Life and art provide plenty of examples of trust betrayed and promises broken. How do those who stray find their way back? It depends on the original status of the perpetrator, the medium, and the desired message.
Within every celebrity downfall lie the seeds of a comeback. Take Bill Clinton or Robert Downey Jr., for example. With their misadventures fading from public memory and their personal demons locked up, they quickly moved back into the light – one as a popular former president; the other as an ironclad superhero with a healthy ego.
Celebrities, it seems, have an edge in the area of second chances. Fame and success allow them a free spin at the redemption wheel, or one large peg to grab on the slope of image revival.
For those of us watching, there is a need to feel vindicated in backing them in the ?irst place. This undercurrent of support becomes stronger with any manifestation of their old brilliance. Every time Downey Jr. delivers a box of?ice hit, Clinton enthralls with his oratory, or Tiger Woods proves he can still come in under par, we nod with satisfaction. We knew they had it in them, we tell ourselves. Their stories become the stuff of comeback legend – winning examples of resilience and willpower.
How long it takes famous wrongdoers to claw their way out of disgrace depends on their ‘pre culpa’ popularity as well as the nature of their crimes. With a one-time lapse, they will land directly on the trampoline that will propel them back in public favour. Chronic offenders, on the other hand, will soon run out of their forgiveness passes.
Consider the cases of Rajat Gupta and Lance Armstrong, two former icons of rectitude and courage, whose fortunes have recently taken a nosedive. Based on the parameters above, it seems likely that Gupta will be back soon, following a brief incarceration. After all, he didn’t personally profit from his slip-up – in sharing corporate secrets with a hedge fund manager – and led a largely exemplary life spanning philanthropy and consulting before he crossed the line. His offense appears to be a lapse of reason rather than a calculated attempt to beat the system.
Armstrong’s case is a little more complicated, however. The large amount of equity he had built, as a champion who conquered cancer, among many cycling titles, is now considerably depleted by the evidence that he cheated his way to winning. And since he dragged his entire team through a systematic and sustained doping program, it leaves us with a jumbled view of the man that will take time to sort out.
The movies often handle the redemption theme with more drama and less nuance. In the ‘70s Bollywood hit Deewar, two brothers who choose divergent black and white career paths clash in a climax that features blood, tears, keening music, and a full maternal pardon. It’s a potboiler ending but an apt one in which the female ?igure that inspired one of the most famous responses in Hindi cinema (‘Mere paas ma hai’ or ‘I have my mother with me’) holds the key to the wayward son’s salvation.
Love – unconditional or otherwise – also figures prominently in delivering many Hollywood characters from the brink. Take Darth Vader, that cult rider of the personal transformation arc. Pulled into the dark side by a conspiracy of circumstances and forces, this conflicted villain ultimately finds redemption in the arms of his son, Luke. As his asthmatic breathing tapers off, fans can take comfort in concluding that this tormented soul is now headed back to his ‘good’ roots.
The message in religious texts is not quite as restrained. The Hindu scriptures (at least, according to some interpretations) are quite clear on what it takes to win rebirth rights. An errant soul will need to do its time in purgatory and this means a trip to Yama Loka and some severe handling by Yama, that purveyor of death and justice. Depending on his read of the situation, he may choose to boil the wrongdoer in oil or roast him over a slow ?ire. After this cleansing routine – the equivalent of a karmic spa treatment – the soul will emerge: rejuvenated, refreshed and ready to be reborn.
If there is a common ingredient in these examples, it is retribution. You have to face the music, serve your sentence, spend some time trapped in a hard head mask or one made of your own feelings of regret. The road to redemption may be treacherous and unpredictable; full of hairpin bends and steep drops before it finally ends at a place from where one can begin again – on an almost clean slate.