I watched disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong in his much hyped interview with Oprah Winfrey on her OWN network Thursday evening with great interest. Like disgraced track star Marion Jones, he’s one of those athletes who has admitted his wrongdoing and who I find incredibly compelling. As with Jones, who also owned up to using performance enhancing drugs, Armstrong admits to his personal flaws and to his sporting transgressions. In the case of both athletes, I find myself watching the fallout and listening to the commentary wondering how long the master narrative of public contempt against them is supposed to last. While I understand the disappointment that many feel towards these once athletic heroes whose admitted cheating comes as a tremendous blow, I usually end up feeling great sympathy for the wrongdoer because of the seemingly relentless, untempered venom directed their way. Perhaps I see the public displaying of their flaws as a peek behind the curtain upon the ugliness that most of us get to hide from view and believe that the self-righteousness of the contemptuous ignores these all too human limitations reflected by our fallen heroes. Perhaps. What I know for sure is that as I watched Armstrong on Oprah’s Next Chapter, I recognized how hard it was for me to look at him as I thought about how embarrassing and shameful it must be to admit, in such a public fashion, that you lied and cheated. As I watched, I considered the meaningfulness of those feelings of sympathy in an environment that seems to make little room for any human sentiment beyond reality show like mean-spiritedness and treachery.
Watching Armstrong testify to his own flaws reminded me so much of what it was like talking to my father once he was ready to accept responsibility for something that he had done wrong. There was always something rather hollow about the admission. It was the revelation of a truth without the parting of the sea; the earth didn’t move either. But in admitting he was wrong and that he had flaws, it was like he had served an ace. He hit a ball that could not be returned and as the recipient of the serve, I was just left standing there. I remember feeling powerless at the same time as he won the point. Though I was the recipient of the admission and the apology, it never felt like I had ever won anything. At the same time, I never felt manipulated by my father’s apologies. I knew that my father never lived with a clear conscience. He suffered from terrible nightmares over how he had hurt people. But even if he hadn’t, I never thought that I should feel guilty for offering him my sympathy and compassion given his tremendous need for mercy. Typically, I just wanted to move on from the whole scene, I wanted to get past the ugliness of it all.
I ended up being the only one of my father’s four daughters who spent what was to be his last, full living day with him before he died. He had invited his other three daughters over to spend the day with us as we had never all shared space together. I can’t remember why his five-year-old didn’t come over but his two next oldest daughters had initially agreed to come; ultimately, they changed their plans because they said they had to attend church services. When my father told me this, I expressed to my mother what a mistake they seemed to be making. Though I didn’t know that it would be my father’s last full day, I knew that he was dying. “When your father is dying of cancer and asks you to stop by,” I said to my mother, “I think you should show up” as there might be deep regret for not doing so were he to die. Eventually, his two daughters did not come to his funeral. I thought this was more of the drama that I had seen from them and experienced through my father’s final stories about his previous meetings with them. Meaningful venom, it seemed to me, would have kept them estranged from him. Their repeated attempts to hold him hostage to the inadequacies of the reasons he tried to give them for why he stayed out of their lives for so long just seemed pointless. “If no answer will suffice,” I thought, “what is the point of repeatedly asking the same question?” They seemed to have drawn their own conclusions regarding the questions they posed to him so I wondered why those answers weren’t good enough. It all just seemed needlessly dramatic to me.
Though I certainly held an opinion about the decisions my father’s daughters had made, at the same time I believed that they had the right to whatever their relationship was with our father. I don’t know that I would have cared about their relationship one way or the other had it not impacted me; and it did. My father had expressed to me that he wanted to be cremated, but because he did not have a will, the three of us needed to authorize the process. One of his daughters was quite reluctant to consent. According to my stepmother, her oldest daughter’s faith did not support cremation. I was nearly furious when she told me this. Whatever her faith, this was a young woman who seemed to feel no deep sense of commitment to our father so why should she bring her faith into the decision regarding what would happen to him. In the end, she consented but I wonder now about the ways that an unwillingness to think through the consequences of bottomless contempt and endless rage as expressed in the public venom shown former heroes might be comparable to the personal drama that I experienced with my father’s daughters when he passed. My father’s daughters’ fury became my problem and it shouldn’t have. I had nothing to do with whatever harm he had caused them. My father’s daughters were too righteous about their fury to empathize with how I might have felt. I wonder if the public fury that we watch played out against cultural heroes has similar costs. As a culture, do innocent people suffer from the seemingly boundless rage of those who feel victimized?
As I watched Lance Armstrong repeatedly assert how sorry he was for his lies, I didn’t feel very optimistic about his apologies being well-received. People don’t like the powerless feeling that comes from being the recipient of the ace, the un-returnable serve that an apology oftentimes streaks right past you. The stories that seem to get told in popular culture regarding being a victim and then the recipient of an apology requires an intransigent commitment to holding on to anger and contempt as the victim’s duty. Over the course of the next several months, I expect to hear many, many stories of people’s attempts to sue Armstrong. They’ll talk about all of the pain and suffering he has caused them and their lawyers will explain their efforts to sue him as an attempt to receive justice. Justice, once again, will eclipse any hope of mercy.