Mistakes in Love—& the important film Erin Brockovich

The Most Popular Mistakes about Love— & How Not to Make Them!

By Nancy Huntting

With a consideration of the film “Erin Brockovich”

Julia Roberts and Aaron Eckhart in “Erin Brockovich”

As a woman who has made many mistakes about love, I want women everywhere to learn from Aesthetic Realism what those mistakes are, and how, at last, not to make them. I tell about my own experience, and also speak about the film Erin Brokovich and how it can be useful on the subject.

The biggest mistake I made—and the most popular for centuries, I learned—was to see love as a haven from a world I did’t like, where I would be glorified. This leads to other mistakes, such as 1) the impelling belief that this popular notion of “love” is the only really exciting thing there is, and much of the rest of life is dull; and 2) the right man will answer all our questions. “You want to fall into his arms,” Mr. Siegel said to me once in a class, about a man I was in a whirl about, “but it doesn’t end there.” No, I can happily answer now, it doesn’t.

To my surprise, I learned that love, the real thing, is not in competition with everything else. Its purpose is much larger—to like the world through another person. And when a woman has this as her conscious purpose, she has a real chance not to make the mistakes that ruin love.

Mistake #1: Love Is Where We Are Glorified

In his lecture Aesthetic Realism and Love, Mr. Siegel explained:

“Our biggest desire is to feel that the big world in which we are is something that makes us grow, something that makes us what we want to be. But we’d also like to think that the world is bad, disorganized, ugly, and that we’re superior to it. We would like to be a god in our own right: that is the victory of contempt. We would also like company; so if we can get somebody out of this world and possess that person, we think we have really pulled a universal fast one.”

These two desires: to become who we really are through using a man to know and like the world; and to be “a god in our own right” were fighting intensely in me.

Growing up in Ohio, I loved ballet classes, climbing trees, going to the local library, and school. I wanted to learn the structure of English sentences, found math problems so satisfying, and was excited by early American history.

But when Davey Brown, a boy in my class, kissed me by the swings, I felt a new, thrilling power as this handsome boy seemed so smitten by me. Increasingly I wanted a boyfriend to be a buffer against all the people who weren’t so smitten—who I summed up contemptuously as cold or annoying.

What I thought was all consuming “love” for my high school boyfriend, Terry McGage*, included jealousy, suspicion, anger, and tears. I wanted him safe and sound; completely under my spell. Meanwhile, I didn’t like myself. I felt I was clinging, weak and shy, afraid to express myself. But the mistake of thinking that love was getting a man to sufficiently adore me, continued.

When I met Steve Moore* in New York City, shortly after college, I thought he was serious, working his way through school, and had an enthusiasm I found irresistible. He had many friends, showed me New York, introduced me to his field, architecture, which I came to love. When we began living together I felt it was a dream come true, but soon I found myself resenting the very things I had liked—everything that meant something to Steve other than me! I was getting increasingly ill-natured.

Once when he went, without phoning me first, to an after-work party, I was furious. Steve knew I wouldn’t have enjoyed myself because I didn’t like talking to people—but that didn’t stop me from keeping him up late into the night, tearful and scornful at how selfish he was!

I Learn about Love!

Some years later we separated, and like many women today, I spent a lot of time nourishing my hurts in my mind. I’m so grateful that in Aesthetic Realism classes Mr. Siegel asked me questions that enabled me to see my mistakes and learn from them.

“Did you want Mr. Moore to feel he was independent?” Mr. Siegel asked in one class. No, I felt he was already too damn independent! But I wasn’t proud of this feeling.

Eli Siegel: Where was he suspicious of you? The greatest suspicion of men is that in some way they don’t understand, a woman is trying to make them weaker. Was your purpose to have him dependent on you?

NH: I’ve seen him as very independent.

ES: Did you want to change that, though?

I did. I began to see how, in wanting Steve to need me more than anything else, I wanted him weaker. Mr. Siegel asked: “Did you feel you would conquer the world by having Mr. Moore need you?” I did feel this.

“Did you feel you were wholly yourself in relation to Mr. Moore?” Mr. Siegel asked. “No,” I answered. “I never did. I used him to lessen my interest and care for other people.” And Mr. Siegel asked:

ES:  “Do you think there is any such thing as true love? Love is defined in two ways by Aesthetic Realism: 1) Love is proud need; 2) Ecstasy through good will.”

Studying Aesthetic Realism, I learned my questions were like those of other women and also men, and I got truly interested in knowing other people.

Having good will, which Mr. Siegel described as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful,” is essential for love to fare well. It is also the high point of intellect. If a woman wants to have a man in a separate world, just for herself, both persons will feel their deepest desire, to like the outside world, is being stifled, and fury ensues. And good will, I learned, is aesthetic: it is the oneness of criticism and kindness, for and against. We are passionately for what is good in a man as we are against what is not good in him. This purpose makes for romance that is authentic, emotions that sweep us and make us better!

Mistake #2: Thinking Love & Justice Are Different Worlds

I see the film Erin Brockovich as important in showing that women want very much to be a force for justice to people. It also comments on something only Aesthetic Realism makes clear: the awful mistake of making love a separate world where we are soothed and made important and don’t need to be fair to a damn thing.

The movie is based on the life of an actual woman named Erin Brockovich and her fight against a horrendous injustice, causing agonizing illness and death to hundreds of families in California: the continual dumping since at least 1965 by Pacific Gas & Electric, one of the world’s largest utility companies, of an extremely toxic, cancer causing chemical, hexavalent chromium, knowingly allowing it to seep into the water supply.

People everywhere, and Ms. Brockovich herself, need to know what I learned from Aesthetic Realism: what she is fighting is the contempt for human beings inherent in the profit system, where resources that all people need are owned privately for the purpose of profit for a few individuals. It’s the same contempt that has a woman feel she owns a man and can do with him whatever seems in behalf of her own comfort.

We like Erin Brockovich, played by Julia Roberts, because she’s a critic, and she’s also trying to be kind, has feeling for people. She has contempt also, and is scornful and angry in a way that hurts her and others. Meanwhile, there’s a desire to show herself in a way I respect—she’s not smooth! Julia Roberts in this role has an affecting relation of fierceness and tenderness, pride and vulnerability, sureness and unsureness.

Julia Roberts, baby Beth

As the movie begins, Ms. Brockovich is a single mother of three children who, after two failed marriages, finds herself without money or a job. She’s interviewing for work, and we see what people are going through all over the country; the uncertainty, desperation, worries about money to feed their family. Erin tells the interviewer she wanted to study medicine but got married early and had a child; in her first job with a engineering company she came to love geology, and reading maps! We see a woman with mind, possibilities, and also one who has made mistakes in love.

A Raging Question for Women

The film is critical of snobbish ways people sum up others. However, about sex and a woman’s body, it is mixed up. Tall, shapely Erin wears tight mini-skirts and low-cut tops,  and people take her to be neither responsible nor intelligent. And though she herself acts like she’s just being herself and others are at fault, her seductive wardrobe puts the spotlight on her body in a way that weakens the movie.

This is a raging question for women now. The crucial thing as a woman dresses herself, I learned, is our motive: Do we want men to be stronger or weaker? Do we want to bring out their kindness and intelligence— or their unkindness and stupidity, so we can be contemptuously supreme? If it is the second, we go against our own hopes—we divide our minds and bodies, as Erin is doing—and it’s a mistake.

Mistake #3: Women Are Intelligent & Sensitive; Men Are Brutes

We can learn about some of the popular mistakes about love through Erin Brockovich’s relation to her next door neighbor, George, played by Aaron Eckhart. Erin Brockovich wants to see men as selfish brutes, shown through contemptuous remarks about both her ex-husbands. However, she gives two messages to men: a come on through the alluring way she dresses, and a get away through her scornful rebuffs. This makes her very representative.

Julia Roberts and Albert Finney in "Erin Brokovich"
Julia Roberts and Albert Finney in “Erin Brokovich”

Out of desperation, Erin begs lawyer Ed Masry, played by Albert Finney, to employ her, and he grudgingly agrees. That evening, we see her tenderly covering her sleeping baby. Next door, George starts revving his Harley-Davidson. She runs out, furious at the loud noise. He apologizes immediately, and in a likable way introduces himself as her new neighbor—but she’s angry and unrelenting.

Aaron Eckhart in "Erin Brockovich"
Aaron Eckhart in “Erin Brockovich”

George, in old jeans and leather, appears to be tough, but as he talks, there’s a forthright kindness, a sweetness. He is, of course, affected by Erin; he wants “to make up for my rudeness” by taking her out to dinner and asks for her phone number. She smiles and with a touch of scorn says, “You want my number?” George, daunted but still cheerful, says: “I do, I do want your number.”

Seeing they affect a man, women have made a huge mistake: they have had a contempt victory, which comes to “look at what I can do to this fool.” I am tremendously grateful to know what Mr. Siegel explained about this: he pointed out that the world has “a preliminary hand” in a woman’s charms; it is the world that a man is affected by as he is affected by a woman: opposites such as delicacy and strength, curve and straight line. Erin is scornful that men, smitten by her surface, haven’t seen her depth. But she doesn’t want them to, either; she likes the victory of confusing them and feeling they’re dopes.

Meanwhile her response to George has style and reveals things that deeply matter to her:

Erin: “Which number do you want—George?”

George: “Well, how many numbers you got?”

Erin: “Oh, I got numbers coming out my ears—for instance, ten.”

George: “Ten. ”

Erin: “Yeah, that’s how many months old my baby girl is.”

George: “You got a little girl?”

Erin: “Yeah, sexy, huh? How’s about this for a number—six, that’s how old my other daughter is; eight is the age of my son; two is how many times I’ve been married and divorced, sixteen is the number of dollars in my bank account; 850-3943, that’s my telephone number, and with all the numbers I gave you I’m guessing zero is the number of times you’re going to call me.”

These impersonal numbers stand for the most personal aspects of Erin’s life. She turns abruptly to go in—

George: “How the hell you remember your bank balance right off the top of your head? —that impresses me!” —as the door slams —”and you’re dead wrong about that zero thing, baby.”

George proves Erin wrong. He likes her children and they like him; and she is much affected. Knowing she desperately needs someone to baby-sit so she can work, George offers to watch them in the afternoons. Erin is suspicious of his motive, but he responds with good-humored criticism—”You’ve got so many friends in this world, you can’t use one more?” She reluctantly agrees.

Marg Helgenberger as Donna Jensen in "Erin Brokovich"
Marg Helgenberger as Donna Jensen

Erin Brockovich’s purpose at the law firm is very different from how she is with George—there she has humility, asks many questions and uses her keen mind to know. She’s  a secretary and Ed Masry gives her a real estate case to simply “open a file on.” She finds medical records in it, is puzzled, and starts doing research to find out why. She visits the client, the Jensens, a couple in their 30s whose home Pacific Gas & Electric wants to buy—and finds out the utility paid for a doctor, who assured them there was no connection between the several benign tumors of Mrs. Jensen or her husband’s Hodgkin’s disease and the minuscule amounts of chromium in their water from the PG&E plant.

Chromium is good for human beings, they were told. But Erin finds there are six kinds of chromium: one is highly toxic. Buried in records at the water board is evidence this one is the deadly, cancer causing kind.

When Erin goes back to tell Donna Jensen, Mrs. Jensen can’t believe it at first—then she looks out at her two children splashing in a pool, and with sudden, terrible urgency, runs to get them out.

Erin will come to know over 600 families and their children in the community of Hinkley suffering from diseases caused by the chromium. As she visits and talks to them in their homes, we see her mind working carefully and how deeply she’s affected by them. Increasingly she comes to have a beautiful anger. Her boss wants to keep it a real estate settlement, saying she has no idea the difficulty of a toxic tort against a multi-billion dollar corporation:

Ed Masry: “It could take forever —and I’m just a guy with a small private firm.”

Erin (angrily): “Who happens to know that they’ve poisoned people and lied about it.  I may not know [the legal difficulty], but I know the difference between right and wrong.”

Erin doesn’t give up—and there is good will, belief in the best in Ed Masry. His conscience is stirred —he agrees to take on PG&E, and Erin works literally day and night to get the necessary evidence to win the case. The families in Hinkley would win the largest direct-action settlement ever—$330 million dollars— from Pacific Gas & Electric.

Mistake #4: Not Wanting to Know the Man

A fundamental mistake women make is not wanting to know the man they hope to love. We haven’t felt it was necessary or even that men were worth knowing too deeply; the main thing is how he treats us. This is contempt, and it ruins relationships. Mr. Siegel writes in Self and World these sentences, some of the most valuable and kind ever written:

“Love is the giving to a person of all that which is coming to him or her; nothing which is not deserved; everything which is. For that, a constant, comprehensive, intense desire to know a person is necessary.”

One of the most romantic scenes between George and Erin shows the beauty of the desire to know. Erin is driving home late one night, and on a cell phone calls George asking him to keep her awake. He tells her that her baby, Beth, has said her first word, ball. As we hear George’s voice, in awe, and moved, describing this event, we see Julia Roberts’ face, excited, tremulous, moved, her eyes welling with tears.

George: It was pretty intense, you know—seeing somebody’s first word; all the words they’re saying in their life, that’s the first word she says. She’s pointing her little finger, with her beautiful, soft, chubby little arm, and her little cheeks. You should have seen Matthew and Katy and me—we must have just stood there for three or four minutes and looked at her; and she had her arm out like that—ball. It was great.

This is about Beth as standing for all babies, and the large meaning of taking in the world, being able to give it form through a word. I think women seeing this respected the minds, the depths of men more. Erin can be proud to need George for bringing the world to her.

Later, however, we see the painful results of the lack of the desire to know between George and Erin. Because of her work, she is rarely home, and he feels put aside. He is waiting up for her with his bag packed, and says, sadly, “You’ve got to find a different job or a different man.” Erin says she can’t, that for the first time in her life people respect her. She refers to the selfishness of “the men who left me with the children,” saying: “All I’ve ever done is bend my life around what men decide they need, I’m sorry, I won’t do it.”

George: “Well, Erin, I’m sorry. I’m not them. What more do I have to do to prove that to you? ”
Erin (coldly): “Stay.”

But George leaves, and we feel both George and Erin are making a mistake. Later, after Erin asks him, he comes back and she’s glad, but feels she’s given in.

If Erin Brockovich Were to Have Aesthetic Realism Consultations

If Erin Brockovich were to have Aesthetic Realism consultations, and I hope the real-life Erin Brockovich does, her consultants might ask:

Consultants: Ms Brockovich, we agree that George shouldn’t ask you to leave a job which is good for you and good for others. But do you think he could feel you don’t want him to be directly useful to that work—you keep that part of your life separate from him? Could you have said: “George, I want you to know how much this job means to me, because I can really be useful to people. I’m grateful for the way you take care of Matthew and Katy and Beth. I see I have made a mistake: I’ve acted as if I don’t need your knowledge and encouragement in my work, and I do, very much.”

Erin B: (thoughtfully) Maybe I haven’t wanted him to be useful to me in my work.

Consultants: Do you think whenever a woman is against something in a man, she needs to be sure she is for what is best in him, or she is unjust? For example, in fighting against PG&E and the evil they’ve done, does your passion and your accuracy come from seeing what you are for — good lives for people?

Erin B: Wow—does that make sense! All I knew at that moment was, I was against George. How could he ask me to leave that job! The kindness, the good in him no longer existed. But they do exist. I give him a hard time. Why do I?

Consultants: Do you want to respect him more, or do you like feeling you are superior? You are fighting for justice in a large, good way now. But do you think you’ve also liked to fight with people, in a narrow way, to prove you’re better?

Erin B: You may be right there. I feel like I’ve been battling all my life, and I’m not proud of a lot of those fights.

Consultants: Have you had a history with men of feeling injured, then feeling you are justified in being angry and doing what you please, including punishing them? We can tell you that many women, including ourselves, have—and we are ever so grateful that through Aesthetic Realism, our desire for contempt was described and criticized!

Erin B: Thank you. I feel my life will be more integrated as I have consultations. —And love can really succeed!

This represents what women are learning right now in Aesthetic Realism consultations I am privileged to give with my colleagues. The education that magnificently explains and makes possible that age-old, thirsted-for thing, love, is here!

* Names of persons have been changed