I think the trick to dealing with terrible stuff in your past is to own it.
Virginia Governor Northam wouldn’t be in the fix he’s in if he had Xeroxed the page from his yearbook, kept it in his wallet, and pulled it out every chance he had to talk about race, racism, white privilege, and arrogance.
He could have said, “I did this. At the time, I felt that it was okay to do it. It was only later that I figured it out and I’m here to talk about me then and me now.”
I would have listened.
I’ve never been in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) but I know people who have so I’m tuned in to the notion of making amends (Steps 8 and 9 in the 12-step program).
Governor Northam could have spent the entire time between his medical school yearbook’s publication and last week making amends for participating in a blackface/KKK event memorialized in a photo which he now disputes included him even though it’s sitting right next to his graduation picture in the yearbook. Quite an editing error, I’d say.
But he didn’t do that.
He pretended like what was in the yearbook didn’t matter. He ran for office, asked for support, got others to mobilize the substantial black vote in Virginia, and never once mentioned that he’d had this awful behavior in his past. Two explanations for this oversight: either he thought no one would ever find his yearbook or he thought it didn’t matter. In either contingency, he overestimated himself and underestimated others.
Think how differently this whole mess would have played out had the dear Governor decided long ago to make amends.
When a recovering alcoholic makes amends, he is really doing three things. First, he is owning his behavior. Even if he doesn’t remember it, even if he was blacked out at the time, even if he knows he wronged someone only from the dreams of his now-sober sleep, he is claiming his own deeds. That takes great honesty.
Second, by his apology and his efforts to make amends, a recovering alcoholic is validating the distress he caused others. The acknowledgement of the pain one has caused has great meaning to the people who were injured. “Thank you, it’s not nothing that you wrecked my car, punched out my brother, and retched all over my wedding gown.” It takes courage to acknowledge and apologize directly to the persons one has harmed. It’s humbling, maybe humiliating, and then it’s righteous.
And last, owning up to one’s past and making amends reminds everyone of this one essential truth in life: Redemption is possible. It has to be or we’re all sunk. There is nothing greater, nothing more impressive than someone who has seen the error of his ways and now spreads that word to folks hiding their own failings. It’s powerful.
It isn’t the photograph that has disqualified Governor Northam from holding office. It’s what he has done since the moment he opened his yearbook and saw the photograph sitting there next to his yearbook picture. He had a choice right then and again at every college reunion, every walk down memory lane, every time he pulled the yearbook off the shelf to show to his colleagues, to his children, to make amends and be an example of change and progress.
That wasn’t his choice, though. And so it’s right to expect him to resign. Now he will have the time he needs to understand the damage he caused and begin to make amends. I wish him well in that long process.