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lost girls

Yesterday I started reading Robert Kolker’s new book, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery. It’s a meticulously researched and truly engrossing look at the lives of four women who ended up murdered as a result of their work as Craigslist prostitutes. But more than that, it’s an account of their lives and what might have led them to such dangerous and ultimately fatal circumstances.

This is from Nina Burleigh’s review of the book for the New York Observer:

Theirs were the brutish lives of Americans born into the misery of economically and spiritually gutted small-town mid-Atlantic America. Their own mothers scraped and struggled to get by, working at Sears, casinos, Dunkin’ Donuts, motels. Fathers were absent. Grandparents, neighbors, foster parents stepped in to fill the care gap.

They suffered from domestic chaos, emotional problems, childhood abuse, unplanned pregnancies, bad boyfriends. The hallmark of their brief adult lives was the relentless pressure to bring in money to keep a roof over their own heads and the tiny heads of the babies they produced long before they were ready.

Each of them found a way to a modicum of financial stability through Craigslist, becoming “providers,” in john-speak—selling sex to make ends meet.

This is a car-crash of a story, but the most disturbing aspect is the way authorities couldn’t have cared less about these women. The inescapable impression one takes away from Lost Girls is that police rank Craigslist prostitutes somewhere below lost dogs.

UntitledNobody does a good true-crime investigative magazine piece like Texas Monthly, specifically journalists Skip Hollandsworth and Pamela Colloff.

It’s been several months since I read Colloff’s piece “Hannah and Andrew,” which I believe was nominated for a National Magazine Award — or if it wasn’t, it should have been — and I am still thinking about it. (I do know that Colloff won an AMA this year for another piece, the two-part “The Innocent Man,” which is also an amazing read if you’ve got the time.)

The “Hannah and Andrew” case centers on a foster mother wrongly accused of poisoning her troubled four-year-old foster child with… salt. Yeah, it’s pretty crazy.

But I digress. What prompted me to post today was that I just read one of Hollandsworth’s pieces, “If the Serial Killer Gets Us, He Gets Us,” which focuses on the difficulty of pursuing a serial killer who targets black prostitutes. (Cue collective societal shrug.) Here’s an excerpt:

“It’s like we did all this work to clean everything up, and life out there is already back to normal,” [Detective Darcus Shorten] said. 
She hung up and parked near a group of prostitutes on a street corner. She got out of the car and asked if they knew anything about a man with a knife.

The prostitutes stared at Shorten in her business suit and silver jewelry, and they started to laugh. “Baby, there’s always a man with a knife,” one of them said, and then she and the others turned away.

Wow. Amazing writing. Sad state of affairs.

Also recommended: An interview with Colloff about her writing and reporting process behind “Hannah and Andrew.”

"Are you going to kill this woman?"

“Are you going to kill this woman?” BRILLIANT.

So I hate to keep harping on the Jodi Arias story. Even I had reached a media saturation point by the time the verdict was finally read on May 8 after more than four months of trial. And I was beginning to feel like I needed to take a shower every time Jodi’s name was mentioned. That, and I had the very bad luck to stumble upon, in a HuffPost slideshow, an actual unedited crime scene photo of Travis’ body in the shower — the kind the mainstream media is forbidden to show by those pesky legal people down in Standards. (Arianna, God bless her little heart, has zero standards or scruples.)

But recent events have brought me back to overthinking this whole thing. I mean, the trial and its ensuing media coverage is essentially an exercise in American Cultural Studies at this point, as rabid Jodi followers like me, having stuck it out this long, have invested way too much for it to be considered merely morbid gawking. (Or so we tell ourselves.)

But I feel I must write today. The fact that the jury is apparently having a hard time conferring the death penalty by mere reflex — as everyone who’s ever come into contact with the HLN coverage of this trial, however tangentially, would presumably do, keeping in adherence with the rhetorical “JUSTICE FOR TRAVIS”-ethos — is sending all the daytime television talking heads into a tailspin this afternoon.

It’s kind of like when we had to wait a whole TWO AND A HALF DAYS before the verdict came in after the guilt phase of the deliberations began. The fact of her first-degree guilt had already been a central tenet of media coverage, so why was it even a question about what the verdict should be? Dumb jurors! Stop thinking and start being outraged and indignant!

To which I say: take it easy, people, this is a big fucking decision to have weighing on this jury’s shoulders, so let’s let these people actually do what they were sworn in to do and carefully consider all the evidence.

Also, what really astonished me today, listening to the jury instructions (which the Hon. Sherry Stephens, God bless HER little heart, originally misread), is that there’s no hard and fast criteria for deciding on death. Like, the circumstances can be “heinous,” but what does that really mean? Are there legal definitions of that stuff? Because otherwise, it seems pretty subjective.

So it comes down to an emotional decision. One in which you have to take complete moral accountability for your decision, since you weren’t merely following protocol or legal precedent. Yes, that WOULD be heavy.

************

On another note, while I think Jodi might not make a great as good of a prison social worker/hair donator/translator/literacy doyenne/recycling entrepreneur as she claims she would, she’s got a FABULOUS personality for reality television. The narcissism, the insistence on proper hair and makeup… the sex, the lies… the abject desperation, the unwitting campiness… it’s all there!

After reading “The Saddest Reality Stars of All: Prisoners” by the Daily Beast’s great Mansfield Frazier, who does a lot of crime-and-punishment coverage and commentary, you might see why a star turn on Bravo’s forthcoming The Real Housewives of Death Row might be the most fitting punishment of all for Jodi.

Also: ratings bonanza!

*Unless you’re pregnant and waiting for a bus in Honolulu… in which case it could take FOREVER.

babyThere seems to be a spate of articles and editorials lately on the U.S.’s social welfare shortcomings, specifically, its failure to recognize the massive long-term benefits of ensuring the health and well-being of babies and young children.

I wrote about the New Republic‘s excellent analysis of our daycare problem a couple of weeks ago, and today I came upon Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic editorial, “How to Make the U.S. a Better Place for Caregivers.”  For those who require a scientific evidence-based approach, Dr. Perri Klass also weighed in with “Poverty as a Childhood Disease” today in the New York Times.

I wholeheartedly agree with the argument that these authors advance, namely, that the U.S. needs better low or no-cost early-childhood programs (prenatal care, daycare, and preschool, for starters), given all the research that shows children who grow up in poverty and instability, or with poorly educated parents, are far more likely to become dropouts, addicts, or criminals.
Or as Klass elegantly puts it:

Think for a moment of poverty as a disease, thwarting growth and development, robbing children of the healthy, happy futures they might otherwise expect. In the exam room, we try to mitigate the pain and suffering that are its pernicious symptoms. But our patients’ well-being depends on more, on public health measures and prevention that lift the darkness so all children can grow toward the light.

Got it. Which is why I felt kinda yucky at having the eye-roll reaction I did when reading Mira Ptacin’s piece for Guernica, “Is Baby a Luxury?” Ptacin’s predicament is that she and her husband are too well-off to qualify for Medicaid, but balk at the cost of private health insurance, which they tried to purchase after learning she was pregnant (only to find out that pregnancy counts as a preexisting condition, and as such, would not be covered by her husband’s plan). She expresses outrage that she, a pregnant woman, should go without coverage:

To me, the moral is clear: pregnant mothers should have the right to adequate prenatal care to ensure that they, and their developing babies, stay healthy through pregnancy and birth. All of us are better off when that is the case. All of us are worse off when that is not the case.

When Medicaid turns Ptacin down, she calls them in bewilderment, only to be “greeted with a dry, breathy laugh, followed by, Just because you’re pregnant doesn’t mean you get healthcare.”

Um, so, yeah. Did the author not know this before she “realized that [she] might actually make a really good mommy, and raise a really good human?” Because personally, I could never have dreamed of getting pregnant without being covered by health insurance– whether by private insurance, which I was fortunate to have at the time through my employer, or by Medicaid.

Look, I’m not unsympathetic (and I told Ptacin so in the comments section). I’ve heard the “too poor for this, too well-off for welfare” argument millions of times, many of them more than justified (for example, for a single mother working full-time, without child support, who just misses the mark for sorely needed food stamps).

But to make the assumption, based on a perceived moral imperative, that Uncle Sam would be lining up to pay for your pregnancy? There’s just something repugnant about this kind of act-now, think-later self-righteousness. So to Ptacin, I say: get real. And most importantly… get yourself (and your kid) some insurance.

I have put off posting about the Jodi Arias case until a verdict came in. And yesterday, finally, more than four months after this absolute circus of a trial began, a jury of twelve (infinitely patient) people handed Ms. Arias a first-degree murder conviction for killing her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander, in June 2008. (Why on earth this case took so long to go to trial is something I have never heard explained in the media — was it because Arias changed her story so many times?)

Okay. I have lots of thoughts about this trial and what it says about how the public perceives (take your pick) women/sex/violence/the criminal justice system/the death penalty. But for now, I’ll focus on immediate media coverage of the verdict.

Let’s begin with HLN, since the cable news-lite network has made the Arias trial its raison d’etre, carrying out near 24-hour coverage of the spectacle since it began in January, even going so far as to create a three-dimensional model of the crime scene and assembling a mock jury every night to weigh in on the day’s evidence.

Not surprisingly, I was greeted by this on the HLN homepage today, front and center, or what used to be deemed in ancient newspaper days as “above the fold:”

verdict

Because the Arias case has all along been a tabloid trial–that is, covered breathlessly by what we might think of as the trashy/sensationalistic/if-it-bleeds-it-leads news media–it’s no surprise that the classy Daily News also delivered the verdict above the fold in its second slot. (I can only imagine it would have been first had the bombshell Cleveland kidnapping rescue not happened his week.) The News also had a scoop: that Arias, ever the narcissistic wannabe-media-darling, is now declaring in trademark dramatic fashion that she would rather be put to death than spend the rest of her life in prison. (My question: who gave her the lipgloss for her first post-verdict interview? And don’t they, like, carry a convicted first-degree murderer directly off to jail at that point? As in, do not pass go, do not sit down for a soft-focus television interview?)

halfway verdict

Next let’s head over to the New York Times, which has studiously ignored the trial up until now. The Grey Lady conceded some coverage today, but only alluded to it in the most generic of terms, and waaaaay far down the page at that, in its “U.S.” section. (I had to add a red circle around it ’cause it’s pretty tiny.)

small verdict

Moving on! The liberal intellectuals over at NPR, to my surprise, did carry an Arias headline, albeit without a photo, right on their homepage, but not without a fight from its highbrow readers, some of whom were just plain disgusted that public media would stoop so low. Here’s an excerpt from the article’s comment section:

who cares verdict

More thoughts on the trial later.

logan

What a fabulous article I found in this week’s New York Times Magazine by writer Linda Logan. Titled “The Problem With How We Treat Bipolar Disorder,” Logan’s first-person account of her decades-long struggle with BP II is equally about the horrors of modern psychopharmacology as it is an exploration of how the “self” gets lost in the wretched journey that is mental illness — both as a result of internal and external forces.

First there is the onset of Logan’s major-depressive symptoms, which isolate her from her family and career. But she begins to feel this loss of self most tangibly when she goes for inpatient treatment and becomes, quite literally, a “mental patient.”

The moment the psych-unit doors locked behind me, I was stripped of my identity as wife, mother, teacher and writer and transformed into patient, room number and diagnosis.

Then there is the medication. And more medication. And more medication, taking in dizzying, alternating combinations, or what Logan says her doctor called “polypharmacy.” And for me, this seemed like the real tipping point at which her “self” was “lost.”

Paradoxically, psychotropic drugs can induce anxiety, nervousness, impaired judgment, mania, hypomania, hallucinations, feelings of depersonalization, psychosis and suicidal thoughts, while being used to treat the same symptoms. Before getting to the hospital, my daily moods ranged from bad to worse, each state accompanied by a profound depth of feeling. The first drug I was given was amitriptyline (Elavil), which, in the process of reducing my despair, blunted all my other emotions. I no longer felt anything. It was like going from satellite TV to one lousy channel. While some medications affected my mood, others — especially mood stabilizers — turned my formerly agile mind into mush, leaving me so stupefied that if my brain could have drooled, it would have. Word retrieval was difficult and slow. It was as if the door to whatever part of the brain that housed creativity had locked. Clarity of thought, memory and concentration had all left me. I was slowly fading away.

I think the medical community has a responsibility to ponder: is the treatment worse than the symptom? Is inducing a near-comatose state preferable to abject despair?

Well, for obvious reasons (avoiding the patient’s risk of suicide, desire to alleviate her experience of acute pain), the answer has to be “yes.” Indeed, as Logan tells us:

The primary goal at the height of a mental-health crisis is symptom reduction. That means monitoring patients’ sleep patterns, appetites and responses to medications — not worrying about philosophical questions like who they are and who they will become.

But I do think practitioners have an ethical responsibility to resort to these all-out-numbing drugs as a last resort, and not be content with them as an end in themselves. On that note, this may be the real takeaway from the article:

For many people with mental disorders, the transformation of the self is one of the most disturbing things about being ill. And their despair is heightened when doctors don’t engage with the issue, don’t ask about what parts of the self have vanished and don’t help figure out strategies to deal with that loss.

But for me, Logan’s existential “loss of self” was not nearly as disturbing as the fact that she fell into a state of acute psychosis for several months, during which she scribbles unintelligibly in her journals and “thought I was in a Canadian train station and that it was 1976.”

She’s pretty vague about the meds she was taking at the time, if any, but I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if this prolonged psychotic episode was brought about by psychotropic drugs. Somewhat unhelpfully (for the purposes of discerning what may have caused the psychosis), she reveals only that “by early summer, the psychosis had run its course, and I returned to lucidity.”

In mania and hypomania, the sick self has no accountability; the improved self has a lot of explaining, and often apologizing, to do.

I would add that psychopharmacology has quite a bit of accountability as well.

diane

This is a topic that maybe doesn’t fit conveniently into the theme of this blog, but I wanted to share it anyway. Have you ever read a newspaper article about a horrific accident and wondered to yourself what life is really like behind the headlines for the families involved in the tragedy? (I mean, maybe I’m just nosy or something, but I do, all the time.)

Well, Liz Garbus’ HBO documentary “There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane” explores exactly that. It’s a look at the complicated and heartbreaking aftermath of a car accident that killed eight people, half of them were children under the age of 8. Some of you might remember the news story, which was dubbed the “Wrong Way Crash” and the “Taconic Tragedy.”

Brief synopsis: Long Island mother Diane Schuler gets into a minivan to drive five kids (two of them hers, three of them her brother’s) back home from a weekend at an upstate campground one Sunday morning in July 2009. Along the way, her niece calls her father from a cell phone, insisting that “there’s something wrong with Aunt Diane.” Family members frantically call Diane’s cell, which goes straight to voice mail. A short time later, witnesses call 911 reporting a minivan traveling at high speed against traffic on the Taconic Parkway. Schuler’s minivan hits an oncoming SUV, killing all three men in that car, as well as herself, all three of her brother’s kids, and her daughter. Her five-year-old son is the only survivor.

Everyone’s initial reaction is that Schuler had suffered a stroke or some other medical emergency that would seriously compromise her judgement. She loved her kids fiercely, as well as her nieces, and would have never in her wildest dreams wanted any harm to come to them. Besides, everyone insists, she was a control freak and a perfectionist who would never let her emotions or any substance use spiral out of control.

Several days later, an autopsy reveals that Schuler had a blood alcohol level of twice the legal limit, plus a high concentration of THC (marijuana) in her system. The film also reveals that she was prescribed Ambien, a known cause of strange, unconscious behavior.

So Diane Schuler is now apparently some sort of crazed suicidal addict, a demon who recklessly killed her family, and several strangers  and that’s exactly how the media portrayed her.

But in the film, as well as in an excellent New York article by Steve Fishman, Schuler’s husband adamantly denies that his wife was either an alcoholic or a drug addict; in fact, he even disputes the results of the autopsy (his protests are eventually put to rest by a second one). His family sticks by the stroke/medical emergency theory (which they say could have been brought on by a chronically abscessed tooth), and maybe consumed alcohol/drugs in that extremely compromised, desperate state to try to alleviate the pain.

But both Garbus’ and Fishman’s investigations revealed a deeply troubled woman who had been abandoned by her mother at a young age and suffered social and emotional problems well into adulthood. Though she was a high-functioning working mother by any account, there was clearly a private side to Diane Schuler that makes drug and alcohol addiction seem like less of a farfetched notion than her husband would care to admit.

Here’s a quote from a public television interview with Garbus when the film was released in 2011. I think it captures nicely the way our criminal justice system often tries to simplify the reasons people commit criminal behavior: namely, that they are just plain criminals.

Everyone had different stories, different visions of what happened that day. Because there was no trial for Diane Schuler and because there was no judicial process. It just hung out in people’s lives like this terrible terrible wound — an open, gaping wound in the lives of all the people affected that day. Walking around in their world required great empathy. These were people in crisis and when you walk into those worlds and turn your lens on them it’s a huge responsibility.

One of the experts talked about how so many small things lead up to this terrible hole. And we want it to be one bad thing like she was committing suicide or she found out some horrible thing, but what if it were just  a dozen small things that were not terrible, but add up to a terrible whole? And I think that’s what we can’t understand.

No, she was not a saint, but no she was not an evil person. And I think there is a tendency to put people in these black and white squares but sometimes they don’t fit. And then when they don’t fit, or when the pattern of the crime doesn’t fit, there’s denial and disbelief.

I’m not saying a more nuanced approach would work (or even matter), in our American pursuit of “justice,” but it’s certainly interesting to think about. I’m constantly surprised by how vehement the public’s desire to “find the culprit” and “put him behind bars” is without any consideration (or at least, curiosity) about the psychology or circumstances behind manifestly criminal acts.

I suppose it’s worth noting that Diane Schuler’s sister-in-law Jackie Hance, who lost her three daughters in the crash, has a memoir, “I’ll See You Again,” coming out next week, and an interview with Ann Curry on “Rock Center” this Friday to promote it. Sigh.