What with stories of a young Mitt Romney and a young Barack Obama emerging last week, I have found myself reliving my adolescent years. Apparently Romney, at 18, emulated Jack in Lord of the Flies as he led a gang of boys to cut off the hair of a fellow student at Cranbrook. Meanwhile Obama, at 22, wrote reflections on T. S. Eliot Wasteland in letters to a girlfriend.
Guess which one of the two I identified with the most. Only in my love letters to Julia, it was “Prufrock” and “The Hollow Men.”
Before this post is done, I’ll get Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock into the discussion as well. Obama and Eliot, however, will have to wait for later in the week as I focus today on the Romney incident.
In case you missed the story, here is the Post’s account:
Mitt Romney returned from a three-week spring break in 1965 to resume his studies as a high school senior at the prestigious Cranbrook School. Back on the handsome campus, studded with Tudor brick buildings and manicured fields, he spotted something he thought did not belong at a school where the boys wore ties and carried briefcases.John Lauber, a soft-spoken new student one year behind Romney, was perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality. Now he was walking around the all-boys school with bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye, and Romney wasn’t having it.
“He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann’s recollection. Mitt, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber’s look, Friedemann recalled.
A few days later, Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.
The story hit me in the gut because, having been a small and bookish student myself in my adolescent years (my sixth grade teacher once called me a sissy), I identified with Lauber. I too was the target of bullies in seventh grade and of hazing in ninth. But as I reflect on what Romney did, it doesn’t sound like he was a Jack, who as I recall is supremely self-assured. Nor does it sound, as some have argued, that Romney suffered from an empathy gap or that he was homophoboic—at least not any more homophobic than most adolescent boys.
The explanation that rings truest to me is that of Edmund White in a New Yorker piece. White, who attended Cranbrook seven years after Romney, believes that insecurity was at play. In White’s account Romney, who feared being marginalized himself, turned on someone else who was on the periphery in an effort to fit in. Here’s what White has to say:
Romney was not a good student nor was he athletic; he was the manager of one of the school teams, a sort of default position for boys who wanted to be athletic and cool and popular—a water boy, in essence. He was considered a class clown, always up to rather cruel pranks. I can picture his situation, though it’s only speculation on my part (I’ve never known any of his friends, though one of his older brothers was a classmate). On the one hand he had an embarrassingly famous father, the governor of Michigan, whom he idolized as the youngest child. On the other he was the sole Mormon, a member of what was definitely seen as a creepy, stigmatized cult in that world of bland Episcopalian Wasps (we had Episcopalian services at chapel three mornings a week). When his father was president of American Motors, he lived at home and was a day student, an envied status. When his father was elected governor and moved to the state capital of Lansing, he became a boarder. Suddenly he was surrounded by other Cranbrook students and the strict “masters,” 24/7. He no longer had the constant support of his tight-knit family. Now he had to win approval from the other boys.
No wonder he became a daring and even violent prankster. He who worried about his own marginal status couldn’t bear the presence of an unapologetic sissy like Lauber, with his long bleached hair (the Mormons, then as now, have insisted on a neat, traditional, conservative appearance, especially in their young missionary men whom they send out all over the world). In scorning and shearing a sissy student and leading a gang of five other boys in this “prank,” Romney may have felt popular and in the right for the first time. According to one of Romney’s repentant accomplices, Lauber was terrified, weeping and begging for help.
Does this have implications for the Romney who is running for president of the United States? For me, it puts a disturbing slant on his attempts to rally the resentful middle class to his side by saying that he doesn’t care about the poor. (This is a version of Ronald Reagan scapegoating black welfare queens.) It puts a disturbing slant on his accusations that Barack Obama, who looks like no previous president, “doesn’t understand America.” It puts a disturbing slant on his willingness to say anything and take any position to convince the people with the power (which, as far as the Republican primaries have been concerned, are the rightwing conservatives) that he belongs in their club. (Of course, because he is a Mormon and a one-time moderate governor, some of them will never truly accept him—but that won’t keep him from trying.) If we see Romney as someone who strives too hard to please and who will attack others to win favor, we now have another story that confirms that pattern.
I can feel sorry for Romney when I think of him in these terms. But of course, I feel even more sorry for those who pay the price for his insecurities. If Romney is our next president and adopts anything close to a Paul Ryan budget that seeks to balance the budget by reducing funds to Medicaid, the food stamp program, and the child tax credit, then it won’t only be Lauber who will have experienced Romney’s cuts.
On to Rape of the Lock, a literary reference that I owe to the New Republic’s Timothy Noah. The Baron who cuts Belinda’s hair in what today we would call an act of sexual harassment is (as I read the poem) provoked by the way that she flaunts her invulnerability to his manly charms. He is a rake who defines himself by his many conquests and therefore feels his manhood threatened by Belinda’s rejection. In revenge for his humiliation, he humiliates her by cutting one of her two curls.
Belinda sees her hair as part of her essential identity, just as Lauber undoubtedly saw his as a means of expressing his sense of separateness. Envy is involved in both attacks–someone who seems as self-assured as Belinda or Lauber is an implicit judgment upon those who are insecure. One thinks one will feel better by dragging them down. Otherwise, all the efforts that have gone into building up one’s reputation, all one has done to fit in, are meaningless.
Human beings are strange animals. The problem arises when their strangeness causes them to damage others.