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Mine is Thy Good Report: On Jonah Hill, Honesty, and How We Speak of Our Exes
I was in high school when I first read Shakespeare’s sonnet #36:
Let me confess that we two must be twain,
Although our undivided loves are one:
So shall those blots that do with me remain,
Without thy help, by me be borne alone.
In our two loves there is but one respect,
Though in our lives a separable spite,
Which though it alter not love’s sole effect,
Yet doth it steal sweet hours from love’s delight.
I may not evermore acknowledge thee,
Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame,
Nor thou with public kindness honour me,
Unless thou take that honour from thy name:
But do not so, I love thee in such sort,
As thou being mine, mine is thy good report.
It's one of the great breakup poems. Mr. Rainer – my favorite English teacher – told us to remember it whenever we were tempted to speak harshly of an ex. We owe the people who love us a “good report,” even if they loved us inconstantly or otherwise disappointed us. That means, Mr. Rainer told us, we don’t trash the reputations of our former partners, no matter how great the provocation.
I may not evermore acknowledge thee... but you’ll still always get a good report from me. Mr. Rainer said that was the way, and I have lived by that code as best I can for these past 40 years.
I thought of Shakespeare and Mr. Rainer when I caught myself up on this weekend’s kerfuffle surrounding the actor/director Jonah Hill. Last week, Hill’s ex, Sarah Brady posted a text he had sent her before they broke up.
Many of my friends on social media have spent the day debating several interlocking questions. Were his requests unreasonable? Were they perhaps unreasonable, but phrased in a reasonable way? Was Brady wrong to post this stuff in the first place? Which one of these two is a narcissist? In the words made famous by Reddit, which one is the asshole?
I am heading into divorce #5, so I am uniquely unqualified to give relationship advice. I can give excellent direction on how to survive, how to start over, how to cut your losses, how to begin again. (I will soon buy my fifth post-divorce microwave!) I have no clue how to prevent a breakup, but I can give sound suggestions about how to navigate a breakup with civility. From that perspective, it seems clear to me that it’s unkind to share the private messages an ex has sent, just as it’s wrong to share their nude photos. “Revenge porn” is vile, but we should safeguard our exes’ displays of emotional nakedness with the same caution with which we archive (or delete) their displays of sexual vulnerability.
“Mine is thy good report,” and thy frailties are my obligation to protect.
I have written quite a bit about my private life, but you will not find an instance where I’ve called out a single former wife or lover. That may be, of course, because they are blameless – and I alone am entirely responsible for the failure of our relationships. Or – just bear with me here —they may have had their part, but a gentleman is ruthless only with himself. If the world thinks you’re a narcissist (the most wildly overused term in our contemporary relationship vocabulary), let them. Your obligation to provide a good report should trump your desire to “set the record straight.” The truth is a servant, not a master; it is, as Auden wrote so beautifully, the subaltern to love.
I would rather be believed a monster than be proved a cad, and the latter is the one who calls an ex’s failings to public attention.
As for Jonah Hill’s requests:
I have tried to be in relationships with women who did not want me to have female friends. What I did on more than one occasion was carry on those friendships surreptitiously. It wasn’t that my exes’ requests were unreasonable; it was that I lacked the courage to tell them, politely but firmly, that I could not and would not accommodate them. I said one thing and did another, and that is to my shame. It doesn’t matter what they asked for, because you can ask for whatever you like; it's on your partner to say either, “Yes, your terms are acceptable” or say, “No, I’m sorry, that doesn’t work for me. Let’s call it at friends.”
For a man to tell a professional surf instructor not to pose in a swimsuit may or may not be a ridiculous request, but we are frail and funny human beings and prone to fits of astonishing irrationality and jealousy. Some of those fits can be resolved through therapy – and sometimes, all therapy can do is give us the vocabulary to ask for an unreasonable thing in a direct and kind way. That seems to be the case with Jonah Hill.
Can men and women be friends? Should our spouses get a veto over the people we see socially? I don’t know. You might as well ask for a definitive answer about the best flavor of ice cream. I know I have my own answer, and you have yours, and the people we take to bed, or the altar, or the chuppah have their own answers. What matters isn’t whether there’s an objective truth about marriage and friendship -- what matters is how you live out your perception of that truth. I have made promises I had no intention of keeping, and I decided it was okay to break those promises because I declared in my mind that the request itself was fundamentally unreasonable. I have come to understand that a request may be absurd, but no plea is so preposterous that it justifies a lie in response.
(A side note: My mother’s mother died in November 1998, shortly after Bill Clinton was forced to admit he had lied about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. My grandmother, in one of her last comments on politics, declared that the president had behaved badly. But she found Bill’s initial lie justifiable, arguing that a gentleman, never, ever, ever – even under oath – names his sexual partners. There are some questions, grandmother believed, to which a lie is the only decent response.)
I do not know Jonah Hill. To the extent that his insecurity is apparent, it is a common condition in many men and women. It doesn’t merit a public shaming. It merits a private, “I wish you good luck in finding someone with whom you are better suited.”
Relationships require enormous compromises. They require that we surrender our freedom. Sometimes we give up too much; sometimes, we give up too little. Sometimes, we pretend to be willing to let go of what we cannot, in fact, surrender.
Sometimes, we decide that the loss of freedom is too great, and that loneliness is an acceptable price to pay to reclaim our sovereignty over our lives. If you can easily second-guess how someone else calculates compromise, then you are far wiser than I.
I am very, very tired of making promises I cannot keep. And I am committed to giving that “good report,” and only that “good report,” for everyone with whom I have built a life. It is not much, but it is my modest pride.