Saturday, February 2, 2013

MANTI TE'O AND THE GIRL THAT NEVER EXISTED

I'm not a football fan, but like everyone else I've been absolutely fascinated by the story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o and his girlfriend Lennay Kekua, who never existed.  Lennay, it turns out, was the brainchild of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, a young man who  spoke with Manti over the phone in a female voice, often through the night - and fabricated a whole history for Lennay - always, he says, encouraging Manti to be a better person.  When Lennay Kekua supposedly died, Manti's heart was broken.  She was, he said, the love of his life - the one he always turned to.

I watched Ronaiah's interview with Dr Phil. He confessed that he found himself falling in love with Manti, and ultimately, after several attempts, felt he had to kill off Lennay in order to put an end to what had become a complicated deceit.  He did this after Manti was already grieving for his grandmother, but also after Manti had confessed to texting other girls.   Ronaiah insisted that he had genuine feelings for Manti, that none of this was intended to hurt him.  In fabricating the character of Lennay, he had found a side of his personality which was entirely real.  It had protected him from the pain he'd experienced as an adolescent, molested repeatedly by someone close to the family. As Lennay, Ronaiah was able to be fully human. On that level, the interactions were always genuine.  His love was far from a hoax.

At first, when I heard this story, I thought I had never heard anything like it - that this was something that could only happen to a generation where virtual relationships on the internet had become if not the norm, certainly quite commonplace.  But upon reflection, I feel that this is one of the oldest love stories in the book.

Cyrano de Bergerac did exactly the same thing. He fell in love with Roxane, but his nose was so big that he felt self conscious about confessing his love. Instead he wooed Roxane in the guise of another suitor, Christian - who was himself a tongue tied fellow without the poetic authenticity and substance of Cyrano.

In the 1982 movie "Tootsie"  Dustin Hoffman plays an actor who cannot get any acting roles as a man. So instead he disguises himself as a woman - and as a woman, falls in love with an actress played by Jessica Lange. He then works his way into her life and ultimately her heart, hoping to keep up his female disguise - until at last he's exposed and Jessica Lange's character is disgusted to find that she's been duped.  At the end of the film,  you get the sense that Jessica Lange's character has had a bit of time to think about it.  She says wistfully, "I miss Dorothy."  To which Dustin Hoffman replies, "I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man."

We loved that film, back in 1982.  It said everything we felt was true about gender roles, the woman inside the man who longed to connect - and was able to connect, when disguised as a woman.

There are other examples besides these.  Rosalind in As You Like It - woos Orlando in the forest of Arden - even though she is disguised as a boy.  She pretends to be Rosalind - but then it turns out in a wonderful twist, that she really is Rosalind, the woman he adores! Does this make her duplicitous? Perhaps. But even if it does, Rosalind remains one of Shakespeare's most beloved and irresistible heroines.

Viola in Twelfth Night - madly in love with Count Orsino, disguises herself as a boy named Cesario and in this disguise is unable to confess her love to him.  Instead  she "let concealment like a worm in the bud feed on her damasked cheek." She pines in thought - "and with a green and yellow melancholy, sat like patience on a monument, smiling at grief. Was this not love indeed?"

Yes - indeed it was the best and purest love our greatest poet has imagined! And the wonderful thing is that like Viola pretending to be Cesario, Ronaiah actually still is Lennay.  She isn't dead after all. She lives on - a better woman with Manti, than s/he ever was as a man!  We know what the ending of the story should be.  In the end, understanding the mistake, the duped lover comes to realize how much he really loves the boy disguised as a girl - and he falls in love with that real unpretentious and whole person.

Oh, how I long for this to be the end of the story.  I long to see Manti and Ronaiah in the weeks that follow, come to see the light.  This year our society has taken many steps towards recognizing same sex lovers as equal to their heterosexual counterparts.  As Obama said in his inaugural address, "If we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."  

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