Lately, it seems like every day the news breaks that another powerful person in Hollywood or the US government has allegedly exploited his position to abuse, harass, and/or attack one or more junior or less-powerful colleagues or citizens (e.g., Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey, George H. W. Bush, etc.).
In the wake of these non-stop allegations, there’s a meme making the rounds on social media that almost made my heart stop. It shows a photo of Tom Hanks, with a news headline: “Another Woman Comes Forward to Accuse Tom Hanks of Being a Nice Guy.”
Did your heart skip a beat as you began to read that faux headline? Mine did, and my mind began to race: Noooo! Not Tom Hanks! Is there anyone good left in the world? Oh, wait. It’s a joke. Whew.
The meme reminded me, though, of the many times I’ve been disappointed when I learned more about many of my favorite authors, musical artists, etc. When you’ve repeatedly found solace or advice in someone’s books, songs, or rhetoric, it can sometimes be upsetting to learn that s/he is just as morally flawed as the rest of us (or more so?!). And yes, perhaps the artist or leader is wise and helpful because of those very flaws and the lessons s/he has learned from them…
But sometimes you just want a hero, you know? Someone steady and good and wise, someone to admire and aspire to. Someone with no violent skeletons in the closet, someone who hasn’t humiliated or exploited another, and someone who is solid gold, not silver plate. Or just someone without gross hypocrisy, you know? But maybe this is too high a standard.
For example, I recently read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as part of my literary Advent calendar. Dickens was a moral compass of Victorian England. His stories trumpeted the value of honesty, hard work, and charity, among other virtues.
So I was surprised to read, recently, that Dickens kept a mistress for decades (I can’t find the link now, of course, but just Google “Nelly Ternan” for some sources). After his wife bore him several children, family life began to bore Dickens, and he found diversion and companionship in a young actress 27 years his junior. The mistress was kept very secretly, because Dickens knew that his whole career would crumble if the news got out.
And you don’t have to dig deeply to find dirt on other favorite authors. Hemingway left his first wife, Hadley, just as his career began to take off, after she had stuck by him and supported him (emotionally, financially, and domestically) for many poverty-stricken years. Author Joyce Maynard relates a creepy, strange relationship with a much older J.D. Salinger in her memoir At Home in the World. There’s strong evidence that Fitzgerald stole from and suppressed the art of his wife, Zelda. It’s been reported that Faulkner once cruelly told his daughter that “No one remembers Shakespeare’s children.” (But I’ve never liked Faulkner. He seems like an ass. Didn’t Faulkner pretend to have a war wound? Or was that Hemingway?) These are just a few examples of the many shady things these authors have done in servitude to fame, success, and/or alcoholism.
So I try to tread carefully now when it comes to learning more about my heroes. I read a Tom Petty biography a few weeks ago, eager for more of Petty after his sudden death. Well, perhaps “read” is a strong word. I only skimmed the book quickly, because after the first few chapters I 1) became bored with the many dull business details of a long commercial music career, and 2) began to fear that I would learn something about Petty that might make me like him less.
I don’t recall any great personal or moral failings in the Petty biography, but maybe I just missed them in my haste and fear? He kicked a heroin addiction, but that’s a good thing in my book. The long details about contract negotiations and business meetings did threaten to take some of the magic out the music for me, however, so I flitted through them.
I just want to imagine Petty jamming out in a garage with his band, or writing poetry in a ragged spiral notebook while strumming a guitar, maybe with bare feet and his long, lank hair hanging in his face…not Petty arguing with bandmates or meeting with record executives. Yes, I want to know more about Tom Petty, which is why I read the book, but please spare me the gory details.
It’s not realistic or fair, but sometimes I just want magic, purity, and divinity.
So, a warning: When you scratch away the surface, be prepared for what you might find.
Have you ever found out something about a hero that disappointed you, or made you like them less?