In 1961, when astronaut Gus Grissom tried to avoid responsibility for losing his spacecraft, he said, "the hatch just blew." Or so Tom Wolfe reports in "The Right Stuff" (1979), which four years later became a great movie.
That was an unusual statement 46 years ago, but now we regularly see folks avoiding responsibility by saying, "mistakes were made." For example, Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho just blew. It wasn't really his responsibility. He was "troubled." He "had issues." Maybe it was President Bush's fault, as Rep. Jim Moran charged.
I mention this not to bring back nightmares but to contexualize the important observations British psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple makes in his tough-minded book, "Life at the Bottom." That book was 49,631st on Amazon's sales list last time I looked, but it should be at the top of the reading list for all who hope to minister to many among the imprisoned and the "underclass" generally.
Dalrymple writes, "Listening as I do every day to the accounts people give of their lives, I am struck by the very small part in them which they ascribe to their own efforts, choices, and actions. They describe themselves as marionettes of helplessness."
He gives examples. One killer said of the murder he committed, "the knife went in," as if he had nothing to do with it. A thief who broke into churches, stole their silver objects, and then burned them down to destroy the evidence, said the problem was that churches had poor security and valuable objects: The combination was impossible to resist. Another troubled person said, "My head needs sorting out."
Members of the underclass frequently plead the innocence of inevitability, but so do those in the upper class. When C.S. Lewis spoke in 1944 to university students who were on the way to becoming England's leaders, he said, "To nine out of 10 of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear."
Lewis noted that the invitation to do wrong would come in a way hard to turn down -- "Over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still -- just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naif or a prig -- the hint will come."
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