THE WEEK IN GREED #6: To Behave Like the Fallen World

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I remember we were standing around in the breezeway before fifth period social studies and this kid Jim walked up to a girl named Tammy and began saying a bunch of sexual stuff to her. Tammy wasn’t his girlfriend. She wasn’t pretty enough, or rich enough. But something in her manner turned him on and he was the sort of kid who granted himself the right to be sexually aggressive with girls, particularly girls who were socially vulnerable.

Jim wasn’t a jock or a charmer. His social manner was awkward and his voice was oddly high-pitched. But he was big and handsome enough and most of all he was rich and this gave him a sense of entitlement that the rest of us understood and accepted. I don’t remember what Jim said to Tammy exactly, but they’d done this kind of hostile flirting before, and so Tammy said something back to him and suddenly he grabbed at her breasts. She tried to knock his hands away and laughed, mostly, I can see now, to stave off her own panic.

I remember that Tammy had a friend named Jen, and that a friend of Jim’s reached for her boobs and that she yelled No as loud as she could. I can still see her pretty face, flushed with the sudden color of her terror, which was enough to get this kid to stop. Jim didn’t stop. He got behind Tammy and wrestled her to the ground and began to rub himself against her. I don’t know how long they were on the ground. Maybe it was just a few seconds. Maybe it was minute.

What I do remember is that he reached between her legs and grabbed her there and that he looked up at the rest of us who were standing just a few feet away, watching, doing nothing, and with a look of abject triumph he said, “Man, Tammy, you’ve got some big ass pussy lips.”

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He sexually assaulted her. That would be the simple legal description of what he did, though it was worse than that, because he didn’t just want to harm her. He wanted to humiliate her publicly. And he wanted us to take part, to bear witness, to watch and admire what he was man enough to do, and to hear him malign—in that eerie, effeminate voice of his—her intimate anatomy.

I wish I could report that I did a single thing, that I confronted Jim, that I comforted Tammy, that I told a teacher. But like the rest of the kids in fifth period social studies at Wilbur Junior High, I shuffled into class and sat at my desk and tried not to look at Tammy, who was trying desperately not to cry, or at Jenny, who was trying to comfort Tammy without drawing the attention of our teacher, who was trying to get us to give a shit about the Constitutional Convention.

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That’s how adolescence works. It’s a place of tremendous pain and recklessness, a place where you have to pretend not to care about anyone or anything too much because to do so would release the chaos of your actual self into the world. It’s a place where tyranny resides as much in circumstance as in character, a place where our shadow selves emerge: ugly, ferocious, lit up by shame.

I remember every single cruelty I endured and inflicted, teasing a disabled teacher behind her back, grappling with a classmate and ripping open the stitches on his head, weeping in fear and confusion at the kids who bullied me in metal shop. Adolescence scrawls its crimes on the heart.

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And thus we arrive at this, reported in the Washington Post:

In the spring of 1965, when Mitt Romney was a senior at an exclusive Michigan private school, he became obsessed with the unconventional haircut of another student, a soft-spoken younger boy named John Lauber who was routinely teased for being a suspected homosexual. “He can’t look like that,” Romney told a friend of his. “That’s wrong. Just look at him!”

A few days later Romney, who was at this point the son of the state’s governor, led a posse of fellow students in a physical assault on Lauber. They tackled him and pinned him to the ground. Lauber’s eyes filled with tears and he screamed for help as Romney hacked away at his hair with scissors. Romney then led the cheering mob back to his room.

The reason we know this happened is because five different friends of Romney who either witnessed or took part in the assault spoke to the Post about it, independently and on the record. Every single one of them expressed remorse.

“It happened very quickly, and to this day it troubles me … What a senseless, stupid, idiotic thing to do.”

“It was a hack job. It was vicious.”

“He was just easy pickins.”

One of Romney’s close friends recalled expecting some punishment to be meted out to the governor’s son. But nothing ever happened to him.

Lauber was later expelled from the school for smoking a cigarette.

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The Post also reported that Romney made degrading comments about another classmate he felt was effeminate, and orchestrated a “prank” in which he caused a nearly blind teacher to walk into a glass door.

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Romney’s response to the story has been two-fold. First, he said this:

“I’m not going to be too concerned about [the Post] piece. They talk about the fact that I played a lot of pranks in high school and they describe some that, well, you just say to yourself, back in high school I did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended obviously I apologize but overall high school years were a long time ago.”

He insisted that he didn’t remember the hair-cutting episode.

Then his campaign began scouring the candidate’s Rolodex for old friends who could vouch for what a jolly good fellow Romney was in high school. Because that’s what Romney does when he’s “not too concerned” about a major newspaper reporting that he was a vicious homophobe in high school.

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Romney performed public service in high school. He met his future wife. He was a poor athlete who collapsed near the finish line during a cross-country race, and later he became a cheerleader. He petitioned to be admitted into honors classes, after being denied. His cruelty to others seems to have derived from a compulsion to be popular. Do people ever really change?

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As I read about Romney’s adolescent exploits, I found myself thinking about Tobias Wolff’s sad and lovely novel, Old School. The narrator of that book is an insecure and manipulative scholarship student trying to pass at a fancy prep school, a kid who understands the prerogatives of wealth: “You felt it as a depth of ease in certain boys, their innate, affable assurance that they would not have to struggle for a place in the world; that is already reserved for them.”

But I don’t think Romney feels this way, not deep down. I think he has more in common with Wolff’s striving narrator, actually. By which I mean that he seems to display, as an adult, the same need to scheme and maneuver to get ahead. Like George W. Bush, he was an essentially frightened, unloved young man who came of age under tremendous pressure to live up to a famous father, who failed to distinguish himself as a scholar or an athlete and was relegated to the sidelines, whose desperate jocularity was shot through with a kind of unexamined sadism. Both men have forged a path to success via an alarming absence of self-reflection.

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I don’t mean to suggest that Romney is without compassion. I believe, for instance, that he loves his wife and his children, and that he believes in God and the flag. But there is something in his character that I am starting to get frightened about, an unwillingness, or an inability, to feel remorse, to simply own up to a moral failing, to apologize not just if “somebody was hurt” but because you know, deep down, that you hurt someone.

Think about it: here are these half dozen men who took part in a savage act nearly fifty years ago. It has haunted all of them. And the ringleader, the guy who made the plan and led the mob and cut the victim’s hair off remembers … nothing?

It’s just bullshit, total fucking sociopathic bullshit. And it makes me sad that such an episode comes to light and all Romney can do—a guy who wants to be elected to our highest office—is nervously lie and make excuses, as if this were political problem.         It’s not a political problem. It’s a moral problem. It’s a sin he committed for which any believer would seek atonement.

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John Lauber, the boy whose hair Romney would not tolerate, died of cancer some years ago. A fellow high school classmate happened to run into him in an airport before his death. The classmate apologized for not doing more to help him during the attack. Lauber paused, then spoke about how frightened he’d been during the incident. “It’s something I have thought about a lot since then,” he said.

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“It was the nature of literature,” Wolff writes, “to behave like the fallen world it contemplated, this dusky ground where subterfuge reigns and certainty is folly.”

It’s no coincidence that the one man willing to lie about his savagery as an adolescent is the one running for president. In a sense, the modern political system selects for this kind of moral amnesia.

But it matters. George W. Bush was a destructive president because he was a deluded man. He made bad policy because he lacked the empathy and humility to think about the human cost of those policies.

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Another way of saying all this would be for me to admit that, wherever else I might be in this world, I am also back there at Wilbur Junior High, standing in that breezeway before fifth period social studies as Jim walks up to Tammy and grabs her breast and tackles her to the ground and digs his hand between the legs of that poor girl and even now I’m doing nothing to stop him and I should have but I didn’t because I was too frightened and there is nothing I can do for the rest of my life that will undo that cowardice or the shame that any decent human being, in remembering such a thing, should feel.

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Steve Almond is the author of eight books, including Letters from People Who Hate Me. You can order his new collection of stories, "God Bless America," here. More from this author →