The recent phenomena of Lance Armstrong’s doping confession and the release of the movie Les Misérables have more in common than just timing. And no, it’s not because Lance’s story is indeed misérable, which it is. It’s that everyone comes to each entity from a different level of intellectual and emotional investment (including none of either). I happen to know and care deeply about both entities. Both events have given me ample opportunity for reflection on the process of metanoia — of conversion — which, contrary to popular belief, is rarely if ever instantaneous, but instead a soul-gutting process which proceeds in stages, with each stage asking tougher and tougher questions to strip away a man to his truth. Lance, meet Javert; Lance, meet Valjean.
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I hate TV. But I love the Tour de France. For years I would call Time Warner Cable every June to hook up my cable, only to call them back in August to disconnect it.
I continued this routine when I moved to Texas. Every year the cable guy would offer me free upgrades to deluxe channel packages, followed by puzzled looks when I would tell him no thanks, I just want the basic plan that has OLN (which morphed to Versus, then NBC Sports Network). I would tell him, “Look, I’m just going to call you guys in August to have you disconnect my service anyway; I do this every year just so I can watch the Tour de France.”
Most years that earned me looks askance, but once I moved to Texas, that line became the opener to a conversation with the cable guy, who almost always had some childhood connection to Lance:
“I went to high school with him. Man, did he have a chip on his shoulder.”
“I was his wide receiver on our middle school football team. He was quarterback, and a damn good one. His stepfather belittled him, and Lance took it out on the field.”
I thought of these conversations tonight in his much anticipated interview with Oprah Winfrey when Lance said “I’ve been like this [a bully, a fighter] my whole life”, then citing his birth to a young unwed mother.
Most everyone knows Lance was born and raised in Texas. Some know that he was raised in Plano, a northern suburb (annexed exurb, really) of Dallas. Few know that he was born in Oak Cliff, TX — dubbed “The Brooklyn of Dallas” in the early 20th century. It’s long since been incorporated into Dallas proper, but it has always retained its own character — a true down-to-earth neighborhood among the high-rises, McMansions, and sleek-haired Dallasites walking around in peep-toe heels year-round. It also happens to be my adopted neighborhood.
Though neo-gentrified in recent years (read: influx of DINKs/SINKs/gay couples, most of whom are upwardly mobile professionals) and recovering from a reputation as the “South Central LA” of Dallas throughout the 80′s-90′s, it was and remains an enclave of working class, primarily white & Hispanic, families. You know — just folks. From my yard, you can hear the Adamson High School marching band practice, and most of the elementary school children in my neighborhood still walk or bike to school.
Lance Armstrong was born into this neighborhood — at Methodist Hospital in Oak Cliff, just across the Trinity River from downtown Dallas — to an unwed high school senior at Adamson. He was estranged from his father from his toddler years and was adopted by his stepfather, whose surname he bears. He and his mother for their whole life had to, to paraphrase his words, always fight to survive.
It’s a common theme we hear from many people who have overcome adversity. But what of people who only know adversity? Those who were born into it? How can they know any other way? Only when circumstances or grace (circumstances through grace?) allows that person to step out of himself and see his dead-end trajectory for what it is. And this insight seems to be dawning — finally — on Lance.
Many have criticized the fact that he’s “confessing” in the pop forum-phenomenon that, like him, goes by one name — Oprah. Some argue that he should have first confessed to WADA or USADA — spill the dirt to “help cycling”. These arguments, though well-meaning, seem to be put out by people who think that cycling per se is the center of the world. I have news for those insular-minded people: the most important thing about this affair is not that Lance save or pay back cycling for the damage he’s done; the most important aspect is repairing the damage done to his own psyche, his soul, and thereby make amends with the other souls he has hurt or brought to scandal. Cycling is just an activity, a vehicle, though some treat it (like many other finite, worldly things) like a religion. But the human element is what is most important. And in our culture, icons can only be matched with icons. Ergo, Lance talking to Oprah, like it or not, is the most efficacious way for Lance to confess and begin his making amends process. His input to WADA/USADA will come in time, particularly if he is serious about being the “first in line” for a proposed “Truth and Reconciliation Committee”. But Lance the Man must have this catharsis of his human nature before Lance the Cyclist can do so. It’s the proper priority.
I was quite surprised by the level of sincerity he displayed throughout most of the interview. There were shaky points to be sure, but the most telling line (in part 1 anyway) was his reply to Oprah, when she expressed surprise that he would say he is happier now [in his current circumstances] than when he was winning his Tours de France: he then emphatically clarified his statement, saying that he is happier “today, not yesterday” than he was at the height of his cycling career. That indicated to me that he viewed this interview as his de facto confession.
And “Fr.” Oprah did not disappoint. I was impressed by her command of the salient procycling context, as I doubt she is a diehard cycling fan (though she should be — it rivals any of the dramas on her network, I suspect). She did her research, including reading Tyler Hamilton’s book and the USADA report and affidavits. And she didn’t throw Lance any softballs. She asked about Michele Ferrari, and his efforts to make amends with people like Betsy Andreu and Emma O’Reilly; she made him clarify his points (“So are you a bully?”), and called him out on his attempts at sophistry when downplaying his mafia don-like grip on the USPS doping culture or whether or not he hurled demeaning verbal insults at Betsy Andreu.
After watching this first chapter of his interview, I’m giving Lance the benefit of the doubt and believing, along with Oprah, that he is telling his story and expressing the level of contrition at the level he is capable of at this moment. I’ve trusted my gut about Lance so far. I’d like to think that despite mucking daily through the barrage of toxic Tweets in my timeline, that I have not become so cynical and intransigent to think that people can’t genuinely change. I’m going to invoke the spirit of Pascal’s Wager and side with the joyful father of the Prodigal Son, rather than his bitter brother.
I think it’s time to watch Les Misérables again. I’ll take Jean Valjean over Javert any day.