How a Facade of Normality Can Fool Us

The recent arrest of Philip Markoff, the accused Craigslist Killer, shakes us up because it is an example of a facade of normality covering an action of evil. It takes the idiom, ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ to the extreme.

I wonder how, if the accusations prove to be true, his current fiancée will ever trust her own judgment again. In the face of mass betrayal, we question our judgment of good and evil, of character, of others, of the world, and subsequently, of ourselves.

The case raises two issues for me: 1. How do we learn to trust ourselves, and 2. The stories we tell that shape this trust.

I grew up in the 50s at a time when the face of suburban normality reigned. Beneath the surface of many ‘perfect-looking’ families of the 50s were the typical emotional ups and downs of life, but such emotions besmirch the image of perfection so they were often kept behind closed doors. Hiding an inner turmoil (no matter how big or small) with an outer face of ‘perfection’ creates a dissonance that ultimately requires resolution; in the Markoff case it may be resolved through arrest, but for many of us resolution is achieved through changing behavior, therapy, self-help, 12 step programs, etc.

When you become aware of such ‘dissonance’ in your life and take steps to create greater coherence of inward and outward worlds, you may develop a heightened sensitivity to areas of greatest dissonance. For me, it is those who seem a bit too ‘perfect’ (sort of like the recovered smoker who can smell a cigarette miles away).

I recently spent the day with a person who seems to have it all together – beauty, wealth, inner happiness, outward success – and it triggered a ‘red flag’ regarding this person’s authenticity. I found myself looking for evidence in his thoughts, words and actions, to support the thesis that underneath his external perfection, there was a human full of faults just like me. Of course under a microscope, tiny hairs look like tree trunks. (I remember hearing how Ed Begley Jr. – perhaps the most authentic environmentalist around – is criticized as a hypocrite for any minor deviation to perfection).

This led me to #2 above, the stories we tell. The story or standard we set creates the environmental backdrop for how we judge those around us. My colleague paints a story of perfection so I raise the standard for his behavior to coincide with the story. Any minor deviation now becomes a massive sign of inauthenticity. I’ve set their standard so high, they must fail to achieve it. It is similar to our hindsight search for human faults among those who achieve heightened states of consciousness, like Christ, Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama. To accept our own human nature, let us find elements of it in those of us who seemingly transcend it.

In the pristine world of perfection, a tiny blemish appears monumental; in the acne-filled sludge of the dark side of human nature, a tiny blemish is undetectable. Human nature is both pristine and sludge and it helps to keep them both in mind.

The recent film the Soloist helps make this point in a different way. Amidst the clamor and chaos of Skid Row, the homeless main character Mr. Ayers, is normal – healthy by degree. But placed amidst the ‘normality’ of a 4-walled apartment, his insanity rises from the mist. How wise Mr. Ayers is to know this about himself, to know his sanity rests in the environment within which it is viewed. In the Chaos of Skid-Row, his own sense of kindness and countenance are revealed.

From these examples, I learned a lot about Trust and the Stories we tell. It seems to me that we develop a sense of Trust in ourselves as we recognize our two sides of human nature – sludge-like and pristine – and that they are part of us all, no matter how big or small they may seem. Trust arises when you recognize both and repeatedly choose to act from one (pristine) and not the other (sludge). The Stories we tell shape the context within which we view these two sides of our human nature. It is important to recognize the changing context (stories) so that we never forget both sides, to prevent one side from becoming too large that it overwhelms us or too small that it is forgotten.