Thursday, January 27, 2011


As many of you know, I have always been fascinated by the concept of the hero. Like many of you, I read Joseph Campbell’s ancient book about ancient myths, The Hero with a Thousand Faces when I was still in college and found it beyond fascinating. (The book itself isn’t really ancient, it just felt that way when I was a college student in the 1970’s. It was actually written in 1949.) Even more compelling, though, was Otto Rank’s far older book, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, first written in 1909 and still available in Gregory Richter and E. James Lieberman’s lucid translation. Both books will be well worth any reader’s effort, but it was the concept itself that the younger me found attractive, even perhaps a bit seductive, and which I continue to find very interesting. I have written to you about the question of what constitutes “real” heroism several times in the last few years, in fact, most recently in connection with the death of Miep Gies, the woman who for no ulterior reason and at the greatest risk to her personal safety was personally responsible for hiding Anne Frank and her family in the Achterhuis for as long as the Franks and the others were able to stay beneath the Nazis’ radar. But even Miep Gies’ testimony was more confusing than helpful in terms of saying what precisely heroism is: she was famous for refusing to allow the word to be applied to her simply because she behaved morally and kindly in an extreme situation. Surely, she used to argue, decency and generosity should be hallmarks of normal human behavior, not qualities reserved for the moral supermen and superwomen we conveniently (and supremely self-servingly) label as heroes mostly so as to avoid feeling bad about our own general unwillingness to do the right thing when presented with the opportunity to make a moral choice that entails risk or even danger to ourselves.

In our own tradition, Ben Zoma’s famous definition of the hero as one who has the inner strength to quash his own darker inclination to behave basely is well known to us all. But that too rings just a bit hollow when filtered through Miep Gies’ rejection of the title for herself: surely having the capacity to distinguish right from wrong and then to refuse to behave poorly should be considered the natural and normal way for ordinary people to behave, not a hallmark of uncommon heroism. Or was Ben Zoma perhaps right after all because the kind of self-discipline necessary always to choose the path of goodness in life is so rare among people that it really is reasonable to give it its own name?

I was brought back to these thoughts just this week when I read the story of Cornelius Dupree, Jr.. Dupree is not famous. His name will not be known to anyone who didn’t see the same article in the paper last week that I did. But I find myself in awe of the courage he displayed in refusing to tell a lie that not only did the entire world appear to want him to tell but that it would have been almost unbelievably beneficial to himself to tell. Yet this man—not a famous ethicist, not a professor of morality, not a clergyman, not even a college graduate—had the inner strength to quash what must have been an incredibly strong urge to perjure himself in a way that could not only not possibly have entailed subsequent punishment, but which could very possibly have bought him his freedom.

The details of the story are simple enough to retell. On November 23, 1979, two men kidnapped a Houston couple at gunpoint, forced them into their own car, robbed them of their money, shoved the man out of the car, and then proceeded to a nearby park where they raped the woman. Two arrests followed shortly. The following April, a Houston jury returned a guilty verdict against Cornelius Dupree and another man, Anthony Massingill. Dupree was subsequently sentenced to seventy-five years in prison, but never stopped maintaining his innocence. And, as it now turns out, rightly so. He was released from prison on parole after serving thirty years of his sentence last July. Less than one week later, conclusive DNA testing undertaking by the Innocence Project (originally part of Cardozo Law School but since 2004 an independent nonprofit organization) proved categorically that Dupree was innocent of the crimes of which he had been convicted. On January 4, just a few weeks ago, Cornelius Dupree was declared innocent and a Texas judge vacated the his rape and robbery conviction. Massingill’s conviction is also expected to be overturned in the near future.

None of the above makes the man a hero in my eyes, just the tragic victim of a horrific error of judgment on the part of a jury and a judge. But what makes him heroic in my eyes is a detail that the newspapers brushed by, I thought, far too quickly: that Dupree had not one but two different chances to dramatically increase his chances to be granted early parole by admitting his guilt. It would have been simple to lie. Everybody expected him to lie. Those closest to him probably even wanted him to tell the damn lie. And surely most wrongfully imprisoned people would leap at the chance to go free no matter what lie the system demanded that they tell to do so. Surely Dupree could have wanted nothing more than to go free. But the system demands its due and to be granted parole the potential parolee must show regret and remorse, both of which must obviously be predicated on an admission of personal guilt. But that is where Dupree’s turned out to be one of the hero’s thousand faces. He was not a professional ethicist, but he also would not and could not speak a lie, even one that could possibly have brought him the one thing he must have wanted more than anything in the world but which would have permanently besmirched his reputation and his sense of himself as an honest person. “Whatever your truth is,” the man said to a local reporter after being exonerated, “you have to stick with it.”

The basis of Otto Rank’s book is that the reason people need heroes, even going so far as to invent mythological ones to admire (and then upon whose “real” existence subsequent generations somehow feel obliged to insist) is because we want to see far finer versions of ourselves than we normally notice in the mirror displayed in the way our heroes reflect their venerators. In other words, we know that most of us come up short all the time. (Ben Zoma surely had that unappealing aspect of the human story in mind when he made his famous remark referenced above about the meaning of “real” heroism.) And, indeed, when we look into our hearts—and I assure you all that I include myself in this thought—when we truly look within deeply and thoughtfully, which of us can say with absolute certainty that if a judge offered us our freedom after, say, twenty years of unjust incarceration, we would rise to the moral level of a Cornelius Dupree and refuse to lie? This is not the same as finding it pleasant to think of ourselves as honest people. Nor is it the same as justifying the lie with reference to the unfairness of a flawed system that, for all it purports to be based on the assumption that it is better for a thousand guilty persons to go free than for a single innocent person to be unjustly incarcerated or executed, has in Dallas County required that twenty-one wrongly convicted individuals be freed after decades of imprisonment in the last four years alone.

There is truly something of the heroic in Cornelius Dupree’s story, I think. Some of you may recall the old story about the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, also called Diogenes the Cynic, who used to wander around the marketplace in Athens in the middle of the day with a burning torch in his hand and then, when asked why he needed a torch in broad daylight, would answer that he was searching for an honest man. I’ve always liked that story, but the older I get the more unpleasantly monitory Diogenes’ words feel to me. Is it really that hard to be so unwaveringly honest that one simply never tells a lie, self-serving or otherwise? Our Torah makes room for the occasional white lie told to spare another person’s feelings, but surely giving false testimony in court (or before a parole board) is among the Ten Commandments not because it is situationally or occasionally wrong, but because it categorically and absolutely is. And yet which of us, holding up Cornelius Dupree as a mirror, can see ourselves reflected in his simple refusal to confess to a crime he knew in his heart that he did not commit? So maybe there are heroes in the world after all…and maybe Rank was exactly right as to the real reason we need to invent them when none is actually at hand for us to admire and emulate.

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