Can a person really change? Examples please
March 17, 2012 1:10 PM   Subscribe

I need true and well known examples of a person who has truly redeemed or changed him/herself.

I want to make a point that my coworkers should be willing to accept that a certain individual may be able to change and become a better person, despite conventional wisdom that "once a (fill in the blank) always a (fill in the blank)." One of the transgressions of the person in question is a lack of honesty, so people are especially skeptical.

I simply want to be able to say, "If (famous person) could change and stop (whatever it was that he/she did wrong), then it's at least possible that our person can too. For some reason, though, my mind is blank. Maybe part of my problem is that unlike in literature or film where we have clues to the inner workings of the characters mind, its impossible to know if a real, live, person has actually changed or is just faking it.

Any ideas?
posted by Barium232 to Human Relations (39 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I'm actually an atheist, but St. Augustine always strikes me as a great example of personal reform. When he was young he lived wildly ("God, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet"), though he later settled down, converted to Christianity, and became a leading theologian. A lot of this story is found in his work Confessions.
posted by HabeasCorpus at 1:25 PM on March 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Charles Colson?
Watergate co-conspirator to evangelical advocate for prisoners.
posted by TDIpod at 1:26 PM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Malcolm X was a thief and drug dealer before becoming a minister and activist.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:26 PM on March 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

Part of the issue is that, as you say, it is very hard to tell if a non-fictional person has learned to be honest or just learned to be a better at lying.

Because most know that people rarely change major personality traits, any example that you provide will likely be seen as the exception to the rule, and that your co-worker isn't as strong/amazing/rare as Famous Person Example. Really, the tone of your statement suggests that he/she is about to suddenly overcome a part of their personality. Which will tend to make people skeptical and doubtful.

I kind of think this is a XY problem. A better way to approach this might be to say:

"He/she realizes the error of his/her ways and is making the effort to change. It will be very difficult so it would really help if we could all be supportive and give him/her a chance".
posted by Shouraku at 1:28 PM on March 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Frank Meeink's story came across to me as incredibly authentic.
posted by alphanerd at 1:28 PM on March 17, 2012

John Lennon.

Actually, some might argue whether his message counts for redemption or what. But he did beat his first wife and regret it.
posted by LogicalDash at 1:30 PM on March 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Maybe I'm a sucker for believing Hollywood hype, but if a person believes Robert Downey Jr.'s story, he certainly turned himself around.
posted by kinetic at 1:31 PM on March 17, 2012

Jimmy Boyle is a Scottish sculptor, novelist and convicted murderer.
posted by episodic at 1:31 PM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd like to suggest a different approach.

Personality traits are categories. There are any number of behaviors that could be called "dishonest," and once you go looking for those, you can find at least a few in everyone. So unless they get really ostentatious about their honesty, you'll never reach a point where you can tell that the old dishonesty is gone.

So if you're trying to convince a person they can change, focus instead on changes they can actually perceive. If they've got a pattern of straightforward lying--the sort where you know the truth, tell a lie about it, and then keep up the lie with other deceptions--they're probably benefiting from that somehow, perhaps even to the point where they'd lose their job if their boss knew they were involved in union activities, for instance. But if they can identify some lies that they don't need to keep up anymore, and deliver truth to the concerned people, well--they can actually do that, and it will be an improvement. Never mind whether the last step of the journey is tractable, you've got to take the first one first.
posted by LogicalDash at 1:37 PM on March 17, 2012

"I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times ... and I don't mind apologizing over and over again. I can't erase what happened."

-Senator Robert Byrd, who was once a member of the KKK.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:41 PM on March 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ooops, link.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:41 PM on March 17, 2012

Thanks everyone for your responses. A appreciate them, but none quite fit, yet - although this does help me realize how I could have framed my question better.

1. With the time I'll have to make my point, I'll need a name that is instantly recognizable.
2. To make the case, the person's transgressions had to be well known, severe, and public (I didn't know the story that about John Lennon, and while Malcom X might be the best example yet, I still would have to give background about his life before he became famous)
3. Shouraku: What you've written is exactly what I intend to say (almost verbatim), but it will be greeted with complete skepticism. I'm well aware of the "You're no John Kennedy" type response, but I just need to plant the seed that change is possible, even if highly unlikely.
posted by Barium232 at 1:44 PM on March 17, 2012

*I appreciate
posted by Barium232 at 1:45 PM on March 17, 2012

Mackenzie Phillips.
posted by Melismata at 1:59 PM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mike Tyson and his pigeons?
posted by Vaike at 2:12 PM on March 17, 2012

The jury is probably still out on both of these that come to my mind, but maybe:

In all of the relatively recent (say, ten years) interviews that I've seen with Mike Tyson, he comes off as a genuinely introspective man who is open and critical about himself and his past behavior.

The cute teenybopper neonazi band "Prussian Blue" has apparently forsaken all that crap.
posted by Flunkie at 2:21 PM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Britney Spears seems to have turned things around more or less but I'm not sure if an example like this will be that effective. People having to work with someone who's been untrustworthy have probably been burnt by them before. They don't want to get burnt again and will be careful.

I think you would get more traction by saying this person is trying to change and we should all try to encourage that being cautious if there can be negative consequences. It's normal for trust to take time to be earned back. It's the way people protect themselves from people who've behaved badly in the past.
posted by stray thoughts at 2:25 PM on March 17, 2012

Dave Dahl
posted by Fairchild at 2:44 PM on March 17, 2012

How about the Manson Family women?
posted by something something at 2:51 PM on March 17, 2012

Ted Kennedy went from disgrace to being called the "last lion" of the Senate when he died. The folks who hated him at the end were primarily the 1% and their spokespuppets.
posted by Currer Belfry at 3:00 PM on March 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Again, thanks for all the responses. Stray thoughts, I'm not sure what you mean I'll get more traction by saying that, since (as indicated above) I already intend to say something very similar to that.

The issue is that there is an immediate wall that goes up upon saying Mr. X is trying to change because conventional wisdom is that people are incapable of changing certain traits, so even in the face of evidence that he is doing so, people will not believe it. Thus, we have the problem that even if Mr. X can change, it will be a failure anyway because people will have filtered out evidence of the change and found, exaggerated, or invented, evidence to reinforce their beliefs. This is why I am so concerned about this - I personally doubt the change will happen, but if it does it would be a terrible shame for everyone involved if it is not believed. I just want to move people ever so slightly from believing change is impossible to thinking that it at least conceivable.

Here's an analogy:
You know that it is impossible for dogs to talk, so if you see something that looks like a talking dog, you will immediately assume it's a trick. Chances are you would never be convinced because you'd be so sure it is a trick that you wouldn't bother to investigate further or pay attention to evidence.

However, let's say that you were first presented with irrefutable proof that talking dogs, while extremely rare, do exist. At a later date, if you saw what appeared to be a talking dog, you might still be skeptical and think this was not a real talking dog since they are so rare, but you would at least be willing to consider the possibility.

That may be the worst analogy I ever came up with. I hope you get the point (and I hope whatever argument I try to use next week come across better than that) ;-)
posted by Barium232 at 3:08 PM on March 17, 2012

George W. Bush positions himself as this type of example. Some are skeptical.
posted by Houstonian at 3:57 PM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well the instantly recognisable story of transformation for me is Paul the Apostle. Even the words "Road to Damascus" are enough. I know it's a tad religious but it's a jolly good story. The leap of faith required to believe in X fits well.

I suspect this doesn't quite fit what you're looking for. The only story I can think of that's anything like that talking dog thing is Susan Boyle's. People took one look at her and wrote her off until she got a chance to prove herself.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 3:58 PM on March 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Buckminster Fuller was expelled from Harvard (twice!). By age 32 he was a bankrupt, suicidal alcoholic who worked at a meat-packing plant.

Per Wikipedia:
He finally chose to embark on "an experiment, to find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity."
He became one of the greatest designers and public intellectuals of the 20th century.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:10 PM on March 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

Danny Trejo changed from a criminal to a productive and well-liked person.
posted by spasm at 4:30 PM on March 17, 2012

Chad Gaines
posted by SisterHavana at 5:50 PM on March 17, 2012

Nelson Mandela was a violent "terrorist" before committing to love and forgiveness. Not a horrible person to start, but had a pretty radical change.
posted by guster4lovers at 8:26 PM on March 17, 2012

Malcolm X

Before (when he was known as Detroit Red): drug dealing, gambling, racketeering, robbery/burglary /B&E, pimping.

After jail (when he was first in the Nation of Islam): disdain for MLK and the civil rights movement, black supremacist and separatist, all-around racist (blacks are superior to whites, white people are literally devils, etc.).

Post-Hajj (he starts calling himself El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz): breaks with the Nation, converts to Sunni Islam, willingness to work with leaders of the civil rights movement (and advocated for them to re-frame themselves as a human rights movement), reconsiders black nationalism, and changes his beliefs about other races because he saw different races acting as equals during Hajj:

"Brother, remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant—the one who wanted to help the [Black] Muslims and the whites get together—and I told her there wasn't a ghost of a chance and she went away crying? Well, I've lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I'm sorry for now. I was a zombie then—like all [Black] Muslims—I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man's entitled to make a fool of himself if he's ready to pay the cost. It cost me 12 years.

"That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days—I'm glad to be free of them."

Parks, Gordon, "Malcolm X: The Minutes of Our Last Meeting", Clarke, p. 122.

posted by magstheaxe at 8:56 PM on March 17, 2012

Twelve step literature is filled with these stories.

The key component: restitution. If you are committed to changing it is essential you bust your butt to make it up to those you have wronged.

This is also a factor (maybe the main factor) in criminal rehabilitation although that is hard to find in America lately.
posted by bukvich at 9:01 PM on March 17, 2012

Luis and Daniel Moncada ( along with Danny Trejo, they had roles in Breaking Bad) were gang members and spent time in prison before eventually becoming respected actors. Read about it here.
posted by costanza at 9:58 PM on March 17, 2012

This guy was the inspiration for American history x nazi skin heads and I truly think he's changed (he's a friend of a friend).
posted by bananafish at 9:58 PM on March 17, 2012

Anyone who meets the requirements of "instantly recognizable" is going to be dismissed by "they're no X". So this question is kind of set up for failure... people are going to be stubborn about this sort of thing regardless of how convincingly you present an argument.

Here's another, though less righteous than someone like Malcom X: Jay-Z. Former crack dealer who shot his own brother turned millionaire philanthropist.
posted by asciident at 4:10 AM on March 18, 2012

George Müller was a thief, liar and gambler in his youth. When he met Christ his entire life changed and is one of the most well-known Christians in history for huge faith in God and prayer.üller
posted by jgwong at 6:09 AM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another one that people are skeptical about: Albert Speer (Nazi war criminal) apologized and in later life anonymously gave significant sums of money to Jewish charities.

However! Here's an example that few could be skeptical about: Benjamin Franklin was a slave-owner turned abolitionist. It's irrefutable that he owned slaves, and even advertised slaves for sale in his newspaper. It's also irrefutable that in later life he led an abolitionist movement, wrote publications against slavery, and freed his own slaves.

You can probably find other people by thinking through some of the terrible events in history, where at one point a society felt one way, and then what was acceptable changed and individuals changed with it.
posted by Houstonian at 6:18 AM on March 18, 2012

I'd suggest that having a famous person be an example is the wrong approach for making this kind of argument because they're too distant - we don't know them. Far better to invite people to focus on someone they know (or even themselves) who made a change that was really difficult. That could be stopping drinking, losing weight, moving across the country, whatever. Some big change that someone made that was difficult to do.

In my mind, it's not so much that you need a famous person who's an inspiration, as that you need to talk about the risk of having hope that someone can change.

Is it better to have hope for someone and be disappointed or to have no hope and be "right" when the person fails?
posted by jasper411 at 8:27 AM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

One of the best I've ever read about was C.P. Ellis, an 8th grade drop-out and Ku Klux Klan leader who threw a party when Martin Luther King died. But after being forced to work with a militant black rights leader, Ellis went through a painful journey to become a pro-racial-equality union organizer. His oral history is one of the best in Studs Terkel's books.
posted by steinsaltz at 10:31 AM on March 18, 2012

I wonder if the difficulty we're all having answering this question easily kind of spells doom for your argument.
posted by elizeh at 7:29 PM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Disgraced former British Cabinet Minister, John Profumo.

The current president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, former British Cabinet Minister Jonathan Aitken late of Her Majesty's Prison Stanford Hill.
posted by dmt at 9:01 AM on March 19, 2012

Thanks again to everyone who contributed. Ultimately, I just said something along the lines of that I personally didn't want to be the kind of person who would ever give up hope on another person and I hope that everyone else felt the same.
posted by Barium232 at 12:06 PM on March 24, 2012

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