“He wouldn’t do that to me. There must be a mistake!”
“He did what? But he seemed like such a nice guy.”
“This can’t be happening. They were always so happy!”
The clueless wife whose husband was leading a double life. The neighbors who thought they were living next to a paragon of virtue, until he slaughtered his wife and children. The relatives and close friends who thought they were seeing a perfect marriage, right up to the minute the couple announced their impending divorce.
It’s a common theme in fiction because it happens all the time in real life. Humans have an extraordinary capacity for blinding ourselves to the truth about others. Equally common is the rolling-eyes, How could they NOT know? reaction from people not directly involved. We can see that our good friend’s husband is a hound dog who chases anything remotely feminine, and we can’t understand why the wife doesn’t see the truth. In hindsight and from afar, we can all recognize the warning signs that handsome, charming Ted Bundy was very bad news indeed. We can spot all kinds of suspicious behavior when it isn’t up close and personal for us.
It’s happening right now with the Madoff family. In a new book (we knew they would turn their experience into a book, didn’t we?) Ruth Madoff and one of her sons say they had no idea Bernie was making millions by ripping off people who trusted him to invest their money. Listening to Mrs. Madoff on television, I found myself muttering, “Oh, please. How could you not know?” But of course the Madoffs are not unusual. In a similar situation, plenty of us would not spot the clues, not absorb the full meaning of what was happening. Madoff was a husband and father. His wife and sons were predisposed to turn a blind eye to anything suspicious.
Sometimes this brand of blindness is a conscious choice, because knowing might make us feel we have to do something about it.
In a poll of his students at the University of Texas, Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D., asked whether they would rather know the truth even if it made them miserable, or believe a lie that would allow them to remain happy. Happiness won, 58 to 42 percent. Sooner or later the truth may catch up with them – they might learn after a spouse’s death that he or she had a secret criminal life or a lover in every major city in the country – but while they can, the majority prefer to maintain the myth that everything is just fine.
That moment when the ugly truth comes out is the point where a novelist – especially a mystery writer – would choose to begin a story, because it’s a time of cataclysmic change. On the whole, writing or reading about it is a lot more fun than living it.
Which camp are you in?
If your spouse were cheating, would you want to know? (Okay, that’s extremely personal, and I’ll give you a pass if you prefer not to answer.)
If a dear friend committed a crime and got away with it, would you want to know? Taking it further, would you even consider turning him/her in?
If the guy next door is beating his wife and kids, but he’s not hurting anybody else, would you want to know what’s happening behind his closed doors?
Do you ever wish you could tune out the bad news that spews forth 24 hours a day from every corner of the globe and leaves you feeling helpless? Do you sometimes turn off the TV or put down the newspaper, walk away, and wipe it all from your mind?
How often do you think I just don’t want to know?