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I love the Beatles.  My first Beatles album listening experience came when I was 11 from a cassette tape recording of my parents’ Rubber Soul and Revolver albums.  I am not overstating things when I say that Rubber Soul changed my life.  To a sixth-grader whose radio options included Achey Breaky Heart and Boyz II Men, the Beatles pretty much blew my mind.  I was recently gifted the remastered Beatles box set that came out a few years ago, and I’ve been listening my way through albums that I know by heart but never had on compact disc, and I’ve made it to my old friend Rubber Soul.

There’s a song at the end of the album called, “Run For Your Life,” where John as the singer portrays a jealous man talking to his lover, telling her he would rather see her dead than with another man (see the lyrics here).  As a teenager, I saw it as a darkly sexy song that talks about violently passionate love without being actually threatening.  But after listening to it now, I read a bit about John Lennon and discovered that it was openly acknowledged that he was abusive towards women.  He admitted to hitting women and in one case he actually tried to strangle a woman he was dating.  I’m surprised I didn’t know it already because when I was young, I watched Beatles biographies and read books about them.  Maybe I did know but didn’t understand it back then the way I do now.  Either way, knowing this now taints my experience of the Beatles’ music or at least John’s contribution.  So back to “Run For Your Life.”  What used to be a darkly hyperbolic song becomes flat-out frightening because now it seems completely serious.  I imagine being his first wife listening to this and thinking, “This is a direct threat.”  It’s hard to learn something like that about someone you idolize.  Can you still respect them in the same way you used to?  Can I listen to John sing about peace and love and not scoff cynically, knowing how hypocritical his words seem?  What do you do when your hero proves a villain?

John Lennon isn’t the first hero to let me down.  Let’s talk about Thomas Jefferson.    If you are a regular reader, you know the Vicky A’s love our Founding Fathers, and we particularly love ourselves some TJ the Red, but wow, that guy was…complicated.  There are some flat out wonderful and incredible things about Jefferson, but there are also some not so cool ones, and one downright villainous one.  We now have pretty solid genetic evidence that Jefferson did father children with Sally Hemings, his slave.  To me, that relationship in itself is not villainy.  Historians generally believe that it was consensual [1] (though I’m not entirely sure what could ever truly be “consensual” in a master-slave relationship), and one can imagine that perhaps they truly shared a deep affection or even love for one another.  The bad part, in my opinion, comes as a one-two punch.  One, Hemings bears a half-dozen obviously mixed race children that are generally acknowledged to look like Jefferson, and the man keeps them on his books as slaves.  Two, he does not free Hemings when he dies.  Contrast this with George Washington who not only freed all his slaves in his will, but he planned for the piece-meal sale of Mount Vernon with the money gifted to the former slaves to help them start their lives as free men and women [2].  Jefferson was a man who was gifted at the art of self-deception, and perhaps he was able to somehow compartmentalize things in his mind is such a way as to deny to himself that Heming’s children could also be his, but in my mind, that does not absolve him.

How about some Victorian villains?  Prepare to have your Christmas ruined, because Charles Dickens was kind of a schmuck – to his wife, at least.  After being married to her for 20-ish years, and after she gave him ten, yes TEN children, he left her for a pretty young actress the same age as his eldest daughter.  Leaving an older spouse for a younger lover isn’t that uncommon, but then Dickens released public statements about his separation claiming that his wife was an “unloving and unloved mother.”  He was known to criticize her appearance and mental abilities in letters to friends, and despite blaming her for the fact that they had way more kids than he wanted, he kept custody of all but the oldest when they separated leaving her sad and alone.  Nice one, Ebenezer.

See also my confused relationship with the great Jack London who was a spell-binding writer and inspiring adventurer but also a philandering white supremacist.

So what is a girl to do when she finds out a person she admires and respects did, said, or believed some pretty heinous things?  In some cases, we can explain (though not really excuse) behavior as a product of the times in which the person lived.  We are perhaps unfairly tougher on Jefferson than all the other slave owners of the period who also fathered children with slaves simply because we expect more of him, the author of our Declaration of Independence.  And we can acknowledge that falling out of love with a spouse happens all the time, often to otherwise kind, loving people, and the emotion and pain that go along with separation can lead to people saying or doing things that are out of character and surprisingly unloving.  Then there are things, like physical abuse, that there can be no excuse for.

But in the end, we cannot know what our fallen heroes felt, suffered, or endured.  While we can condemn the acts, we should not judge the actors.  We should know better than to put too much faith into any human, as we are all flawed in our own ways.  I think it is possible to admire and respect these men while simultaneously acknowledging their capacity for villainy – a capacity we all have given the right circumstances and triggers.

What do you think?  Are there some crimes that are unforgivable in even the greatest of men and women?  Are we naive to expect perfection from fallible humans?

[1] Ellis, Joseph.  American Sphinx.

[2] Ellis, Joseph. Founding Brothers.

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