What Had Come Over Her?

In 1972 Amitai Etzioni published an article in the old Saturday Review on the difficulties of changing behavior. Etizioni argued that there is something basically wrong with most efforts to change human behavior. To be sure individuals can be taught many new skills, languages, and intellectual competencies. But when we turn to modifying fundamental values, and personality traits, as well as other persistent habits like cigarette smoking, drug addiction or overeating, we may have a far more difficult time.

Etizioni made a strong case for a re-examination of our core assumptions about the behavior change process and concluded: “We are now confronting the uncomfortable possibility that human beings are not very easily changed after all.” How then do individuals change? The authors of imaginative literature are by no means silent on this question.

In Bertold Brecht’s short story The Unseemly Old Lady a respectable seventy-two year old grandmother, who managed a household of five children in a small town in Germany, is suddenly transformed after the death of her husband. We learn about the remarkable changes in her behavior from the letters her children wrote each other about what should be done about her and from the reports her husband’s business associate, a printer,

She begins going to the cinema, something she never did before her husband died. Then she starts spending a good deal of time at a nearby cobbler’s workshop located “in a poor and even slightly notorious alley, frequented by all manner of disreputable characters.” During the summer, she would often rise very early, around 3 am, and walk about the deserted streets of the town by herself. The story is narrated by one of her grandchildren who observers,

“About six months after my grandfather’s death the printer wrote to my father saying their mother now ate at the inn every other day. That was really news! Grandmother, who in all her life had cooked for a dozen people and herself had always eaten up the leavings, now ate at the inn. What had come over her?”

Then she hires a horse-drawn vehicle that takes her on periodic trips around the countryside, sometimes in the company of a “feeble-minded” young girl. Finally, she no longer shows any interest in her family, turning away from opportunities to visit with her children or welcome them to her home. She died quite suddenly without illness a few years after her husband’s death. Her granddaughter says,

“When you come to think of it, she lived two lives in succession. The first one as daughter, wife and mother; the second simply as Mrs. B, an unattached person without responsibilities and with modest but sufficient means.” Brecht concludes, “She had savoured to the full the long years of servitude and the short years of freedom and consumed the bread of life to the last crumb.”

I also view the tale as an example of how significant changes in behavior occur quite naturally. Her grandmother’s metamorphosis is not an entirely unknown reaction following the death of a spouse. Indeed, fundamental changes in the circumstances of one’s life often serve as a catalyst for comparable shifts in behavior. A divorce, job layoff, a personal or spiritual crises, a physical illness, a family inheritance, even a good book, etc. can often set the occasion for striking out on a totally new path.

These are not the kind of conditions that can be induced by an agent of change or, for example, a communication campaign or incentive program. But when they occur naturally during the course of one’s life, they can exert a powerful effect. They are also relatively infrequent and, as a result, do not often induce a major transformation in one’s life.