Has anyone ever said to you, either individually or when you were part of a group, something that you knew, at the time, you would never be able to forgive them for, or forget? Something so awful that you would never again be able to trust that person, no matter what they said or did in the future. . .something that would render anything else that person ever said or did of absolutely no value?
I heard such words issuing forth from the mouth of my prep school headmaster (at Andover), the late and (in my case at least) totally unlamented Col. John Mason Kemper, U.S.A., retired, during the course of a Saturday morning assembly speech about halfway through my “lower middle” (Grade 10) year at that school. “Women are the enemy!” declared Kemper, as the climax to an anti-female peroration lasting the better part of ten minutes. Earlier in his speech, Kemper had warned us all, “You might think that the sister of your friend or the friend of your sister is innocent. But you would be wrong, gentlemen. Dead wrong.” After a reference to “predatory females,” he would go on to compare women (apparently of any age past 14) to Black Widow Spiders–something that would suck the life blood out of you if you let them. And then came the “women are the enemy” business. Amazingly, I saw only a few heads shaking as I left the assembly hall. Was no one else as bothered by this as I was? I could only surmise that, it being around 8 a.m. of a Saturday morning, the majority of my fellow students and auditors had been either sound asleep or the next thing to it throughout the outrageous performance.
Such a speech would have been extraordinary enough spewing forth from the lips of a confirmed bachelor. But Col. Kemper had been twice married; shortly after the death of his first wife, he had remarried–by all accounts happily. And he had two nearly-grown daughters by his first marriage. I’d have loved to have been a mole in the wall, observing his wife’s and daughters’ reactions as he prepared for the talk by reading it aloud the night before. . .
Mitigating circumstances? Absolutely none. This was not something blurted out in the heat of the moment during a bitter argument with an ex-wife. It was a carefully planned and fully prepared effort, intended to ward highly impressionable adolescent boys off women. How many would have been scarred for life by the outrageous speech is anybody’s guess. I’m sure there must have been some.
All my life since that winter morning in 1961, I’ve regretted not taking direct and immediate action to challenge the preposterous speech, whether by confronting Kemper directly (as by saying “I wonder what your wife would have thought of this”) or by writing a formal complaint letter to the Chair of the Board of Trustees. Or, as might perhaps have been most effective of all, by phoning the Boston Globe and informing them that we had a real live nut case on the loose just 20 miles west of them! That would have made an interesting story for our faculty and administration to read over their Sunday morning coffee, for sure.
Such a hateful, misogynistic speech is on a par with talk poisoning an ex-spouse’s children against that ex-spouse–something that can never be forgiven nor forgotten under any circumstances. “Perhaps the man was insane?” I can imagine some of my readers saying. And very likely they are right. But the question then becomes, what business has a raving misogynistic lunatic being anywhere near impressionable adolescent boys? And what does it say for the rest of the school’s administration that such a man was allowed to continue in his post? In short, I rest my case.
If there’s any silver lining at all to the unhappy saga, it’s that ever since my cowardly inaction in the face of Kemper’s misogyny, I’ve not hesitated to confront anyone I heard spouting forth hate speech.
How different, and (in all likelihood) how very much better my subsequent life might have been had I stood up like a real man and confronted the outrage right then and there!