"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, July 27, 2015

It’s What You’re Born With That Counts

Elizabeth Flaherty had had a tough time of it as a child, abandoned before she was three, adopted by an order of Irish Catholic nuns who put her to work in the laundry as soon as she was old enough to stir the vats of dirty linen.  Only by a stroke of luck was she adopted by a rich family from Providence whose daughter had died from pneumonia and whose mother was so distraught that only the presence of a girl who resembled her beloved Victoria would dispel at least some of the grief she had felt for over two years.


    Magdalene Laundries, www.en.wikipedia.org

Victoria’s father had visited every one of the Catholic-run orphanages in New England to try to make the best match possible for his beloved daughter.  He had been initially concerned that if the adopted girl resembled Victoria too closely, the shock for his wife might send her into a further depressive state; but she insisted, and hearing her wailing night after night, he knew he had to do something.

The Radfords made a good home for Elizabeth and gave her all the love, attention, and privileges they had given to their own daughter.  After a year it was as though Victoria had never existed, so close was Elizabeth in beauty, poise, and temperament; and almost all traces of Mrs. Radford’s grief and depression had disappeared.

As much as Elizabeth looked and acted like the dead girl, she was as different from her as anyone could have been. While Victoria had been descended from one of the first families of Rhode Island and was closely related to the Browns, Mannings, Harrises of Providence; the Lodges of Boston; and the Cranes of Newport, Elizabeth Flaherty was the grandchild of an Irish immigrant who had only nearly escaped the gallows in County Cork for murder and rape.

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Elizabeth’s grandmother had grown up in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, was a prostitute and go-between for one of the most brutal gangs of the neighborhood – the Natives they called themselves to be distinguished from the Irish and Italian gangs who were claiming more and more territory from Americans who had been in the city for over 100 years.  In the late 30s she had been exiled to New Bedford but was happy not to have been thrown into the East River like so many girls who had stolen from the gang. As an attractive woman, she was quickly taken in by an Irish pimp and made her living on the docks and there had brief, poorly-paid, and rough sex with the man who was to be Elizabeth’s grandfather. 

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Elizabeth’s mother had been abandoned just as she had been, left on the docks for anyone of the longshoreman who might have been the father of her child to find; but knew that none of them would claim a baby and at best would take it to The Little Sisters of the Poor.

The ancestry of both sides of the family gets better in the next generation. Elizabeth’s mother made her way as a scullery maid in a bakery, and her father worked the ovens. Thirty years had not wiped the slate clean – the bad genes were still operative, and both parents were at best marginally employed and often homeless - but at least Elizabeth’s parents were not working the streets.  By the time Elizabeth was born, her father had left her mother, and she was in no condition or mood to raise a child on her own. So, like her, Elizabeth became a ward of the Catholic Church.

Understanding her good fortune, Elizabeth Flaherty, put herself completely in the hands of her adoptive family.  She went to the best finishing schools, summered with her family on Martha’s Vineyard, skied with them in Gstaad, and thanks to a generous contribution by her father to the university fund of Brown University, she was accepted there.

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Because she looked so much like Victoria Radford and more importantly her adoptive mother, Elizabeth was easily accepted into the privileged Anglo-Saxon society of Providence whose matrons would never have been so welcoming if it hadn’t been for this chance likeness and their willing suspension of disbelief.  Her parents had changed her name to Radford shortly after her adoption so for all intents and purposes she was theirs, heir to their fortune, and – although the Radfords only made this guilty admissions to themselves – even more promising than their biological daughter had ever been.

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For one thing, Elizabeth was far smarter than Victoria Radford had ever been. Her Irish forebears may have been louts and criminals, but somewhere in their twisted genetic strands was real intelligence.  As a young woman she was quick-witted, perceptive, and socially adept.

Yet however much she might have looked like a Radford, acted as politely and respectfully as they did, and received the same distinction and honors as her father; she was nothing like them. She had understood from a very early age that her parents had gotten far more than they had ever hoped; and that the love the Radfords had given her - not to mention the schooling, breeding, and social skills - were not meant for her but for Victoria.  She had fulfilled her part of the bargain, skillfully replacing the real Radford daughter; and her obligations were over. In a very short time she had become a diffident, dismissive, and arrogant woman; and soon enough she left home and the Radfords for good.

Most people hearing this story are surprised.  Even the most hardened and abused child will recognize goodness and repay it.  Goodness is innate, they say; and even more importantly Christian charity breeds moral judgment, straightens the most twisted soul, and creates more goodness. Only a cynic would say that Elizabeth Flaherty-Radford was born bad, without a trace of kindness, love, or compassion.

Yet, this is the only conclusion one could draw after following Elizabeth’s trajectory.  She became eminently successful not despite her emotional remove but because of it.  She had been born with superior intelligence and a frightening will, and had learned very early on that compassion had no place in the short and – in the grand scheme of things – meaningless world into which she was born.

Her biological parents may have lived on the margins but they held their own, defended their turf, killed their enemies, bested their friends, and made do with the bad hand they had been dealt.

The most successful men and women on K Street, Wall Street, or Miami were smart, canny, and brilliantly productive. The law was there as a  convenient shelter when needed and an armament of war when required.  Public relations was the art of the sale on a grand scale and the most powerful instrument of will in the marketplace.

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For Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, the only validation of the individual was to get others to do one’s bidding; to shape them according to one’s own blueprint; to alter their perceptions, moral code, and principles.

Hilda Wangel and Rebecca West (The Master Builder, Rosmersholm) like Hedda successfully manipulated the men in their lives to achieve their own determined and inflexible goals. None of these women had any compassion or concern for those they took over.  Life was no more than a struggle of wills.  It is up to the individual to originate and frame goals and objectives and to pursue them without a second thought.

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None of Ibsen’s women could have become this way by accident. Like alpha males or defiant she-bears in the animal kingdom, they were born with an innate will to dominate; and the ability to do so.  Elizabeth Flaherty-Radford was no different.

Elizabeth had a considerable advantage over all other Übermenschen in her world. She was charming and had a polished silver tongue. Men and women want be led by a beautiful, attentive, graceful, and strong woman.  They want to give them heart and soul. Elizabeth understood all this and knew that she had easy pickins. She may have honed her social abilities, fine-tuned her charm, and became progressively skilled at choosing le mot juste, but she had been born with the particular insight into the vulnerability of others that made her supremely successful.

Ninety-nine percent of women with Elizabeth’s abusive and difficult past would have emerged lame and wounded.  PTSD, depression, hostility, and resentment would be the rule; but Elizabeth was born with animal traits for survival and dominance.  Morality is neither inbred nor divinely accorded; but strength, dominance, and absolute will are.

As might be guessed, Elizabeth Flaherty-Radford made few mistakes in her life and managed to successful manage a professional career, a marriage, and a family.

“I get the business side”, remarked a mutual friend, “but not the personal”. He thought that since marriage was all about love, compassion, and emotional sharing, Elizabeth should not have lasted more than a year or two in that environment.  The friend like most people, misunderstood her profoundly. She simply got what she wanted and was able enough to let others think they did too.  Little did they know, and that was her brilliance.

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