NEW YORK — Two images: dashing actor Hugh Grant, with his Vesuvius of tousled hair and toothy smile, quipping to Jay Leno with penitent charm that he did a "bad thing" in engaging a prostitute to perform oral sex in his BMW. And then Susan Smith, looking as dour as Grant was giddy, frumpy in her floral smock and oversized glasses, leaving the Union, S.C., courthouse, where her lawyer had argued against her competency to stand trial for the murder of her two young sons.
Two images and two sides of responsibility. Grant publicly confessed his sins, refused to cite any problems in his past that could have prompted his action, asked for forgiveness and will, no doubt, not only survive his indiscretion but find it a boost to his career. Smith has confessed a far greater sin, but her trial promises to be an exercise in exculpation. Her parents' divorce and father's subsequent suicide, her stepfather's molestation of her, her own fitful marriage, her aborted relationship to one of the town's most eligible bachelors--all will be adduced as evidence of the forces that shaped Smith and drove her to commit the heinous act she did.
It is a commonplace by now that we are a culture of victims. Ever since the egregious Menendez brothers' defense--where charges of child abuse miraculously surfaced to explain the brothers' savage murder of their parents--analysts have focused on what has become an epidemic of blame and irresponsibility. Every defendant seems to enter the courtroom armed with an episode of childhood abuse or molestation. Everyone seems to have some trauma that will wash away his or her sins--whether it is Sen. Bob Packwood rinsed of sexual harassment by alcohol or O.J. Simpson rinsed of domestic battering by what he alleges was his late wife's abuse of him or Smith rinsed by a lifetime of turbulence. No one stands up anymore and says, "I did it. It's my fault."
So, for all the blatant PR involved, it was refreshing to hear Grant publicly accept responsibility--refreshing and suggestive. Grant, after all, is an actor. He makes his living by creating an identity for himself and then presenting it to the public. The proof of his success is that everyone assumes Grant is English upper crust, though he is just a middle-class kid. When he screwed up, when there was dissonance between the public man and the private one, Grant could conceivably have begged off and insisted that the man in the BMW wasn't the real Hugh, but if not Hugh, then who? Grant knows, as custodian of his image, he alone is responsible for his behavior.
What is certain to get lost in the tabloid clamor, however, is that Grant's acceptance of responsibility was the product of a rather old-fashioned conception of the self--a conception that has changed radically in the last 25 years. Back in the 19th Century, according to Richard Sennett's landmark book, "The Fall of Public Man," it was expected--practically demanded--that individuals, like actors, create public personas for themselves by the way they dressed, the way they spoke, the way they behaved. You made yourself up from scratch, so to speak: You decided what you wanted to be, then acted as if you were that person.
Obviously, by this notion, anything that one did in public was under one's control, just as Grant is theoretically in control of his performances on screen, and thus responsible for it. As for private behavior, it was supposed to be just that: private. But it was assumed that both public and private behavior, while separate realms, were under the jurisdiction of the same governor--the person. There were no excuses, no one else to blame when a person transgressed. Sybil hadn't been invented yet.
That conception of a self-created self is long gone, a casualty of dozens of forces, not least of which was Sigmund Freud. Today it is hard to find anyone who believes we create ourselves. The standard view is we are the products of every person we meet, every experience we have. And though we may be no less--and probably more--actors than our forebears of a hundred years ago, we are very different kinds of actors. Those forebears were classical actors, in full control of their effects. We are Method actors, rummaging our psyches for the right emotion to display. Or, to paraphrase Sennett, their aim was to create a public identity. Ours is to project what we think we really are.
Sennett was writing at the dawn of the age of psychobabble--when everyone was trying to get in touch with his or her own feelings. Today, self-realization, far from being a passing fad, has become a massive industry, with the "power within" or the "inner child" hawked like snake oil. In the old days, under the old conception of self, we were told we could be anything we set our minds to being, which, if not quite true, had the virtue of assuming we determined ourselves. Today, under this new conception of self, we are told we can be the best self we can be--which is something else again.