and did what I do best:  I decided to confront them.  Now, with someone who was mentally balanced, this might have been somewhat workable.  But my fatal mistake was in not taking into consideration that I was preparing to talk to people who were sick, who were dark and negative and hurtful.  Hurt people hurt people.  And they were preparing to strike back in a way unimaginable and in ways in which one could never prepare.

I decided to get to Norma first.  She was the more passive of the lesbian duo.  She was also the more unpleasant looking, but she scared me the least.  I ‘accidentally’ bumped into her coming out of the main store on Front Street one afternoon, having staked out her habits like a Private Eye.

I made small talk for a moment or two, then swallowed hard, and asked her to have a cup of tea with me.  She cocked her head, and at that moment the sun hit her head and ears at a particular slant.  I noticed with horror that her ears had black hair coming out of them in huge tufts, which belied the fact that she had blonde hair.  She looked like a werewolf, and in that same moment I noticed coarse black hair on her neck.  I may have shuddered, I may have made a slight grimace, but whatever happened, I so ruined the possibility of authenticity in that moment that even she, someone I considered dumber than a box of rocks, picked up on my distaste, and refused the invitation.

But I persevered.  I made small talk with her as she started to inch her way towards her car.  I had no idea in that moment what I was going to say.  But she seized the moment and did something no one has ever done, before or since:  She proclaimed, loudly, in that hideous whine:

“We despise you, Nellie.  You epitomize everything people like Chris and I hate.  We came here to make sure people like don’t continue to thrive.”

As God is my witness, these were the words spoken to me on that September day of 2009 in Rigdon, Connecticut.  I, the daughter of the governor of Maine, first family of many Yankee socialites, social register New England, registered family from the Mayflower, heard this hideous dyke proclaim words one dared not speak, much less think.  And for no apparent reason other than that of hatred, pure and icy and dripping and evil.  And I, with a PhD in psychology and a law degree, was struck speechless for the very first time in my life.

Part II

I left the sidewalk that day, and I never spoke a word of what was said to me.  As the weeks went on, and the months turned into a year, I figured Chris and Norma would live their lives, the group would remain disbanded, and no one would hear ‘boo’ from them again.  Besides, I was busy with my children, my husband,  and my campaign for Mayor of Rigdon.

It was this attempt at my first political run which drummed up the beasts again.  And they came at me in another way, a way dreadful and unimagined:  Judy O’Hare.

Judy was an elegant first-family patrician woman in her 70’s, and we had always been friends.  She epitomized finesse and old-fashioned values, a firm Catholic, a spinster, a whispered virgin, someone one wanted on one’s side.  She got things done.  She was vocal at town hall meetings.  She owned property.  She had taste.  She had a command of language.

So, when it was discovered that Judy had joined the Chris/Norma camp, I met the information with shock and disbelief.  Now what?  What on earth was going on?

The gossip and slander being perpetrated among people I considered my friends was what hurt the most, and what puzzled the most.  People who had long been my advocates and friends began to avoid me.  They said things to me which could not possibly have come from anyone other than an enemy, things which had enough truth to be from someone who knew me, but had enough falsehood to be known as gossip and slander.

Long had I known that people on a journey of success are susceptible to attack, but I had thought I would be the target of natural competition in the form of contenders in the mayoral race or silly jealousies from the past; Mark’s girlfriends who would say anything to get him back.  But these ugly and cruel women were relentless.  They were unstoppable.  And the strangest of all….

….they became successful.

The rot and erosion of gossip and lies have an unfortunate morphic resonance:  if said often and long enough, even the most appalling lies becomes the ‘truth.’  I was astonished to find that even people who formerly had loved me turned away, claiming they ‘did not know what to believe.’  The poison was pervasive.  The poison was successful.  Chris and Norma were the anti-Christs.  They had come to hurt me, and hurt me they were.

The Judy O’Hare betrayal was what made Chris and Norma believable.  There was something here, but what was it?  I was becoming too afraid to venture down Front Street.  I was keeping the famous, or infamous, ‘low profile.’

Then Cerrie came into the picture….

Cerrie was a contender.  Cerrie could beat Jesus at his own game, she liked to say.  Cerrie was so contrary, so contentious, so “Missouri Trailer-Trash” (her own words), she carved a swath of avoidance as she Hitler -marched down Main street spouting and spewing orders and criticism like a dyed in the wool old whore.

Cerrie Hartley was 63 years old and looked every minute of it.  Her face was lined and hard.  Her honey-blonde hair was thin and shoulder length, her hazel eyes her only pretty feature, although she kept then focused and hard, often narrowed as one tried unsuccessfully to avoid her glare.

As a politician in a small town, I well knew I needed Cerrie’s support.  I was loathe to coax it however, as she was an odious person, and I was very afraid of her volatility and her anger.  But I knew her soft spot.

She loved animals.

And I loved animals.

So, I invited Cerrie to walk her dog with me, and the story changed.

I expected to have to have to tell Cerrie about Chris and Norma, but Cerrie told me the story, from soup to nuts.  She told it in the unkindest way possible, telling me in no uncertain terms how I deserved the gossip and slander heaped upon me.  It was painful and difficult to hear, but I remembered my motive, and I simply listened, focusing on my Labradors ears, for some strange reason.  He walked ahead of me in a straight line, off-leash, as if understanding the need for a focal point.  I was in pain, psychic pain, and he knew it.  He was my focal point while I labored.  I knew – I surely and absolutely knew – if I took my eye off the ball for one moment by thinking about the absurdity of it all – these marginal and mean people getting their rocks off by putting me down and having me enable them by listening, I would lose my mind, kick their teeth in, and end up drooling on Thorazine somewhere, never sure of the why or wherefore this had happened.

So I disciplined myself.  I knew I had discipline.

I focused and I listened.  And I simply understood that I was the subject of pathetically childish jealousy, and that my group, my “friends”, had been led astray, and they had no backbone anyway, the typically “we don’t want to get our hands dirty type.”  Like the ethically troubled warrior Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, who was led by the Lord across the battlefield to kill his own family, who got clearly that he had to just ‘do it,’ that it was already done, and surrendered to the great understanding that he was not the doer, but the done. I was ready to roll.

I was being asked to take a high road not even understood by me.  I could do this.  I would play the game.  The way I had acted, with scruples and ethics, clearly was not working in this dark time, and I would and could come down to Chris’ and Norma’s level, and I could even outsmart Cerrie at her mean game.  I could outsmart Jesus if I had to.  I could definitely go for Judy O’Hare’s jugular:  her enormous Catholic guilt.

I got it.  I went for it.

It went something like this:

Part II:

To be continued….

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