It’s been a couple of years since my three youngest daughters — Mary, Christine, and Teresa — stopped describing boys to me in the way they had always described them. Before they stopped, whenever they talked about a new boy they had met and liked, they focused on how nice he was. They would say, “He’s such a nice guy. You can’t help but like him.”
That particular description of their newfound friends really irritated me. Every time one of them mentioned how nice a guy was I responded by saying, “Eighty percent of the guys in prison are nice guys. The other 20 percent are mean or evil. The 80 percent who are nice have other critically important character flaws that disqualify them from further consideration as a boyfriend.”
At first, the girls thought I was being cynical, negative, and overprotective of them. Each time one of them talked about how nice a guy was, I reminded them that being nice wasn’t a sufficient enough reason to consider developing a relationship.
At one point, I explained to the girls that during the 1980s and 1990s, I represented several young men who were charged with crimes. Eighty percent of them were nice guys. They simply couldn’t control their behavior. Many of them were addicted to alcohol, drugs, or pornography. Most of them were inherently dishonest and blamed everyone but themselves for their problems. All of them were experts at making excuses for their behavior, always finding a reason why they were not responsible for their actions.
After several months of warnings about how they needed to be careful not to let their guard down just because a guy came across as being nice, my daughters stopped describing guys as being “nice.” At least around me they stopped. Instead, they talked about other positive traits that the guys possessed.
I viewed that as a positive development. I wanted them to get into the habit of looking beyond the surface of a person. I wanted them to dig in and discover the qualities and defects of the young men they were meeting, before developing a relationship with them.
Earlier this month, I met with a young man who wanted to file for bankruptcy. During our meeting, he told me that he had recently been released from prison. He had been convicted of burglary and had spent two years in prison. When I met with him he was on parole. Prior to going to prison, he had racked up a lot of debt and although he was now employed, the money he was earning was barely paying his living expenses.
After we talked for a while, I said, “You really seem to have your act together. You have a lot of potential. What happened?” He hesitated and then replied, “You know, I’m really a nice guy. I just do stupid stuff.”
Of course, that evening, without revealing the name of the person I had talked to, I told my wife and daughters about the conversation I had with the former prisoner. He was the type of guy my daughters would have liked if they had met him at a wedding or other social function. In addition to being a nice guy, he was muscular, good looking, and was very likable.
Last week, I received a phone call from a distant relative I haven’t heard from for several years. For the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to call him “Burt.” I represented Burt in the past and am very familiar with him.
In the mid-1990s, I got a phone call from Burt in the middle of the night. He told me that he had been arrested and was at the Peoria police station where two detectives wanted to question him. He told the detectives he needed to call his lawyer before he talked to them.
I drove to the police station and met with Burt. After he explained his situation, I told the detectives that he wasn’t going to answer any of their questions. Burt was married and had gotten himself involved with another woman. The woman committed a serious crime and although Burt wasn’t involved in the commission of the crime, he later helped her cover up the crime. There’s a strong likelihood that Burt would have been charged with a felony if he had talked to the detectives.
At that time, Burt was unemployed and his life was in shambles. I knew he couldn’t afford to pay me for my services, but I still helped him. He was down and out and, after all, he really was … a nice guy. He was also a lapsed Catholic and I thought I could help guide him back into the Catholic Church.
Anyway, when Burt called last week he left a message that he needed to talk to me. I returned his call and to my surprise, he tried to shake me down for some money. It was a bizarre call. He started talking about something that happened 10 years ago with his family. At that time, I represented a member of his family and he implied that I was somehow responsible for a dispute that he later had with his family.
Until that conversation, I had never realized how manipulative Burt was. I quickly discovered that he was a master manipulator. In an attempt to intimidate me, he told me about several conversations he had with family members and what they had told him about me. Although the phone call lasted less than 10 minutes, Burt used five of the nine common tactics of manipulators. (The nine tactics were described by Leslie Vernick, a Christian counselor in Pennsylvania.)
After I realized what Burt was up to, I shut him down and made it clear to him that the conversation was over. After I hung up the phone, I thought about all of the nice-guy criminals I had represented in the past. They were all like Burt. They were masters at the art of manipulation. They knew how to win people over to their side so they could get what they wanted. They were experts at avoiding responsibility and making excuses for their behavior.
I’ve been a lawyer for more than 32 years. One of my biggest challenges is to remain compassionate and caring toward other people, especially the people who don’t really deserve to be treated with compassion. Because of my years of experience in dealing with manipulative and selfish people, I have to constantly fight off the temptation to be cynical and suspicious toward others.
I am grateful that I have a strong Catholic faith and that I have been given the grace to pray a daily rosary and attend daily Mass. If I didn’t do those two things every day, I don’t think I would be able to maintain my positive attitude toward others. It is only by the grace of God and the guidance of the Blessed Virgin Mary that I have been able to avoid becoming angry and revengeful toward people like Burt.