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by on May 27, 2013


                                       by Marco M. Pardi

A few years ago Brother Mark Dohle, a Trappist monk friend of mine, and I were asked to go to prison. Not just any prison. A State prison northeast of Atlanta. This prison houses a range of inmates serving from 1 year to life; even many of those serving less than life terms will likely die there due to their health conditions, stress and other prison factors.

A Candidate for the Ph.D. in Counseling was informed that the inmates of this prison wanted to develop a hospice unit in the infirmary.  I happened to be on the Ph.D. Committee advising this candidate. Br. Mark and I were asked to address the psycho-social structure and functioning of a hospice, particularly in this environment.  Dressed in blue jeans and a shirt, Mark addressed the spiritual needs, even for those who do not themselves subscribe to spirituality.  I spoke of the masks we acquire and develop through life and how, toward the end, we lay them aside.

Just what are these masks?  I do not doubt that the readers of this blog have been exposed many times over to the developmental processes described in Sociology and Developmental Psychology texts, even if they themselves have not gone through them.  These childhood processes are so complex that they deserve more than a cursory review.  So, I won’t go there.  Instead, a few examples should suffice.

Many people will recall in their own childhood history a period of striking poses before the mirror.  Perhaps unfortunately, a critical function in this process was commonly overlooked.  By concentrating on how one appeared from the outside, many neglected to note and to catalogue how they felt on the inside. We can approach this from two perspectives: the Neuro-muscular; and, the intellectual-emotional casserole which presents the question, “Is this the real me?”

The enduring statement/question posed to me throughout my life has been, “You look sad. Why so sad?”  Not feeling particularly sad, at least on a conscious level, I looked at my childhood reflection and wondered what people saw and why they saw it.  Okay, I haven’t exactly emptied my prostate over being here. But, still.

Standing long enough for my face to assume what I thought was its normal pose, I tried to look like what I imagined sad would look like.  It felt forced.  That is, I could feel the muscles trying to hold a different from normal position.  Finally, over the years, I acquired the responsive mantra, “That’s how my face hangs” and decided I didn’t give a rodent’s rectum for what people thought anyway.

But the exercise was enlightening.  I experimented with a wide range of “affective states”, noting exactly how my musculature felt with each one.  The next step was in being able to conjure these appearances on demand. Developing this repertoire can be immensely helpful in a variety of situations.  And it can be amusing. Being able to transition instantly from a seemingly rollicking, out of control laugh to a flat “dead pan” never fails to elicit a roar of nervous laughter from a classroom of students.  Why nervous?  Because their comfortable assumptions have been thrown into disarray; uncertainty breeds anxiety.  Don’t take appearances for granted.

As a young adult I dallied with parts in school plays and community theater. Perhaps because no “sad” parts were on offer I never got to play those. Instead, I found that whatever I did casting directors invariably put me in the “bad guy” roles. Maybe I was missing something.  

I have known a very few actors, both stage and screen.  Always wondering how an actor avoids becoming the character he or she plays, especially if the role is serialized, I asked some of them.  Every answer sounded like a page from the same Drama school textbook; they were on script.  “That’s the art, not the life.”  I wondered if they also played those professional actor roles with their therapists.

Although I was never able to identify what nefarious traits casting directors saw in me, I was able to put whatever they were to good use in later work.  It seems that even the “street smart” are not so smart after all; hardened criminals and many trained professionals alike apparently read the “Sunday supplement” popular psychology garbage about “body language”.  They sure fall for it.  They see a (fill in the blank) person, not realizing they are seeing their own reflection.

One troubling example of wandering in the murky borderlands of real versus assumed identity arose with a fellow student I knew in college.  Sean Connery was hitting his box office peak as “secret agent” James Bond.  This young man was an absolute clone of Connery, except for being over a foot shorter.  Still, the raves from his friends and the evidence in the mirror were apparently enough to send him on hours long benders of very heavy drinking and obsessively listening to Bond movie sound tracks.  I never asked him if he was indeed fantasizing as he seemed to be.  Nor did I ever point out that the Bond figure was the ultimate antithesis of a secret anything.  A cardinal aphorism at “the farm” (CIA training facility) is: “The ideal case officer or operations officer is the person who can spend three hours in a crowded pub and no one remembers they were ever there.”

His academic major was Elementary Education.  I wondered how his primary school wards would feel about a teacher licensed to kill.  I did know that his very lovely bride to be was not particularly thrilled at the prospect of a Senior Service smoking, shaken but not stirred, gambling and woman chasing bounder as a life mate.  So much for the neuro-muscular, even the physical perspective.

Intellectual/emotional masks are more subtle, if only because coming from the “inside” they seem to be genuine.  And, when properly managed they can combine with the neuro-physical to produce a desired illusion.  Actors supposedly ask directors, “What’s my motivation?” before a scene.  The implication here is that generating the internal feeling will produce the external appearance.  But this calls the question: Does the audience see what the actor portrays, or does it see what it wants to see?

Looking at this on an individual level, one might remember the aphorism, “Love is blind”.  How many of us have judged a relationship saying, “She’s taking him for a ride”?  How many of us have been on that ride? And, how many of us were in the driver’s seat? 

In the Intelligence world, a successful Case Officer is one who can quickly see through the external appearance and accurately discern the “motivation” of the person they are recruiting to work for them. The C.O. then plays to that motivation.  But the C.O. is already well schooled in certain fundamentals.  Among these are: Internalize the legend, live the legend as a reality, and never succumb to a dishonesty which is not part of the legend.  The agency in which the C.O. is a career employee has a division, often specifically designated in some way, that does nothing but create alternate identities and histories – a “legend” for officers which includes such mundane things as false birth certificates, school records, marriage and divorce records, associated “family tree” and so on – the blizzard of Post-It notes we acquire through life and hardly notice. Going off script with a spontaneous lie is like getting “a little bit of cancer”; it requires careful feeding, eventually growing a noticeable tumor that calls attention to itself. A cycle has begun which often ends in the consumption of the host.

But even exacting adherence to the script has its personal costs. A spouse who is not well read into the play can begin to feel more like a stage prop than a life partner.  The spouse’s feelings may gravitate toward “right to know” while ignoring the full formula – “right and need to know”. Marriages often don’t last, and many that do are perfunctory.  However, contrary to entertainment industry portrayals, even single officers cannot engage in sexual liaisons without filing a complete and detailed report with the counter-espionage division. The reason should be obvious. And, James Bond would have been drummed out almost overnight – or at least the next morning.

What has this to do with a prison auditorium filled with burglars, murderers, robbers, drug dealers and thieves? Everything.  Like anyone else, convicts facing prison for the first time enter with certain presumptions.  Like Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in “Stir Crazy”, they may presume they need to enter with a “We bad! We bad!” persona, complete with strut. The outward appearance, even when well played, is at odds with the internal feeling – the motivation.

The new convict is often surprised to learn that his or her new community already knows much about the circumstances of the incarceration; judgments have already been made, masks have been assigned. But as a person nears death some things begin to happen.

Much has been written, often incorrectly about the so-called Stages of Dying.  But one such stage, the much vaunted Acceptance stage, is particularly germane here.  Observers often concentrate on the acceptance of the what is, the reality of one’s condition and outcome, feeling that evidence of that completes the process.  An experienced counselor, however, listens for the signs of the far deeper process, the dying person’s introspective examination of exactly who is dying.

It is here that the fundamental bond of caregiver and patient is, or is not formed.  Where there is trust the patient feels safe in setting aside the masks he has collected and worn throughout life – even in prison. The patient feels safe in making a declaration of who they feel they truly are, and what they have truly done and not done.  While the casual observer or caregiver may wonder why such disclosures are important to the patient at this time, the experienced caregiver understands that this is the ultimate confrontation with the true self, the true face in the mirror, the true person behind the skin. It is, indeed, the ultimate opportunity to put down the weight of alternate personas the person has been carrying, feeding, and in some cases being consumed by.

I have often been honored with “deathbed confessions”, ranging from infidelities to adolescent shoplifting, padded resumes to secret fetishes. The trust the patient feels in my confidentiality allows for what religious people refer to as a “washing away” and others refer to as “decathexion”, or letting go.

Caregiver reaction in a judgmental way is a form of murder; it murders the true self in its chrysalis stage, trying to emerge and be free.


I asked the potential hospice personnel among the inmates to understand this, and to not be afraid to disqualify themselves if they were unable to help another man go truly free.

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  1. danarseiler permalink

    Marco, it does not surprise me to know you have been honored with “deathbed confessions.” Your character and integrity lend themselves to this type of trust.

    Speaking of feeling honored, I am glad to have experienced first-hand your “seemingly rollicking, out of control laugh to a flat “dead pan”” in the classroom. I can also admit to feeling awestruck (to say the least) when thinking about the mouse-click that led me from the simple act of registering for an “Intro to Anthropology” course to writing this comment.

    Thank you for another great piece.


    • Thank you, Dana. I’ve always shied away from the comment that things happen for a reason. But, your mouse click is bringing out qualities that come from the inspiration of knowing you. Marco


  2. Rose Palmer permalink

    Ironically, my next question to you was to have been, “What would you say if I told you I’m not the person you think I am?” Are we still the same two people who conversed in the hallway so long ago, or have the masks changed so as to make us strangers? Not enjoying the visage reflected therein, I seldom look in mirrors. The person I see reflected there looks dead, or at least deadpan.
    What mask did I wear that now finds itself reflected in the mirror of your memory? Throughout my life, I have consciously worn the mask which best suited the occasion. I have the notion that no one could possibly like the real me, and so have stayed hidden for far too many years.

    I, too, remember your mad professor with great fondness; he was included in my first exposure to you. I had the fun of repeat performances, and the responses of new students.

    I’ve been called angry because I “just look that way”. If I had to guess, I’d say your ‘sad’ and your ‘bad guy’ both came from the same source; the emotional wall you built as a child.

    Okay, enough pseudo-psychology; this well-written and thought provoking blog has given me enough intellectual fodder to keep me well fed until the next is offered. Looking forward- Rose


    • Thank you, Rose. The truth in your comments saddens me, because I was, and remain convinced that I saw in you a person I really admired. I feel your circumstances narrowed your options and you chose the appropriate means of navigation. I am glad that you are not lost to us after all. Marco


  3. Lory Nakamura permalink

    Marco, i had posted this on Facebook, because for some reason i find your blogs easier to find there. but i guess you are not very active on FB, so let me repost here.

    the way you started this blog mmmm….. you and Brother Mark were asked to go to prison…!!!
    well, that was the perfect hook for me, well for everybody i suppose ! i was gripped from the start !

    and as for the masks and all you mention about that, well, that is something i too find and have always found interesting.
    we all seem to feel so much more comfortable and safer behind a mask, yet in the long run they become heavier and heavier, real burdens.
    so i understand how it is essential and blissful at the same time to put it down before our transition. and yes, it does make sense to me that people chose you for that kind of innermost confession.
    Thank you, as always, for sharing your thoughts, Marco !

    and let me add my beloved Rumi (!!) :
    “Tear off the mask; your face is glorious. “


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