“Wonderful woman. Horrible children,” I overheard as I was leaving a store, right behind two ladies who were discussing a third. It delayed my exit, in fact, as I didn’t want to break out laughing and cause them to turn and stare at me.
But the statement simply seemed so perfect, so apt, so encapsulating of conversations I’d heard before—the plight of some poor parent or couple who had tried and tried, but in the end just couldn’t do a thing with them.
While these women walked on, ignorant of the pleasure they’d just given me, I plotted out the rest of their talk. I fancy myself an amateur discourse analyst, someone who likes to predict the next thing that will be said in a given conversation. It’s a fascinating branch of linguistics—layers of implicature and cooperation and signal-giving—that I studied in graduate school. I know just enough about it to be dangerous.
In this instance, I suspect that the next thing the women spoke of was the particular efforts that this lady had undertaken to help her children turn out right—all of her attempts to engage them in clubs, camps, sports, church, and her support in all the endeavors that they embarked on. She had undoubtedly done everything she could, being a den mother, a PTA leader, and an activity sponsor. Counseling was tried; special coaches were employed; nothing worked.
A digression could have taken place at some point—an aside about how her husband had done what he could too, or conversely, how he hadn’t been any help.
Before that or after, they might have discussed what degree of promise the children had shown early on. Predictably, they had been little angels. Although at this point, one of them might interject just the opposite: She hadn’t been surprised at the turn of events—as from the very start the whole lot had been mean as the devil.
In fact, tracing back to causes is a favorite in this type of conversation. The women likely turned in wonder to determine the exact point in time when it first started to go wrong. Was it too much lenience over this thing, or not enough lenience in that? Had she in frustration allowed the children to hang around with the wrong kind of people and do the wrong kinds of things?
The conversation could also trot out the litany of offenses the children had visited on their parents—the most egregious standing in proportion to the level of outrageousness and/or ingratitude (a combination of the two being powerful enough to summon an exaltation of sighs, a volley of headshakes).
The dialogue likely ended on a grim note: What would become of these children? X horror, or Y scandal, or Z disgrace and how such a thing would be liable to put one or both parents in the grave.
But underneath this dialogue lay one unspoken assertion: The sad outcome was not the mother’s fault, though she would likely suffer that final injustice in the public forum.
A lot of these responses turn on the circumstances of the conversants. Context is everything. Whether the people are old or young, men or women, of means or no means, matters a great deal, as does ethnicity and religion and geographical location. Each is a determinant, reflecting a part of the speakers’ culture.
The two women I overheard were middle aged, middle class, and Southern. Their conversations can become so familiar to the speakers, from having heard similar exchanges before, that participation is like taking a role in a script: Now I say this, right after she says that.
The analyst must be able to decipher the layers; you have to be an insider to make sense of it. But after the analysis is complete, it seems to me that there’s an unspoken truth that motivates the impetus to talk in such a way.
It’s a motivation that crosses all lines—color, race, religion, class, and locale: When we speak of others, we are speaking of ourselves at the same time. We defend what we would do, and we champion what we would not.
These ladies were protective of the wonderful woman with the horrible children. Because they had taken the same measures as their friend, they would want such a defense put forward for them—that they too had tried and tried—just in case their doppelgangers were out there somewhere speaking of them and their own savage spawn.
Particularly in such conversations (though arguably in every conversation) we are the indirect object, the silent phantom of whom we speak. It’s not uncommon for a person to checkout of any exchange, to unhinge the focus so that the dialogue turns within oneself, though spoken in reference to another.
We talk of Mary or John, but they act as proxies—giving us courage to fight, letting us off the hook, or not: She did all that she dared to do (and so did I). His conscience is clear (and so is mine).
This is always treacherous footing though, because honesty is not our forte, and what we say directly about our object and indirectly about ourselves may be a defense wholly disassociated from the truth.
Words reveal us to each other, yes, but to ourselves most of all; and in both cases, only to the extent that we’re objective.
Note how much of any discourse in which you’re engaged applies to you, and how much you gauge the words against yourself. How fast the proposition becomes a tacit benchmark for proper behavior; how often she did all she could translates into a confirmation of our own deeds—and I am guiltless, too—rather than an honest inquisition: What have I done?
A.G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.