Beyond the Pale

Beyond the Pale

A closer look at sexual abuse cases makes the questions surrounding them even murkier.


In Virgin or Vamp, Helen Benedict’s classic study of rape, there is a list of factors that tend to determine the judicial outcome in cases of sexual assault. Conviction of any given defendant is much more likely, for example, if the victim does not know the assailant, if the victim is of a higher socioeconomic or educational level, if the victim is white and the assailant is not, if the victim is a middle-aged female or older, or if the victim has visible bruises or injuries. The flip side, of course, is that rapes between people who know each other are treated more indifferently by the public. The saddest of these cases are those involving parents, relatives, teachers, priests–great unforgivable breaches of fiduciary relationship–and children, many of whom are too traumatized to speak, too young to express themselves dependably or who are so neglected to begin with that no one notices or cares.

A recent study in Canada showed that children who are deemed “ugly” get much less attention from adults than do their more attractive peers. In the context of assaults on children, it’s probably also an easy bet that older, minority and poor (factors that make anyone less “cute”) children are generally less well attended than younger, white, “adorable” ones.

A few weeks ago, I heard a segment on PRI’s always-­interesting radio program This American Life featuring a meditation on the invisibility of Elizabeth Smart during her kidnapping. Narrated by a neighbor, the story pondered the veil of perception that prevented anyone from seeing her, even as she remained in their midst. The neighbor had actually seen her several times, walking with Brian David Mitchell, the deranged bigamist who had abducted her. Mitchell was a fixture around town. People apparently just assumed that he’d acquired “another wife,” albeit a very young one. It is an ugly public secret, the reality of child brides among some Mormon fundamentalists.

And so Mitchell and his two “wives” walked through public squares and busy malls, right past the ubiquitous posters that featured Smart’s face in happier times. Said one person, “We thought [he] would be a boogeyman” who “jumps out at you…. Mitchell stood right in front of us and sort of became invisible.” Some people had even spoken to her directly during the time she was in Mitchell’s thrall, but she never revealed her identity. Indeed, when the police finally found her, she flatly denied who she was at first. “He convinced her,” they said. Mitchell “brainwashed her.”

What was interesting about the program was that no one ever blamed Smart for their not seeing. The guilt lay squarely with the limits of their own vision. No one questioned why she never spoke. No one made an issue of her father’s judgment in hiring Mitchell as a handyman before Smart was kidnapped. It was unusual in this sensationalistic age, a program focused on the culture of “trust” that blinded a community to the madman in their midst, that looked beyond its borders for the boogeyman. This is a very common human reaction, and I explore it not to question Smart’s obvious status as a victim or the wisdom of her father’s generosity. Rather, I want to think about the cases in which that does not happen, in which a community does not meditate upon its own failure to protect its children but rather blames only the children or the children’s parents retrospectively. Smart’s archetypal characteristics placed her, according to Helen Benedict’s predictors, in a category for which the justice system is least likely to assume “vampishness.” Indeed, Smart was the perfect picture of “attractive” victimhood: She played the harp like an angel and was wealthy and well-mannered.

With these sympathies in mind, it is worth isolating a few insights to hold on to in messier cases involving “uglier” alleged victims. First, Elizabeth Smart didn’t tell us the truth. But rather than labeling her a liar, authorities pushed past that, perhaps remembering that minors are particularly susceptible to lying when they are in trouble or traumatized. They panic and tell strategic lies to survive, and if that trouble remains unaddressed, they grow into adults who lie. Susan Smith, who drowned her own children, was allegedly molested but not helped when she was young. Luckily in Smart’s case, the “lie” was understood in the context of her greater trauma.

I am not trying to suggest that this realization at all resolves the question of criminal liability–it makes it even murkier, I suppose. But I am proposing that those of us who are not jurors rein in our voyeurism when confronted with the difficult realities of alleged sexual abuse. To heed Benedict’s list, we need to be careful about dismissive preconceptions when either victim or assailant is poor or uneducated or “ugly” or a member of a minority–or when a victim falls within that relentlessly unheeded category, young boys, for whom victimhood is so often equated with sissyhood. As the trial of Michael Jackson lurches to its end, jurors can try–are we asking the impossible?–to mop up a mess whose tangled roots might be traceable back through years of looking the other way. But does anyone else remember when the young Michael Jackson claimed that his father abused him? Does anyone remember Michael Jackson actually going to a real school with other kids when he was young? Does anyone wonder what happened in the lives of those passive mothers who allowed Jackson to spend nights with their young sons? It is easy to conclude that they prostituted their children. It is harder to think that they, too, might have been paralyzed or damaged by some prior narrative of submission and obedience.

Finally, what do these cases teach us about not just celebrity but circus? The trial of Brian David Mitchell, unfolding at the same time as Jackson’s, has its own potential for three-ring bizarreness–Mitchell has been removed from the courtroom four times for belting out hymns at top volume (“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”)–but the media seem to have downplayed it and accorded the Smart family a cloak of respect. Can we accord those who are least cared for among us the honor of that simple human dignity?

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