Pretty faces

Pretty faces – interpreting behavior

harry Stein

THE FIRST INDICATION OF WHAT WAS AFOOT CAME IN THE OPENING moments of jury selection. The chief lawyer for William Kennedy Smith (as he was originally referred to in the press; in the family he was always “Willie”) introduced his client to a schoolmarmish prospective juror as “Will.”

And so Will it would continue to be over the following weeks and months. Will–as solid a name as one is likely to run across in these smarmy, will-o’-the’wisp times. Will Rogers. Will Scarlet. George Will. Men with abiding respect for history and tradition–responsible men; men acutely aware of the link between actions and consequences. As opposed to, say…Willie Horton.

The state’s prosecutor–the grim, monotonal Moira Lasch–immediately knew what was up. Objecting at the first possible opportunity, she asked that the defendant be referred to as “Mr. Smith.” Objection overruled.

Not that it would have made much difference. By then, the refashioning of Willie Smith was already well under way. Lash couldn’t very well prevent his showing up in court in autumnal yellows and greens and the sort of clunky brown shoes one normally associates with braces and pen guards–as far from a “power look” as you can get. Or from arriving each day in a 12-year-old station wagon; or, when the station wagon refused to start, keep him from flashing his “aw shucks” grin and calling to the assembled press, “Anyone got jumper cables?”

The arrogant and rapacious super-yuppie we had come to expect–a man said to believe he could buy his way out of anything–had turned up a pleasant, ineffectual nerd.

The capper probably came three days into jury selection when a Kennedy spokesperson (a woman, natch) made it known that, try as they might, no one at the family compound had been able to figure out how to hook up their computers. So now Will was calling around pricing rental typewriters.

Following the case from a distance, many outsiders will be astonished at how readily the strategy seemed to take. Most prospective jurors appeared to like young Will Smith. One could hardly blame the long-suffering Lasch for regarding it all as shameless.

Then again, sitting in the courtroom, I found it was no mystery at all. Attentive, possessed of a remarkably quick grin, self-deprecatory as any Horatio Alger hero (and just as eager with a comforting hand to the elbow of his aging mother–a solitary figure in the row behind), Smith’s very bearing cast instant doubt on the likelihood that he had committed the heinous crime that was alleged.

All of which gets us to the subject I want to kick around here: self-presentation. The ways that almost all of us, to one degree or another, tailor our behavior to meet particular needs–emphasizing certain aspects of ourselves while doing our damnedest to obscure others.

There are, of course, some who will vehemently deny it. They are wont to disavow dishonesty of any kind as toxic, insisting that in a culture where vast industries–fashion, cosmetics, everything having to do with sports cars–flourish by idealizing image over substance, there is salvation only in distancing oneself from superficiality and artifice. Lots of actors and musicians in particular have lately been mining this lode, and we tend to admire them for it–almost as much as they seem to admire themselves.

Yet it is no coincidence that these same people so often wind up in places like People magazine revealing some whopper of a personal failing. To be human, as they at last acknowledge, is to screw up. What they never admit is that, like most of the rest of us, they were salesmen for themselves from the start–it’s just that what they’re selling has shifted with circumstances.

AS IT HAPPENS, I MYSELF AM SOMETHING OF A PRO IN the honesty-for-consumption business–one of those people to whom it is hugely important to come off as amusingly guileless and lacking all skill at pretense. In fact, sitting in that courtroom got me thinking how much trouble I’d be in if ever called upon to project injured innocence in court; how, lacking the appropriate advisers, my dress would come off as too nerdy and my grin transparently insincere; and (since I do this with my wife anyway–I truly can’t help myself) how I’d always smirk when I ought to look contrite.

But you know what? The preceeding paragraph, accurate as it is in incidental detail, is itself a pose–both in its characterization of how I’d behave in court (if God forbid it ever really came to that, I’d have my lawyer’s instructions tattooed on the back of my hand) and the tone I struck in writing about it. For the real truth–should you, after all this, choose to accept it–is that in my case, like most everyone else’s, there exists a real self lurking just behind the projected self: endlessly assessing, weighing, calculating.

I would certainly not claim that my stance is anything but a mixed bag. The truth is, over the years I’ve often regretted the opportunities I’ve blown by not kowtowing to various influential sorts who expect to be kowtowed to. On the other hand, I am acutely aware that even that ostensible down side reflects wonderfully on me; and have, if I’ve scratched deep enough, usually found ways to imagine that even those who have trounced me financially somehow respect my integrity. Then, too, before I was married, it always worked great with women.

That’s the way it happens for most of us: The pose, our means of meeting those needs that are most persistent and real, eventually becomes pretty much who we are.

The key is always being at least somewhat aware of what we’re after. Bullshitting the world is one thing; doing it to ourselves is quite another. For it is hardly news that we find ourselves in an age of unprecedented insecurity–a time when, in epidemic numbers, we base our aspirations on models imposed from without. Inattentive to who we fundamentally are, we strive to become who we’re supposed to be.

Often we make it, of course, but that kind of success rarely passes for fulfillment. A sharp observer can spot an extreme case in seconds–the tone too urgent, the laughter too forced, anxiety always lurking as a subtext. The French, who certainly know more about false fronts than anyone, naturally have a term for it: mal a l’aise dans sa peau–ill at ease in one’s skin.

The syndrome cuts across societal lines, across generations. But there is little question that women have gotten as rotten a deal in this regard as anyone. Indeed, it is an enduring irony that, for all the women’s movement’s remarkable achievements, the failure to realize its perhaps most ambitious goal has left countless women in a harrowing bind. For where the initial intention (one embraced by many of us men also) was to feminize the workplace, in practice it has almost always been women who have had to change to fit in. Long before the storm over sexual harassment broke to hammer the point home, there existed the melancholy reality that, in their crucial self-presentation, many women have felt obliged to mute crucial aspects of themselves–not just their sexuality, but their conventional style, their brand of humor, their very emotional range. And often, they have had to replace them with assumed personae that are the opposite of natural.

“Right out of law school I joined a big, prestigious firm,” notes a female acquantance of mine, now the mother of two young children. “And for ten years I wore a mask that said ‘I am serious, don’t mess with me.'” She smiles. “The irony is, I think I became far more effective when I finally took it off.”

Which, in a roundabout way, bring us back to Palm Beach. For the most tightly wound character in the courtroom day after day seemed not to be the defendant, but his nemesis across the aisle. In striking contrast to Smith’s chief attorney, Roy Black–all easygoing sincerity; Abe Lincoln at $400 an hour–Moira Lasch was a Grant Wood portrait in a dress-for-success unit: brittle and forbiddingly chilly. So much so that many of us who identified her with the side of the angels soon began to wonder about how such a demeanor would play with jurors.

This is written before the start of testimony; by reputation, Lasch is a gifted prosecutor and could yet win. If so (and, given the current state of the collective attention span, perhaps even if not) such questions will soon be moot.

But for me, watching up close, one episode early in the jury-selection process will remain fixed in my mind. A 78-year-old prospective juror named Florence Orbach, as seemingly comfortable in her skin as anyone any of us will meet, had barely finished entertaining the court with her outspoken views on the fabled Kennedy libidor when Lasch publicly characterized her as “borderline incompetent.”

What set her off? Evidently it was a casual remark–intended as a piece of grandmotherly advice–that Mrs. Orbach tossed the prosecutor’s way en route from the courtroom: “You should smile. You have a pretty face.”

COPYRIGHT 1992 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group