“The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbors, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”
- Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.
I recommend reading the story, if you hadn’t before.
This is a quote that I often use when people ask me why I say that blood is water-soluble, or why I say that I’d detest having a nice house in suburbia. Though right now, in contrast to Mr. Holmes, there are few people who don’t know the law, there is a huge amount of those who simply do not care, and who use the power of appearances to further their own misdeeds, with no one being the wiser because of said appearances.
Let’s acknowledge unpleasant truths, folks. The first we should acknowledge is that appearances are very deceiving. The second is that they have power. And the third is that the more of a “good” image someone presents, the more likely it is that that person is going to be overlooked in a situation, not given a second thought, because the people around him or her will automatically make the assumption that they’re a geniunely good person and have nothing to fear from them.
Few things are further from the truth of that last, but think on this: if a person was geniunely good, do they need to parade it? Do they need to show off? Do they ever need to justify the assumptions of the public? Do they need to always appear to be put-together, perfect, going to the right locations and saying all the right things?
Which is why I’m always suspicious when something or someone looks a little too polished, a little too good, a little too flawless, and puts on a little too much of a facade of being sweet and charming. It always tips me off that there’s something rotten underneath.
“That’s so negative!” is something I always hear when I explain the above, but I’ve maybe been wrong twice or three times in that assessment.
This is why whenever I see advice columns where the letter writer is wondering why their adult children want absolutely nothing to do with them, I nearly always end up laughing at the letter. They’re all almost formulaic: “I’m a good person, I have a nice house, I gave my children a great education and life, I have no idea why they don’t want to talk to me!” Here’s a guess: it’s very likely you were not such a good person as you advertise in the letter. You were likely treating them like crap and turning it all around to be about you, and making yourself feel good at your children’s expense, so you can pat yourself on the back about being a great parent, unaware of or most likely just not giving a shit about what damage you were inflicting on your own kids’ psyches.
Let’s acknowledge another unpleasant truth: absolutely no one decides to cut contact with someone out of nowhere. That just simply is not the way these things work. No person just wakes up one day and says, “Gee, the birds are singing, the sun is shining, I’ll just go and cut off all contact with my parents now.” No. That’s not the way it works. It is always with a reason. Whatever the reason may be, whatever the other side’s opinion of the reason is, there is always a reason, and to the person doing the severing, that reason is a damned good one.
Let’s also acknowledge this: we’re by no means required to tolerate shitty behavior from people, regardless of whether or not they happen to be blood relatives. Toxic people come in all shapes and sizes, and none of us are under any obligation to tolerate their toxicity. And if we wouldn’t take toxic behavior from people not related to us, then why are we obligated to take it from people who happen to share DNA?
So many times, when we think that we’re just being nice and helping someone, the other side will gleefully take this to mean that your niceness means they can push you to do more for them, regardless of which way that may be, and before you know it, that’s exactly where you are: being used. And of course, when you get angry with them, you’re the irrational one. When you point out you don’t like being used, you’re the bad guy. When you point out a flaw in their reasoning, you’re the one who’s not on their side. Because none of this is about you helping them or being a good person, but it’s about them getting what they want out of you. And when you decide to stop being the source of their satisfaction at your expense, they’ll have no idea why you don’t want to talk to them anymore.
Parents who fuck up their children with impunity are nearly always the ones who end up wondering why their kids don’t want to talk to them anymore. Not once does it occur to them that they very well deserve their kids cutting them off, and no one on the outside ever thinks that the kids may be right.
Because, everywhere in the global society, parenthood is regarded as the ultimate social sacred cow. If a woman is a mother, or pregnant, she is so much more likely to get showered with all sorts of social assistance if she so needs it, and to get all of the social acknowledgments, perks, accolades, what-have-you. A father is more likely to get a promotion at work because, of course, he has a family to provide for, never mind of his actual job performance. And absolutely no one around the parents will ever stop to think that gee, they are just really likely not well-suited for parenthood. No one ever thinks that – not even when there’s a news story about how Joe and Jane Smith’s kid, Lil’ Joe, ran away from home and someone found him all bruised up in the park. And he suddenly clams up and doesn’t say anything when Mom or Dad picks him up. People will, without fail, look at the parents, see that Joe and Jane Smith live in a nice neighborhood, are educated, and go to church every Sunday. And, inevitably, they will conclude, “Lil’ Joe must’ve done something or got into a fight with his little friends.”
Such is the power of appearances.
In this case, Lil’ Joe’s only fault is being born to abusive parents. But of course, who will believe him? Mommy and Daddy both go to church and present themselves as “nice people” to everyone around them, who in the world would suspect that inside the nice house, it’s a completely different environment? Who would believe Lil’ Joe?
See what I mean? Power of appearances. No one ever suspects the people who present themselves in all the “right” ways.
Now, let’s come back to the Sherlock Holmes story. If you hadn’t read it, I will go ahead and give you a quick summary. A well-respectable man, Jephro Rucastle, had hired a Ms. Violet Hunter to be a nanny, and had some seemingly eccentric requirements of Ms. Hunter for her employment, and the pay was a little too good to be true. Violet Hunter came to Sherlock Holmes after she had observed that several things about her job were amiss. Come to discover, she was hired to unwittingly impersonate Alice Rucastle, her boss’s daughter, whom he was keeping locked up in the attic for reasons more or less financial. And no one at all would’ve had any idea, because Violet Hunter resembled Alice Rucastle well enough to fool most outsiders, and Jephro Rucastle himself was an amicable, wealthy, and presentable gentleman.
A gentleman hiding the fact that he’s a complete scumbag, but what else is new.
The point of this story, as well as multiple other stories within the Sherlock Holmes collection, teach an important lesson that people to this day fail to grasp: just because someone is blood family and presents themselves well has absolutely no indication on the quality of their character.
It’s something that pretty much everyone who was not a family abuse victim or has never known a family abuse victim cannot wrap their minds around. These are the people who bleat, “But it’s your family!“, completely failing to comprehend that by encouraging “reconciliation” (I use quotations with reason), they’re actually supporting putting people directly into the very situation that they are trying to escape. Parenthood is not a sacred cow capable of superseding base psychology. If someone’s not a good person, that will not change, no matter how they present themselves.
There’s a saying I’m fond of in these situations: if an alcoholic is rehabilitated and doesn’t take another drink, it’s simply because he hadn’t lived long enough. People don’t change unless they know it benefits them directly to do so. That’s something that is incredibly difficult to accept, and the blatant disregard of that simple tenet of life I see very clearly in nearly every relationship where one party thinks the other will change for them. People delude themselves every day into thinking that if someone is not a good person, they can be “rehabilitated” by relationships, marriage, children, etc.
That. Never. Works.
And the end result is, more than likely, disillusionment, tears, disappointment, endless “But I thought…” moments, and oftentimes, some years down the line, a letter to an advice columnist, wondering why the grown children won’t talk to their parents anymore.
Remember: you can have a book with the prettiest possible cover, with the worst possible content underneath. There’s a reason the old call to not judge a book by its cover exists. Take that to mind, folks.