Such a strange feeling came over me last week when I read about Mitt Romney’s high-school escapade—you know, the one where he and his buddies at their fancy prep school ganged up on the new kid, held him down, and forcibly cut his hair? “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” one of Mitt’s old mates recalls him saying about the new kid, whose hair was bleached blond, a few days before he and his posse hunted him down and tackled him. As the friend describes it, the victim cried and screamed for help as Mitt “repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.”
Like a lot of other people, I was horrified when I read about the incident. But my horror was intensely personal. You see, when I was in college, I and some friends ganged up on one of our friends—a guy who was different, who had unruly red hair that hung to his waist—held him down, and cut his hair with scissors. It was a dumb, dumb, dumb thing to do. We only snipped a tiny bit, but that’s beside the point. What we did was awful, violative, and when I think about it today, 35 years later, I get positively sick. It’s the sensation Jon Ronson describes in his book The Psychopath Test—the feeling we get “when we realize we’ve done something terrible, the feeling of fear and guilt and remorse, the physical manifestation of our conscience.”
My kids know what I did. I made sure to tell them about it to illustrate how one stupid moment of not thinking clearly, of following the crowd, can haunt you for the rest of your life. My relationship with my friend was never the same after that—how could it be? My relationship with my fellow attackers was forever changed, too. Being in their company reminded me of the awful thing we had done, together, and I didn’t really want to be in their company any more. Sure, in one way, it was a stupid, childish prank. But it was also something more.
It was a milestone in my journey to adulthood—a moment that changed the way I thought about myself and about other people. It was one of those painful checkpoints that make you wake up and say: Hell, I’ll never do anything like that again. It was, quite literally, life-altering. I certainly didn’t stop doing stupid things, but I never again did anything so purposefully yet meaninglessly cruel just for the sake of “fun.”
So what’s that got to do with Mitt Romney? Just this: He doesn’t remember the forcible haircut that four of his schoolmates described to the Washington Post—and that they all said is troubling to them even now, nearly 50 years later. He has no memory of it whatsoever. If it happened—and there doesn’t seem any reason to doubt the other men’s accounts—it made no impression whatsoever on him. The terrified student pinned to the ground, crying, screaming for help … nope. Nothing there. Not just no life lesson, no turning point—nothing. At all. Here’s how ABC News reported his reaction when he was asked specifically about it: “’I don’t remember that incident,’ Romney said, laughing.” He suggested we should just forget about schoolboy pranks and get back to worrying about the important stuff.
That’s certainly what he did 50 years ago at the Cranbrook School. You know—the important stuff, like being on the Pep Squad and writing letters to girls and being manager of the hockey team and pretending to open doors so that visually challenged teachers would smack into them face-first. The important stuff didn’t include caring about the feelings, or the pain, of others, apparently. Yep, that wild and crazy Mitt.