14 March 2010


My mother has a very young cousin - well, strictly speaking, I have a very young cousin. His name is Julian, and he's the son of a woman who was adopted by a woman who was somehow a distant cousin of my mother's mother. My grandmother, who was in many ways no fool, once told my mother that this woman "never should have been a mother," and she certainly was a terrible mother to her adopted daughter, who ended up a heroin addict and therefore a pretty terrible mother herself. This boy was that woman's son, and when she died (although she was HIV positive, she died because she was run over), that woman - by now very elderly - became his guardian. And she was a terrible guardian, and he was a terribly messed up and difficult kid.

Eventually, but relatively early on in Julian's life, his grandmother died, and it transpired that she'd named my mother his guardian. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, nobody wanted him: my parents were old for children themselves; he was an impossible child (stealing, fighting...). So for a couple of years he was put first into a tough love boot camp (very effective), and then into boarding schools for those with learning disabilities (of which he had many, since his mother had been a heroin addict while pregnant, and since he had been mainstream schooled all his life). But eventually my mother simply ran out of schools, and so for a year he had to live with my parents, which he did again after he failed out of his first year of college (no bad thing, by the way: my sister did it too, and it took me five goes before I ever made it to graduate school).

And the change in Julian from the time he started living with my parents for the first time to the time he left a year later was dramatic: he became more polite; he became quieter; he became more considerate and observant. My mother didn't do anything in particular to effect these behaviours (in fact, she didn't do much to effect any behavioural improvements, which is why he still does surface rude things like talking on his mobile when he's in the car with other people without asking), but simply by exposure to my parents, who are polite and reasonably considerate, who talk to each other at meals and take an interest in each others' lives, who think about things and discuss their thoughts, he became better. He saw different patterns, and purely by exposure he...changed. And when I look at him now, ten years later, he's really changed. He's training to be a chef! He's getting married! He's articulate, and thoughtful, and sensible. Not one of which I ever would have expected given what his life was like when his mother died.

And when I think about Julian I think that pretty much all my adult life, this is how I believe people can be: if you show them good ways of acting, and ways that you expect people to act well - and if, in all cases, you explain to them why you think that behaviour is good, or kinder, or better, and if it really IS - then people will change. I just believe no one acts dumbly, or badly, by choice, but rather by ignorance, or immaturity, or irrationality. I believe that people naturally mature to be better. You get better. So I'm always surprised to discover that some people just don't change their behaviour. If you're thinking, and you're reasonably self-aware, I always think, why wouldn't you?

My mother, who is not one for handing out compliments as part of casual conversation (that's more my father's line; my mother gives direct compliments), once, after I'd agreed to do something for her, said to me, "You do it out of your natural sweetness." And she was right, in a way. But I don't think I have natural sweetness: I think what I have is a natural, immobile, naïvete. I believe that given opportunities to be good and sensible, and given good treatment, all people will act well and sensibly. And while I think that's a good attribute to have (how much worse to go through life believing everyone will act badly), I also think it would be a good attribute to lose, because I think it has brought me more pain than I need.

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