I haven’t read The Scarlet Letter since high school. I recall it as a book I neither loved nor hated. I preferred the mystery of “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and was particularly delighted by the idea of consciously externalizing one’s inner life in a way that would be so deeply damning, so deeply alienating and so deeply confounding, as well.
What I remember about The Scarlet Letter is that Hester was the heroine, that by embracing her punishment she was invested with moral authority denied to her accusers. Her cowardly lover died when his identity was revealed. Her monstrous husband died of bitter bile when he was denied the pleasure of revenge. Because Hester was simultaneously cast out and kept in, she held a mirror to her community, and others would seek refuge with her.
I puzzled over Hester on Sunday afternoon, prompted to memory by Ginia Bellafante’s outrageous New York Times profile of Providence Hogan, the former PS 29 PTA treasurer who over a period of years and who systematically attempted to cover up the theft with fraudulent accounting entries. I sorted characters and stories, looking for an analogous fit. The Scarlet Letter is a complicated indictment of self-righteousness and moral cowardice. All the characters are compromised. But Hester Prynne least of all.
It is disingenuous of Ms. Bellafante to liken Providence Hogan to Hester Prynne. It’s not only an imperfect comparison, it’s also too easy. The Scarlet Letter in the popular imagination isn’t about how character is forged by punishment and consequence, but rather about persistent and unfair humiliation.
By casting Providence as Hester Prynne, Ms. Bellafante casts the victims—children as young as four, their parents, teachers, support staff—indeed the whole community—as the bitter, vengeful, blind and morally bankrupt Puritans. Are we as a group so hasty to render judgment that we’d drown our own daughters while the witch cackled from the tops of the trees?
In her attempt to paint a sympathetic portrait of Providence, Ms. Bellafante lobs grenades at what she describes as “the better kempt, the right and righteous” sorority of Cobble Hill mothers. In her account, Providence is a victim of collective bullying, shunned by the popular girls, the subject of malicious gossip by a group that takes a little too much pleasure in the prospect of her punishment. Bellafante here has borrowed the overwrought characterizations of our cultural moment — a moment in which we’ve all embraced an anti-bullying agenda.
Many crimes, like littering on the highway, promise both a fine and a prison sentence as punishment. So far, the PTA has asked only for restitution. We are not now nor have we ever been intent on destroying an already fragile person. Rather, we are in search of a refund. We are not looking for vindication. In large part we’ve received that. Providence confessed. But now she neither wants to repay what she stole nor accept the potentiality of prison. To be fair, neither would I. Were I Providence, I would likely live in an unrelenting state of despair.
It is possible, I think, to construct a sympathetic portrait of a criminal without attacking her victims, without implying that the victims are in fact the aggressors. It is responsible to recognize that while certainly some of the criminal’s victims are outraged and vindictive, as a whole, the community has been much more circumspect. PS 29 went to great lengths to make sure that Ms. Hogan’s daughter would be treated with respect and compassion, that she would not be victimized because of her mother’s deeply damaging crime.
I do not personally know anyone who thinks the school would benefit by its former treasurer being removed from her family to spend time behind bars. In this way, Ms. Bellafante completely distorts the reality with which we live every day in our neighborhood.
I was a co-secretary of PS 29’s PTA during the time that Providence was actively stealing from the school. I sat in meetings with her. I never got to know her well, but when I learned that she’d been accused of embezzlement, I was confounded, not outraged. I created prospective motives that largely let Providence off the hook — perhaps her business took a hit when the economy turned south and she “borrowed” the money in desperation, thinking she’d pay it back when her business recovered. Perhaps it was a quarterly tax filing or a workers’ comp assessment that pushed her to do it. Maybe she “needed” the money to make payroll. And so on and so forth. I needed to leave room for these little narrative. Otherwise, I would be left with utter confusion and a sense of betrayal.
It is worth noting that Hester Prynne’s punishment gave her life meaning and purpose. Her scarlet letter afforded her deliverance, and finally integrated her as an essential part of her community. Given the opportunity to flee, to shed her mark of shame, she returned. She put the letter back on her chest, and it was transformed into a symbol of her strength and resilience.
Instead of finding a sense of purpose or meaning, Providence went to The New York Times. She recounted a horrible childhood, academic failure, a difficult relationship with her mother, years of duress with an unemployed husband, thwarted desire for a second child. Her solitude seems to have resulted in self-pitiful psychologizing. What strikes me, what is so obvious and makes the story so pathetic, is that despite the unjust, undesirable and sometimes flat-out unfair circumstances of one’s childhood, we still hold adults accountable for their actions. We cannot but do otherwise.
Ms. Bellafante has by sleight of hand written a damning indictment of Providence Hogan while at the same time using her feigned sympathy to attempt to shame a whole swath of Brooklyn. On final analysis, we learn too much, and the wrong details. We learn that Providence is “someone who seems too easily to fall prey to her own desperation,” that she “greeted unfortunate circumstance with a profound negligence.” She is described as disheveled, with no friends in evidence. We learn her monthly rent, where she bought groceries at least once, how she saves by walking everywhere and not buying clothes. If we are to believe Ms. Bellafante’s profile, Providence Hogan is deluded and abject. Such a portrait is not very flattering, and it falls far short of sympathetic.
I have never been furious with Providence Hogan. I do not want to see her photographed in handcuffs or herded into the paddy wagon. I take no pleasure in her struggles. It’s really heartbreaking, for her family, her friends, her employees, her customers, her nearly 700 victims and their parents and teachers. It is a pity and I’m sure her remorse is not feigned. But she is no Hester Prynne.