12/25/2008 05:26 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Christmas Betrayals

On a snowy night in Toronto way back in 1982, my then-wife took me to see Harold Pinter's Betrayal. It didn't help us settle the question of who had began the string of infidelities that would soon culminate in a mutual mercy-killing of our ill-conceived and extremely brief union. But it did awake in me a deep admiration for Harold Pinter's courage as a writer.

Betrayal used the tawdry stuff of a sexual affair with Lady Antonia Fraser made public by Pinter's then-wife, Vivien Merchant. Deftly. Beautifully. Timelessly. The play creates a memorable portrait of guilty people helplessly re-remembering their pasts to accommodate their fundamental need for self-acceptance and self-justification.

Reflecting on Pinter's gift, I imagined it might be his early experience as the stage actor David Baron that enabled him to examine humiliating and painful experience in such honest detail in so many plays. But there was nothing besides Pinter's raw talent to account for the standard of writing he achieved in Betrayal. Antonia Fraser -a total 'babe' in her day-- summed up their 33 years together yesterday saying it was a "privilege" to live with such a man.

Reading Pinter over the years made me believe that the moral need to rationalize our actions is even more deeply entrenched in fallible humans beings than sexual attraction. A dishonest President has to tell himself he is serving a higher power, but the jihadi murderer believes something very similar. Incompetent CEOs of car companies feel their industry is vital to the economy. Greedy mortgage brokers tell themselves they're offering houses to poor people.

When, however, they are eventually exposed, the magnitude of our failings prevent us from accomplishing further life-saving rationalizations, and shame overwhelms us. Sometimes we resort to destructive courses: his marriage ruined, a man dresses in a Santa suit and kills relatives at a family party before killing himself; OR overwhelmed with the responsibility of ruining his clients financier Thierry Magon de La Villehuchet also kills himself.

I'm flattering myself now that I understand M. de La Villehucet's death. What I don't understand is the shamelessness of the man he -and so many others-- trusted, Bernard Madoff. I also don't understand America's other scoundrel-of-the-month, Rod Blagojevich. Both of these are automatons to me, remorseless machines capable of betraying any trust in order to fulfill their need.

I wonder at the strength of their addictions to greed and power. Alone, late at night, what is it that they tell themselves? And without suicide or Harold Pinter's gifts, how will they ever overcome the self-loathing and self-examination that follow failure like a hungry dog?