In the craze of the “extreme makeovers,” televisions shows were making over everything from antique vehicles to people. One of those people was Deleese Williams. She knew her looks were not equivalent to those of her friends or family. It was not that she had an awkward haircut, wore odd clothes or didn’t know how to apply makeup. Her differences were structural. From the shape of her eyes to the size of her jawbone, Deleese looked different.
But Deleese had one thing that she could count on. Her family had, by most accounts, always supported her. It was, in a way, her lifeboat in a rough ocean. The support of her family had kept her going. But then, the cliched dream of a little girl turned princess became a possibility.
When the producers of the ABC show Extreme Makeover choose Deleese as an episode of their show, most of the family looked past the process of the transformation to the end result. The idea that Deleese would have the opportunity to stand amongst society without standing out would be a dream come true. But there was a critical part of the process that would have lasting repercussions which no one saw coming.
The Ugly Duckling
During the pre-operation consultations and scheduling process, the producers of Extreme Makeover created the ugly duckling segment of the show. This included the background, photos and interview with friends and family of the soon-to-be transformed subject. The producers knew interviews about what a wonderful person the subject was would only go so far. They needed those closest to the future princess to say just how ugly she really was prior to the transformation.
This proved difficult in the case of Deleese. Her family was so supportive and loved her so deeply, that the producers had to coach them into admitting she was ugly. They had spent her entire life supporting Deleese, loving her, and telling her just how beautiful she was. But eventually family members broke. Her mother-in-law admitted that, “I never believed my son would marry such an ugly woman.” Kelly McGee, Deleese’s sister, who had always been a huge source of support, was coached and coerced by the producers to admit difficulties about their childhood because of how Deleese looked. They put words in her mouth to help her describe her ugly sister.
Painful words, that were coached and pulled from the family members, hurt Deleese. But this was what the producers wanted. They had Deleese watch as the family said the disparaging things the producers leveraged out of them. The goal was to catch the pain Deleese felt when she heard “the truth.” Deleese secretly listened in from an adjacent room as they recorded her hearing just how ugly her family actually thought she was. The producers had successfully captured the hurt and pain they were looking for. But it would all be okay once the process was over. Deleese was hearing about the old version of herself, not the new, elegant, beautiful version that was yet to come.
Deleese was alone in her hotel room in Los Angeles, reading her pre-op instructions when a producer showed up with bad news. The dental surgeon had just informed the show that the recovery time for Deleese would not fit into the shows schedule. It was going to be a much longer wait than they had anticipated and so, as the lawsuit against ABC states, the producer said to Deleese, “You will not be getting an extreme makeover after all…It doesn’t fit in our time frame. You will have to go back to Texas tomorrow.”
Deleese broke down. She said, “How can I go back as ugly as I left? I was supposed to come home pretty.”
But, Deleese did go home, exactly as she had left, only she was crushed. And the hurtful things the producers of the show had coached out of her family could not be unsaid. The pain of those admissions proved too much for her sister Kelly, and on May 25, 2004 she overdosed, leaving behind two children.
This heartbreaking story has so many variables that it has been included in many national and international newspapers and was a huge part of Jon Ronson’s book, The Psychopath Test.
It is hard to over-state the crushing blow that a momentary lapse in judgment had between Deleese and Kelly. Certainly the pain and hurt of the few harsh sentences hung between them in the four months before Kelly’s suicide. Kelly, even though she was prodded into hurting Deleese, had hurt her. She had an emotional debt towards her sister that she couldn’t pay. Kelly couldn’t unsay what she had been manipulated into saying. There was no way to even the score.
Balanced reciprocity, or the even exchange of emotion, explains how decades of kindness between sisters can be washed away by moments of callous.
In 1965, an anthropologist named Marshall Sahlins studied reciprocity in humans around the world. By 1965 he claimed that there are three distinct types of reciprocity–generalized, negative and balanced or symmetrical. The following are examples of each.
- Generalized reciprocity is an open-ended offering. For instance, if you help a stranger change a flat tire, you don’t finish the transaction with a contract binding that person to help you pull weeds next weekend. We help because we are part of society. If that stranger never returns the favor, it won’t stop you from being generous next time. This is a completely altruistic exchange.
- Negative reciprocity is the attempt to get something for nothing. It is the act of taking from society without adding any value in exchange. This is not the person in the above example who is the beneficiary of a kind act. Think Bernie Madoff and other con-men. They are the vacuums of society sucking goodness and trust from the world.
- Balanced or symmetrical reciprocity is tit for tat. Perhaps the best example of balanced reciprocity is a gift exchange, in which each gift must be purchased for a certain dollar amount. Not a spending limit, but a situation where each gift cost the same as the others. This is the perfect example of balanced reciprocity. It is the even exchange of actions, gifts or emotions.
We get what we give.
Deleese, even if only for a moment, was judged by the comments pulled from her sister by the producers of a fleeting television show. Once we understand the power of balanced or symmetrical reciprocity, it’s easy to see how someone who is not critical of others would hold more influence than those who are. We can understand how psychopaths manipulate us, how con-men are successful, but also how we can be honest and gain more influence at the same time.