Blemished (a short story)

21 Dec 2016. Robert E. Kaplan

At our very first meeting EmmaJean bared her soul—uncharacteristically, I later learned. "Look," she said, emphatically, "If I'm going to get anything out of this, I better open up." Though petite with a pixie cut, she did not come across as undersized, anything but. Her voice, not unfriendly, had an edge to it.

Talking or listening, she looked right at you, her dark eyes prominent in their sockets. Dressed informally, we sat cattycorner at a mahogany table, its scattered dents and scratches lending character to it.

Matter-of-factly she recited to me: "I was born in the foothills of West Virginia, the family was dirt poor, my father worked in the coal mines, erratically I'd add. I remember vividly his blackened face as he walked through the door, like he was dressed for Halloween. We were evicted more than once, our furniture—what there was of it—stacked in the front yard."

She betrayed no discernible feeling.

"Any of that leave a lasting impression?," I asked.

"Hard to say. The day-to-day doing without, the constant worry about money, our family's lowly status and the shame of that—any of the above."

It was as if she were speaking of someone else's life.

Shame followed her to school. Not the neighborhood elementary school where the other kids wore hand-me-downs too but at the regional junior high where the middle class girls dressed a lot better than she did and mocked her every chance they got. "Can't afford it, can't afford it," they shrieked at her, in the hallway, during recess. Trudging home after being let off the school bus, she'd chant to herself, "I'm the most miserable girl in the world."

On top of that she was an unwanted child, eight years younger than her next older sibling. "A mistake," she once overheard her mother say when she was ten. 

As if all that weren't enough, her father demeaned her, made a habit of it. His harsh words still rang in her ears: "You'll never amount to anything!"

"Grim," I murmured. Her response: "It wasn't all bad. My older sister, who married young and lived nearby, did what she could to look after me. My grandparents especially, the ones on my mother's side, were a saving grace." EmmaJean was their youngest grandchild and they doted on her. Her grandpa had been a union steward, retired now from a skilled job at the local glass factory. He taught her local flora and fauna on their long walks in the nearby hills, showed her how to catch trout in clear mountain streams, to hand-make the lures, to filet what she caught. Her granny taught her how to sauté the fish, a delicate art she mastered at a young age. Before she got her license, he let her drive the old pick-up truck on their long dirt driveway but not before she knew what was under the hood. Her grandma, drawing her close, would whisper, "Your father's a beast, don't let him get you down."

When she was eight or nine, her father flung one too many insults at her. She rebelled, silently of course. Walking back to her room on the unpainted plywood floor, she proclaimed to herself, "The bastard, I'll show him." She half-forgot she ever said that but the vindictive energy stayed with her. A mere child, she fought her father's curse with all her being.

She was stamped at a young age not just by a fiery nature but by strict emotional control, a spring-loaded clamp on hurt feelings. And yet freshman year in high school she came close to being suspended for getting into a screaming match with a nemesis from middle school that might have turned violent—she more than made up for her small stature with fierceness—if an assistant principal hadn't come along and broken it up. With the principal she was saved, barely, by good conduct in class and contriteness.

For pocket money— in her family there was no such thing as an allowance—she pumped gas at a local station. The mechanic at slack times let her change the oil, later on replace the fan belt and spark plugs, eventually realign the front end. She'd finish scrubbing the grease off her hands at home, but not before her mother got on her case: "EmmaJean Clark, look at those hands, a girl your age!" Her father, once happening upon that scene, barked at his wife, "Nellie, leave her be!," as much to counter his wife as to side with his daughter, as close as he ever got to showing approval. 

A hard start in life can seal a person's fate. Though she managed to graduate from high school, actually showing promise in math and science, she did not consider college. No one in her extended family had gone. It didn't help that the guidance counselor advised her officiously: "You're not college material." That fit with her view of herself anyway given her so-so grades, never mind she never applied herself.

Enlisting in the army to learn a trade, she was assigned to engine repair, from Humvees to helicopters, and though keeping to herself the best she could, was drawn into the unit's foul-mouthed camaraderie; she already had the vocabulary. Toward the end of her stint, which fell between the two Gulf wars, she figured she'd continue in that line of work. Then out of the blue she was thunderstruck: "Wait a freakin' minute, I can do better than that!"

All A's at a community college and high math scores on the college entrance exam got her into the University of Illinois, where she majored in mechanical engineering, graduating with honors, so much for not being smart. Recruited as a plant engineer by a well-known company, she quickly rose to the plant's director of engineering, then onto a series of line roles. When I met her she was general manager—the company's first woman at that level—of the flow control division, industry-leading maker of valves for industrial applications.

In her mid-40s she boasted a nearly unbroken string of successes, typically turnarounds, marred only by not-infrequent illness brought on by overwork and stress—as the only woman in senior management she felt added pressure to perform. "Cool it," her latest boss warned her, not cognizant of that inner pressure, concerned about her nonetheless, "You're going to kill yourself," not that his admonition changed anything.

With her latest promotion came an office on the 30th floor at the company's striking new Chicago headquarters on Michigan Avenue. "Too bad my father didn't live to see it," she said regretfully and a little spitefully. Then added, "He died of emphysema in his early 60s, the coal dust got him."

At the conference center, once a private residence modeled after a French chateau, I had arranged for her to stay in the master suite, which boasted a bath with 18 shower heads. Early in our two-day meeting there to go over, and apply, the findings from the study of her leadership I asked, "Does it surprise you, the word most often used to describe you is 'passion?'"

"No, not at all. Look, in every job here I've been hell-bent and determinedl, whatever the odds against me. She was also zealous about improving, anything and anyone in her purview. With feeling she told me, "I believe I can develop everyone to their fullest." Safe to say "everyone" included her. For sharper skills, for new knowledge, she had a boundless appetite. Fittingly, her two favorite business books were In Search Of Excellence and Good To Great.

"Heck, it's not just at work." she added. "I run marathons and I'm passionate about that too. I train really hard, I use a coach to work on my stride and to push me to the limit." Whenever she failed to hit her target time, even in the quite respectable four-hour range, the low feeling lingered for months, "like drizzling rain."

Late that first afternoon, she mused: "I don't know why I rose above my circumstances, I'm just grateful I did." She was destined to go further. Though not privy to the company's succession plan, which earmarked her for the top team and possibly for the top job, she was certainly alive to her ambition. "I definitely want to move up."

A vestige of her upbringing stood in her way. I put it this way to her: "Your skill in relating to people is not a face card." This didn't surprise her either. "Yeah," she replied, "more like a 6 or 8 of clubs. Relationships have never been as important to me as achieving and moving up in the world. My social life always lost out big-time to school work and paid work."

In the office, she hardly ever reached out, even with members of her own team who were not co-located. "A distance develops that I am sorry to say I do very little to bridge."

I happened to be there once when she asked her assistant to schedule lunch with a peer, the head of the supply chain, someone she badly needed to keep up with, as she knew full well. Yet no sooner did she step back into her office than she called out the door: "Tina, wait, no, I changed my mind."

Her free time, what free time she had, she much preferred to spend with her husband and their two children. "We don't socialize much, and (curling her lip) I hardly ever show my face on our cul-de-sac—the neighbors are out there schmoozing, yuk!" On the other hand, her travel schedule permitting, she and her husband had "date night" once a week.

Weeknights she got home in time for dinner, which most nights her husband, a work-from-home accountant, prepared. Then it was back to her briefcase and devices till bedtime except for saying goodnight to her kids. Saturday she went into the office till midafternoon, and then apart from responding to emails and taking the occasional phone call she was free until Sunday evening, which she spent getting ready for the week. To that schedule her husband and her children had long ago accommodated themselves, if at times grudgingly.

Interpersonally she remained unsure of herself. Ruefully she let me in on just how much. "To this day I worry whether people like me. A grown woman like me—can you believe that?!"

She thought to recount her mother's recent visit, nearly two years after their family moved from Austin to Chicago—actually, upscale Barrington. They hadn't seen each other since her father's funeral five years earlier. The sunny morning lifted EmmaJean's spirits and she actually found herself thinking, "Maybe, just maybe, this visit will go well." By the time her mother pulled into the driveway in her subcompact rental, the sky had clouded over. Graciously, EmmaJean along with her daughter and son, now 14 and 11 respectively, went out to meet her.

As her mother stepped out of the car, the first thing out of her mouth: "Oh, EmmaJean, how pretty Maggie has gotten to be. How is that possible, you're not." After a split-second delay—EmmaJean was out of practice—her defenses kicked in and walled off the stabbing pain. Her daughter, whirling her head, caught her mom's face fall. Frostily, EmmaJean said, "Children, help your grandmother with her bags," and walked double-time back to the house. With her back to the front door she stood there fuming. "Why does this parent shit still get to me?"

Despite her soaring career and the keen pride she took in it, self-doubt hung around. "Look, every February when my performance review comes up, I'm a nervous wreck," she told me, woefully. The night before this year's she woke up at 3:00 a.m. in a cold sweat. "Even though I'd had a pretty good year I could not talk myself out of it." This was a general problem. "Unless everything is going well—which realistically is never—I wake up in the middle of the night and I have trouble falling back to sleep." In her mind, falling short pronounced her guilty, guilty as charged by her father, of worthlessness, of amounting to nothing.

In her hardnosed and impersonal manager, she found another reason to be nervous. But, after running down one by one her objectives for the year, he took her aback: "I give you a ton of credit, EmmaJean. Despite the sharp downturn in the market, you made your numbers." Her face expressionless. "Hey, I can't help noticing how uncomfortable you are." She fairly gasped. "I tried to hide it, I hoped it wouldn't show."

"Sure, like the rest of us," he offered, "you've got things to work on but nothing fatal." Then a little smile broke through the cloud of her impassivity. Afterward, as disbelieving as pleased, she told me over the phone, "I was surprised by the strength of his comments. It boosted my confidence, at least for the time being."

I chose that moment to inform her, "You know, you're looked up to, especially by up-and-coming engineers?" She was flattered but flabbergasted: "I'm truly amazed."

Mid-afternoon that first day, she put into words what our conversation had already made pretty clear. "I struggle with self-confidence," she said, stating a dark truth that previously she had uttered only to her husband. "I worry it will keep me from advancing further. "You're right," I said, "it could."

Her inner un-ease sent her leadership flying in opposite directions, a vivid drive to mastery and a dulled relationship side. Her interpersonal fate she accepted which is to say she took a defeatist attitude. She lost out on the acceptance and support otherwise available from colleagues who she kept at a distance and from those friends she never made. If she sensed it, she didn't care.

On the other hand, her overheated efforts to excel, to perform, to make better everything she touched, struck some people as egotistical. This applied in most settings to her verbal output. As if driven by a private dictate, she over-explained. Her content was good but she went on way too long, giving multiple examples where one would do. True of her emails too. Her boss told me, "I just skim them."

More seriously, she was seen, even by some of her own people as too concerned, directly or indirectly, about her own success. I broached the subject. "EmmaJean, people see a downside to your white-hot focus on your own business. Evidently, you say hardly anything in executive forums if it doesn't concern your direct responsibility, and you don't collaborate enough with peers. Your boss wants you to be much more of an 'enterprise leader,' just as visibly invested in the success of the whole company as in your piece."

"Egotistical! God, I had no idea!" she exclaimed. To her it was a black mark on her character. "I pride myself in being an upstanding corporate citizen," she cried out. "I never lie, I never cut corners, I want the best for people and the company. And now this degrading ego thing. It hurts like hell."

She had cloaked her motivation in virtue, and largely speaking she was right to do so. She did a lot of good for people and for any organization she was responsible for. But that large truth blinded her to the small yet non-trivial truth of her leadership's self-serving aspect.

"Are you keeping in mind all the good qualities people credit you with?" I asked. "The complexion of your leadership is really quite good."

"When I look in the mirror, I see a different face." Her belief in herself had not moved up as fast as she had. Unfortunately, there's no laser treatment that instantly corrects faulty self-vision, erroneously dark self-notions.

That evening she called home, as she always did when she was on the road, to wish her kids good-night. Later she called back to give her husband the lowdown. "Per usual, Mike, the negatives hit home, the positives barely made a dent. I'll tell you more when I get home."

The next morning I inquired, as I usually do: "How was your night?" 

Subdued, she said, "I surprised myself, I cried a lot. I never cry—almost never."

Like a perpetual black cloud that threatened lightning strikes, a negative charge had long been attached to her sense of self. That evening the storm hit and with it a drenching rain, a flood of feeling.

"Do you have a sense of what all that emotion was about?"

She got quiet for a while. "I think I was crying my heart out over that child who suffered so much. Strange, it was as if it was one of my own kids."

"Where does that leave you now, do you think?"

"Somehow at peace. More than ever before." Her voice was deeper, more resonant, her face relaxed, as if she dropped into a meditative state.

"I was that kid but I'm not that kid anymore."

Having some idea of the sorts of change that could naturally flow from her realization but preferring she come to it herself, I asked neutrally, "What difference could that make?"

"I'm not sure, it's too new." We took a brief break, she made entries in her journal, then read that to me.

"Well, I don't have to put so much damned pressure on myself. I don't have to worry every freakin' minute about how I'm doing. Whether people like me or not."

Like the air cleansed after a storm, not only with fresh eyes did she view herself. She now caught sight of a categorically different way, not studying up, not skill-building, to better herself—from the inside out.


© Kaplan DeVries Inc.