The debunking of popular knowledge has always been heady stuff to me. I love knowing that Bonnie Prince Charlie, far from the romantic figure of Scottish tradition, was an alcoholic and illiterate in several languages. Was Richard III not a monster, but, if anything too honorable for his own good? Were some Puritans so far from prudish as to be advocates of free love? Is it possible that, until the last few decades, the First Nations of North America were no more ecologically sensitive than other cultures? Did Neandertals contribute to the modern gene pool? I could get drunk on such knowledge (or its possibility) as easily as on the fumes of the finest brandy. And nowhere does it delight me so much as in the difference between the public persona and private reality of people.
For instance, years ago, when my partner and I were helping to organize a Mythopoeic Conference, Loreena McKennitt slept in our spare room. Conditioned by the ethereal, Celtic Twilight persona of publicity, we expected a shy, quiet woman who only came alive in her music. But between breakfast, and ferrying her to the conference and then to the Mission Folk Festival, we quickly discovered that she was a hard-headed business woman, determined to keep control of her music and career, with a down-to-earth attention to details and a formidable store of daily knowledge.
I am in no way suggesting that she was a hypocrite – she obviously loved what she was doing – but the gap between how everybody thought of her and the way she moved through life was so broad that I had trouble reconciling the two. Still, I couldn’t help smiling with satisfaction as I watched countless fans trying to engage her in conversation about New Age spirituality (about which she obviously knew quite a bit without necessarily believing it or accepting it uncritically). These fans thought they were seeing the real McKennitt when I knew that they were seeing only a controlled aspect of her.
Of course, the same was probably true of me – but I knew that, and the fans didn’t.
The same was true of Paul Edwin Zimmer, a member of the circle of fantasy writers in Berkeley that included his sister Marion Zimmer Bradley and Diana Paxson. People who met Paul before his far-too early death in 1997 might have assumed he was a hard drinking, charismatically boisterous party-goer who spent his days in formal Scottish attire and roaring with laughter.
Having stayed over at his communal house once or twice, I realized this was his persona for science fiction conventions – a kind of controlled bursting loose from his ordinary life. Most days – or nights, to be exact – he spent working, dressed in a ragged red kaftan. For days at a time, he might not leave the house. Instead of acting like a student in his first semester in the campus dorms, he lived quietly and studiously, partly because of poverty, but also, I think, out of choice and dedication to his writing.
Yet few of the people who knew him from conventions believed that they knew him only in holiday mode. And, again, I had the satisfaction of knowing a real complexity that ran far deeper than his public appearance.
More recently, I have seen glimpses of the same dichotomy in a person well-known in free and open source software community (I’m deliberately withholding details that might identify them) Ask around, and you’ll be told that they are an assertive, no-nonsense person who has arrived at the pinnacle of their career.
Yet almost immediately, I observed that, while they are intense, they also suffer from at least occasional bouts of self-doubt. Nor does assertiveness always come easy to them – clearly, they have to nerve themselves up for it once they have concluded it necessary. And while they are praised for their success and contributions, in private they have doubts about what they have accomplished and are looking for more satisfying careers.
I admit that I laughed when I observed the first hints of this incongruity — but incongruity, of course, is a key element of humor, and I had to quickly explain why I was laughing to avoid sounding like I was being insulting. Here was a person who was respected on the basis of rumors that were half-truths at best, and gave them no more than limited personal satisfaction.
The only downside to such revelations is that they can leave me wondering if anyone is what they are popularly supposed. Even worse, they make me despair of ever knowing anything or anyone with any degree of accuracy. Yet I am addicted to them all the same. Whenever I discover such dichotomies, I gleefully glom on to them like a limpet, pleased to have another small sliver of truth in my perception of those around me.