Hope and Tragedy: The Weight of the World in a Small Town Crime

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

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Candle by spcbrass
It's been an up and down day.  Luckily, this time, the two were reversed.  It started off . . . well, not bad exactly, but hard.  But, it got better in the end.  And now I'm sitting here writing to you lovely people, which is always a high point.

Sometimes I get caught up in things out there in the world--things that have nothing to do with me.  Things that are happening hundreds or even thousands of miles away.  It doesn't happen often, but every once in awhile I hear about something that strikes a very particular chord in me, and I find myself stuck like a fly to those sticky lengths of paper you see hanging in little hole in the wall convenience stores in small southern towns, usually where the air conditioner has gone out and it's 110 degrees outside.

I will read something in the news, and I will think about it.  I read something else.  I process some more.  Usually, at this point, if it's something to be OUTRAGED about, then I discuss the more OUTRAGEOUS points with friends and loved ones, become sufficiently OUTRAGED, and move on.  However, as I mentioned, sometimes it hits me differently.  Sometimes it wriggles inside of me, lays its eggs, and starts to take over.  My friend and cohort, T. Z. Wallace, had something to say on this phenomenon in her guest post on Cordelia Calls It Quits.  She has her own particular way of obsessing over the state of the world. And that's how last night and today was for me.

I'm talking, of course, about the Steubenville rape case.

Now, I first heard about the situation months ago, when the first news stories broke.  A 16 year old girl, drunk, possibly drugged, was dragged unconscious by two high school football players from party to party while they publicly humiliated her and violated her and took video and pictures.  People watched.  Lots of people. They took more pictures and made crude jokes and sent tweets flying around the internet.  For a night, this unconscious girl was their party mascot, it seemed.  They called her the "dead body."  It lasted for hours.  She woke up the next morning in a strange place and couldn't find her things--her phone, her jewelry . . . .  She remembered nothing.  But she quickly found out that everyone else knew all about her whereabouts that evening, and she was now the worst kind of local celebrity.

When I read about it then, I was OUTRAGED.  I was indignant and, yes, even appalled.  But I had perspective.  What I mean, in this case, by perspective is that I could be sufficiently OUTRAGED and still go home and talk about happy things and live life like a normal(ish) person.  But then, yesterday, the verdict came out and the case popped back up on my radar.  The boys were found guilty and sentenced.  They were not tried as adults.  Whether or not they should have been is a topic of some debate.  But, the more I debated, the more I delved into this subject--the ins and outs of reform in our society, the ins and outs of this particular case, the finer details of just what happened to that girl on that night for all those hours when she was being used like a blowup doll at a frat party, and no one apparently did a thing to help her--the more it started to affect me.

At one point last night, I broke down crying.  Hopeless, sad, terrified little girl sobs.  Helpless parental what-good-are-these-hands-if-they-can't-protect-her sobs.  Weight of the world sobs.  As I said, it struck a chord.

I woke up this morning in a heavy bog of depression.  It took awhile to shake it off.  I had to get my head away from this story.  I had to stop reading about it and feeling it.

Interestingly, from a "here, let's analyze ourselves, shall we?" standpoint, I wasn't even reading about the Steubenville case the past two days as much as I had when the story first broke.  And I was no longer OUTRAGED.  I was internalizing.

If we were to discuss this from a writer's or an actor's perspective, I would say I'd taken on the character, and that's as true as anything else.  I was certainly identifying with the victim and the victim's family.  I have a teenager of my own, and I am a woman who was once a teenager herself (cat's out of the bag now).  It's not much of a stretch for me to be affected on both these fronts.  What I didn't expect was to be so deeply hurt by it all . . . for it to feel so personal. 

I still don't have a succinct answer for this.  I'm sensitive?  I suppose.  But, like I said, it's hit or miss.  Not everything guts me like this one did.  I didn't break down like this over the Sandy Hook school shootings, for example, though I was as horrified and saddened by it as anyone.

Maybe, like I said, I just happen to more personally identify with the victim in this case?  I wonder how common this is.  I wonder if, as humans, it is "normal" (as impossible as that is to define) to be temporarily rendered emotionally raw over something that happened in far off lands to people you don't know and will probably never meet.  I know that human empathy can be a powerful thing.  And that the moral compass often pulls us from inside . . . .  That, in a very big way, this is how that compass is formed--by recognizing injustice in situations that have nothing to do with you, except on a very symbolic level.  And that, by tapping into that moral compass, it begs the question, always the question:  how could this happen?  Doesn't everyone have a moral compass?  Well, no, obviously not, or at least it's not always "on" for everyone all the time, or these things naturally wouldn't happen.  But, the fundamental question formed from being sentient creatures watching your supposedly sentient brethren commit heinous crimes that you couldn't dream of allowing, much less committing, yourself . . . how . . . why . . . what were they thinking?  This is the mental/emotional tailspin.  These are the things that stop our great minds dead.  The cogs grind to a stop and everyone is left staring at each other, dumbfounded.

Oh, there are all the stock answers brought to you by the DSM:  bad parenting, societal pressures, war of the sexes,  pack mentality, ad infinitum.  Our magic words.  Our boogie men.  And maybe they're all true.  But we don't know for sure, do we?  It's the not knowing--the having no clear strategy to prevent this madness from taking hold and happening again--that keeps us locked in place, unable to know which way to turn.  All we can do from afar is watch the train wreck.  And hold our breath.  And hope that we, as a society, as a justice system, as a people, did the right thing.  That we did enough in response to this tragedy, just as we hoped for the last tragedy.  That we chased the demons far enough away that they won't return to infect our kind again, at least for a little while.  We hope these things as we tuck in our little girls at night--literal or figurative.  We pray our magic rituals have scared them off.  And, once the shadows abate, we do the only thing left to do.  We light a candle, and pray for love.