I have peppered two of them; two I am sure I have paid, two rogues in buckram suits. I tell thee what, Hal, if I tell thee a lie, spit in my face, Four rogues in buckram let drive at me–
What, four? thou saidst but two even now.
Four, Hal; I told thee four. These four came all a-front, and mainly thrust at me. I made me no more ado but took all their seven points in my target, thus.
Seven? why, there were but four even now.
Seven, by these hilts, or I am a villain else. These nine in buckram that I told thee of…
The First Part of King Henry the Fourth, Act II, scene iv.
Indeed, Falstaff has invented not only the ever growing number of attackers, but also the entire battle itself. How the story changes within the space of a few lines.
“He didn’t actually commit a burglary,” a distraught mother explains in my office. “My son and a few of his buddies were just hanging out by the pool. They thought the house was unoccupied.”
Of course the police–who confiscated a dozen remote control garage door openers as well as drug paraphernalia –interpreted the situation differently.
By the time this mother is through telling the story, her son will be cast as part of a crew of do-gooders involved in volunteer home repair.
Wordsworth may have defined poetry as “…emotion recollected in tranquility,” but I’m more interested in the narratives I hear about adolescents.
Sometimes the story is exaggerated the other way. A parent makes out the situation to be worse than it is: “Suzy needs to go to boarding school immediately. Her grades have plummeted; she’s drinking; she’s out till all hours with horrible friends; we’re at the end of our rope; we can’t live like this.”
Except it turns out that Suzy’s grades have dipped from a 3.8 to a 3.5; she had a sip of beer at a family event; she missed curfew one time by 15 minutes. Suzy needs boarding school as much as Atlanta needs more kudzu.
By the time a situation reaches the court system, it’s hard for me to determine what the truth ever was: In criminal court, there are typically people who have done bad things who are trying to appear good. In family court, there are people who haven’t done much of anything at all, who are acting badly.
Bad divorces frequently involve absurd allegations from both parties, exaggerated to a literary degree: Mrs. Smith is deliberately turning my children against me; I’m accusing her of “parent alienation syndrome.” Mr. Smith is a horrible father. He is inappropriate and abusive with the children.
I’ve known Mr. and Mrs. Smith since high school 40 years ago and I’ve known their children since the day they were born. None of that ever happened; none of these allegations is true anywhere except on paper. Are Mr. and Mrs. Smith the best parents I’ve ever seen? Nah. Should the City of Coral Gables invest in a statue in the park as a tribute to the Smith family’s abilities as care givers? Again, no. But their accusations grow as rapidly and as reasonably as the number of Falstaff’s attackers.
Here’s the reason that the family therapist told Mr. Smith not to insult Mrs. Smith in front of the children: the children are half her. When Mr. Smith remarks on what an idiot his ex-wife is, he is communicating to the children that they are idiots as well. After all, half their genetic make-up comes from their mom.
Mr. Smith would do better to diminish Mrs. Smith’s failings, suggesting that her nine men in buckram suits were, in reality, only shadows. The truth may set you free, but in this case the truth will first make your children miserable.*
* “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable” is enscribed on the wall in large letters at the Hyde School in Connecticut. Thank you to Quynn Taylor of Anasazi for reminding me of the origin of these good words.