Saturday, February 09, 2008

Of Natalee, Gardasil, Jello shots, hooking up, and the college life. A modern (a)morality play in two acts.

By the time I get where I'm ultimately going in this post, the first of two on the subject, I suspect I will have generated a fair amount of ire. That's because I'm going to offer something other than the stereotypical, "authorized" take on Joran Van der Sloot.

If your first response is Joran who?—which is to say, if by now you haven't heard the latest twist in the Natalee Holloway disppearance—you probably get your news exclusively from Al Jazeera. So I'm going to discuss the story in what journalists call "second-day" style. And if it's still the first day for you, you may wish to click here and get yourself up to speed.

Since The Tape came out, I've heard nobody, in or out of media, who didn't speak contemptuously of Van der Sloot (henceforth simply Joran); this is one of those stories where everybody pretty much ends up sounding like Nancy ("fry the bastard!") Grace. And make no mistake, I'm not here to defend Joran. I agree that his breezy way of describing Ms. Holloway's final moments was hard to take. Like millions of parents around the globe, I got queasy. The difference between me and most others is that I try to keep in mind that I have no clue what Joran was really thinking when he said what he said during that Dutch journalistic sting, and I don't think anyone else does, either. Though the young man would appear to know more about what happened to Natalee than he's admitted on the record, I'm far from convinced that his taped "confession" represents the-whole-truth-and-nothing-but. There are loose ends that cops and media investigators can't tie up—starting with the seeming nonexistence of the male friend who, according to Joran, took Natalee's body out to sea on his boat. I heard someone pose that Joran might've made that up to cover his ass. Doesn't work for me. If the kid was doing CYA, why admit to any of it? And if he fabricated that detail, how do we know what else he fabricated?

Further, I think people shouldn't be so quick to dismiss Joran's own explanation for the incriminating tape: that he was talking "for effect," aided and abetted by ample quantities of drugs (supplied by Patrick Van der Eem, the fellow who befriended Joran in order to entrap him). To my ear, there are little clues that add credibility to Joran's disclaimers. For example, he made such a point of telling Van der Eem how well he slept on the night of Natalee's death; he said he didn't even give a second thought to her body floating off into oblivion. That doesn't sound like something a person would just volunteer on his own, for no particular reason. It sounds more like posturing, like Joran's attempt to show his older companion—who, remember, Joran thought was "connected" and vaguely dangerous—just how freakin' cool he was under fire; a regular Dutch-style original gangsta. It sounds like something a 20-year-old guy who's considered a "hottie" might say when he's intent on wearing his gonads on his sleeve.

(You think that sounds entirely too lame of him? Too immature? Have you spent any time among hot 20-year-old guys lately?)*

Nor should we lose sight of something else here. Even on the tape, Joran doesn't say he murdered Natalee. And even prosecutors and Natalee's parents have stopped alleging any such thing. Using the most commonly accepted theory of what took place that night, it's true that there are questions about whether Joran was sufficiently sure she was dead before he disposed of her. But in most people's minds, the real issue is twofold: first, that he "took advantage of" a drunken girl (which maybe is a not a nice thing to do, but happens every night on America's college campuses, and quite likely would've happened to Natalee herself in the future, had she gone on to college. Besides, Joran had been drinking, too); and, second and more important, that Joran treated her body with total disdain after she suddenly died. If we take Joran's taped confession at face value,** it would appear that Natalee succumbed to a profound and catastrophic reaction to whatever substances she ingested that day and night.

Which brings me to the part where some of you are really gonna hate me, if you don't already: Natalee's own behavior, her complicity in what befell her, and what all this says about our culture.

I'm sorry, I simply can't see Natalee Holloway as the bright-eyed, blameless victim that her parents, prosecutors and the media insist on selling us. A girl who uses 150-proof rum to top off a day-long drinking binge that wouldn't even be legal if she were on U.S. soil; who reclines on a bar and invites boys to slurp booze out of her navel; who repeatedly refuses her friends' entreaties to return to the room with them, because she's not done partying (after 8 or 10 or 12 hours); who accompanies a total stranger in a foreign land to a desolate beach for the obvious purpose of having sex... If we're going to assign liability here, does Natalee herself bear none of it? And more to the point, why is no one (publicly) raising such issues? Even if, as some suggest (without evidence), Joran plied her with cocaine, is there any proof that he forced her to snort it? Or are we just going to sit here and continue to conjure imaginary scenarios that make Joran look bad, while ignoring or rationalizing away every single known fact that makes Natalee look like something less than the Virgin Mary? I want someone to explain to me why a teenage boy's panicked decision to dispose of a girl who died in his arms on a beach (if that is what happened) is worse than the events that brought the girl to that beach—all of which, so far as anyone knows, were set in motion by the girl herself.

In a sense...couldn't this be looked upon as a tragic suicide?

The wider implications, next time.

* Yes, I have. I taught a plethora of them in my decade as a college professor. They may come in all shapes, sizes and colors, but they're basically all of one mind when it comes to their "public images."
** And if we don't, there's no case against him at all, apparently. Aruban officials had essentially closed the case as "unsolved," prior to the revelation of the Dutch tape.


mikecane2008 said...

The Joran tape can be seen here:

Well, he was a young guy in a foreign country. He probably had no confidence that the police would see him as anything other than a murderer. Hence, CYA.

I say this not to defend him, but to illustrate a possible state of mind.

I also highlight the country he was in because of hair-raising things that have happened in Dubai.

I can't feel anything other than some pity for Natalee. I don't know if that was her habitual behavior or if it was a one-time pushing of limits. Kids do stupid things.

Anonymous said...

Bravo! Someone finally said it.

I can't stand when parents/friends/media act like Natalee and similar "victims" are such sweet, innocent girls who were taken advantage of by some monster. They (parents particularly) can't face what their "little girl" did to herself. She had it coming, and so do a lot of other girls who can't get their act together.

What you've said here, Steve, is common sense, but no one has the cojones to say it publicly. Too bad they don't also have a tape including every explicit detail of Natalee's behavior prior to her demise. That might put things into perspective for a few people (though not for the parents; their daughter could do no wrong, I'm sure).

The Crack Emcee said...

Hey Steve,

You know I ain't gonna hate on ya. As a matter of fact, right before I came here, I put up a post saluting a mother for shaming her son, merely because he stole her cell phone. I know it could be seen as a minor transgression, but I was impressed she drew a line for the young man - a line he's not likely to forget.

I've had "good" foster parents and "bad", and the "good" ones (the ones I've stayed in contact with after I left the system) are the ones that took the time to discipline me, to teach me right from wrong, and who did it in a manner that showed they cared about something; which could've been me, or some larger issue, like my future effect on society. I think I should add, for whatever it's worth, that almost all of them were women. (Take that whoever thinks I'm a misogynist.)

This Natalee situation is a tough one because so many people are guilty - including society itself. I think, when you wipe away all the BS though, the real culprits in Natalee's story are her parents. Like Paris Hilton's folks, they raised her, and her sad end is the result of their efforts more than anyone else's.

The kid who dumped the body (whoever he is) probably thought he had no choice but to do it, considering society's schizophrenic attitude about drugs. What was he going to do? Could the truth set him free? Could he implicate himself in her death, however slightly, when it's clear - no matter what Natalee's role - that he'd be held responsible because drugs were part of the equation? Like you, I ask - but directed at their parents - what were she and he doing there?

I've known of this kind of thing in my own life: I had a friend who died with lots of people around, who all cleared out without calling 9-11, because nobody wanted to admit they were doing drugs together. And you know what? Every one of them either had parents who were their "friends" or were unwilling to follow their kids, to the ends of the earth if necessary, to straighten them out - which, if you ask me, is a parent's job.

From my earliest years, my "good" foster parents could be counted on to defend me when I was in danger from outside the household (this is South Central, LA, remember) but, also, to grab me by the ear and drag me out of any danger they discovered I was imposing on myself. To really embarrass me. We just don't have enough of that, at an early age, anymore. That's "child abuse" according to the hippies but, really, everybody's in on it now. That's the clusterf**k we have to deal with, if you ask me. The whole thing, surrounding the issues of post-60s society vs. parental obligation, is a damn shame. That's all I got to say.

It's too elemental for me to think anything more has to be said.

Anonymous said...

This is disgusting and you should be ashamed of yourself. Though I would never wish anything like this on another human being, you shouldn't speak until you're in their shoes. If it were your daughter, Steve, you'd want blood, and you know it.

Steve Salerno said...

I was wondering how long it would take for someone to say something like this, and there it was, waiting for me, this morning.

And in a sense, my critic is correct: Of course I'd "want blood." My ability to think clearly and to see any bigger pictures would've been overwhelmed/subverted by sheer rage and grief. That is why society's conventional wisdom on any given matter should never be shaped by people in enraged or grief-stricken states of mind. When the emotions are fully engaged, any semblance of objectivity goes out the window. People in such straits may even attempt to rationalize or politicize their emotions as "a whole new way of looking at the situation."

When I lived in San Diego, a very nice, gentle, extremely cerebral man, Sam Knott, suffered the unspeakable tragedy of having his sweet-natured daughter murdered and thrown off a highway overpass onto a rocky creek-bed by an on-duty member of the California Highway Patrol. Sam had never believed in capital punishment; he was a vehement foe. After the murder he became an outspoken advocate for it. He would say that the murder had "opened his eyes" to the realities of a cruel world. That's not what happened, of course.

The loss hadn't open his eyes; it had broken and hardened his heart.

Anonymous said...

The girl was 18, Steve. How can you be so hard on her?

Steve Salerno said...

And Joran was 17. Next question...?

Anonymous said...


If Natalee were 20 lbs. heavier with an overbite or bad acne, nobody in America would have heard of this case. But she was a beautiful blonde, so Fox News (and other outlets) ran with this story for months. A woman who puts herself in a dangerous situation is not news, unless the woman is smokin' hot - then it leads.

Beautiful women get all the coverage. Right now, the Fox News website has as its main picture Carrie Underwood winning a Grammy Award. Is that the biggest news story of the day; or just the sexiest?

Anonymous said...


How can you forget an even bigger non-story - Anna Nicole Smith? If she were a 34-B, the media would have never paid any attention to her at all. Yet her death received more "news" coverage than the deaths of the Pope and President Reagan - combined!

Beautiful women doing stupid things is a pillar of what passes as journalism today. Get used to it - Americans are shallow.

Steve Salerno said...

Yes, all very true. And beautiful female children getting kidnapped and killed is another favorite story line. We don't seem to care that much about the ordinary-looking ones, or the minority kids, or the boys. Apropos of the latter, here's a quick pop quiz: Who's more likely to be killed during the course of a sexual abduction? A boy or a girl? Your reflex answer is "girl," right?

Care to guess again?

Not quite the impression you get from media coverage, huh? In fact, I'll cover this, and many other media-driven myths, in my forthcoming piece for Michael Shermer and Skeptic. It should be online soon, and in the May issue of the magazine.

Matt Dick said...

crack emcee,

Well-spoken. I couldn't agree more that parenting is the origin of so much of this an this kind of thing.

My parents did go to the ends of the Earth for me, to rescue me from what I could have done to screw up my life, and the life of others. And the would have gone even further if necessary.

I'm the father of two now, and it is my solemn promise that I'll go just as far, to the limit of my strength and life to do the same for them.


Carl said...

Came in just in time to read your comment Matt and I agree 100%. IT's about the values we grow up with. I see this lady Beth Holliday everywhere on TV blaming everybody but herself for the fact that the minute her daughter gets out of her sight she drinks herself into a coma and tries to screw everything that moves. Sorry Beth, maybe she died in Aruba but, the seeds of what happened to her were planted at home.

Anonymous said...

Its true no one wants to criticize what led up to this, as she is dead.

But why not make it about a bigger issue so other might learn something? Like parenting?

Why are parents letting teenagers go to these types of "spring break" style out-of-town parties? Its amazing more people don't die, even from alcohol alone.

Also, TV shows like Sex and The City glamorize drinking hard liquor for young girls. And the young girls can easily lose their self-consciousness with only a few hard-drinks, never mind drinking all day. So those who are promoting Vodka to teenage girls need to be also held to account. The female body cannot handle that type of hard booze, it acts like hard drugs.

There is a permissive culture now, that says young girls can do anything thing they want, drink hard booze, travel out of the country.
Well, maybe they can't?
Maybe parents need to step in and set some rules and limits?

If I had teens, they are not going to Aruba to get hammered and do drugs. Its bad enough in your own backyard, never mind in another state or country.

Anonymous said...

Couple of points on this, yes Natalee "seems" to have done something stupid. We really don't know what happened to her. Who hasn't done stupid stuff at 18? Should someone kill you because of it? From what little I can tell, all Natalee did was go to Aruba and a bar on that island. That is not criminal behavior. She was 18 and in the United States that is an adult. I went to Europe for the first time when I was 18 and my mother could not stop me. Maybe she wasn't a saint, but that does not mean she deserves to die for being immature or a lot of us would be dead.

deb said...

Your highly conjectural commentary about why Natalie Holloway might have deserved to die has little to do with this particular crime. Too bad you can't try first hand living in a society in which all the Natalie Holloways are locked up, and the Joran van der Sloots running loose.

Because you are so angry at misbehaving women, it has more to do with you. You haven't fathomed the meaning of rape, and the lack of the slightest humane impulse which informs behavior such as Joran's. It isn't like, or lust, it's hate. This troubles men, no doubt about it, this inability to behave humanely around women. So, a scapegoat must be found.

If you were able to learn more about Natalie Holloway, chances are you'd find out that she was exceptionally well behaved and a good student, when at home. Oftentimes, those are the people that regress most when the opportunity arises. It's too bad that young people in our country don't learn to drink at home, and to enjoy it, like young Europeans do. Then they might stand a chance. You have failed to make a case that this young woman deserved her fate. Also, I am convinced that a young male being left to die or thrown off a boat in similar circumstances would outrage you.

Steve Salerno said...

Deb: I don't often do this--but your own "highly conjectural commentary" about my state of mind and my inner prejudices is so off-base, and unwarranted by what I actually wrote in this post, that I'm going to address your remarks point by point.

Your highly conjectural commentary about why Natalie Holloway might have deserved to die...
Deserved to die? How do you get "deserved to die" out of what I wrote? In fact, the part of the post on which you elect to focus represents (roughly) a quarter of what I wrote, in total. The other 75% of the post is devoted to a more conventional view of the crime, albeit--if I do say so myself--a more informed view.

Too bad you can't try first hand living in a society in which all the Natalie Holloways are locked up, and the Joran van der Sloots running loose.
I have no idea what that even means or implies. I don't want Joran running loose if he's guilty of murder. If they find evidence to that effect, then bring it forth and try the guy already.

Because you are so angry at misbehaving women, it has more to do with you.
What do you base this on? I simply said that a misbehaving woman is "complicit," to some degree, in what happens as a result of her misbehavior. To argue otherwise is to take that maddening, I-want-it-both-ways stance that is all too common among contemporary women. If you (or I) go walking in a terrible neighborhood at 2 a.m., you don't "deserve" to get mugged and/or beaten and/or raped, but you certainly can't complain about it too much if you do.

You haven't fathomed the meaning of rape.
She was raped? Who says? She certainly didn't act like a girl who was fearful of being raped. I've heard no evidence, not one shred, that says she didn't go off with Joran voluntarily, with the full intent of having sex.

...and the lack of the slightest humane impulse which informs behavior such as Joran's.
Again, while I agree that the guy sounded a bit insensitive in describing Natalie and her fate--and I say that right in my post--where did you find your evidence for arguing that he lacks "the slightest human impulse"? We have all sorts of evidence about Natalie acting like a drunken bimbo in the bar. Do we have any evidence of Joran acting like a sociopathic caveman?

It isn't like, or lust, it's hate.
Now you've gone completely off into the stratosphere, Deb. So you're saying--based on what, I'd like to know--that Joran hates women? (And presumably that I do, too?) You think that Joran, that night, presented with a drunken girl who threw herself at him, had "hate" on his mind? Or just a nice romp on the beach? Do you have any evidence for this at all? A single shred? Or are you just attacking him through the lens of your own prejudices against men?

This troubles men, no doubt about it, this inability to behave humanely around women. So, a scapegoat must be found.
Once again, the leaps of faith in your comment are almost beyond belief. You don't know me. You don't know Joran. This is all assumption based more on your biases than anyone else's.

If you were able to learn more about Natalie Holloway, chances are you'd find out that she was exceptionally well behaved and a good student, when at home.
That has nothing to do with what she did that night. She put herself in harm's way. She acted like a total idiot.

Oftentimes, those are the people that regress most when the opportunity arises.
So that's Joran's fault? Or mine? How many young men do you think would turn down a pretty young thing like Natalie if it was offered to them? Are they supposed to do a personality-profile on the girl before they have sex with her?

You have failed to make a case that this young woman deserved her fate.
I agree. I wasn't arguing that she deserved to die. And I have no idea how you came up with that.

Also, I am convinced that a young male being left to die or thrown off a boat in similar circumstances would outrage you.
Yeah, well that shows how little you know about me. I have a daughter. I have three granddaughters. If you read this blog a bit more deeply or extensively you'd know how I feel about children, and you'd see the affection I have for girls and women. (Look up how many posts I write in defense of women, and what they're up against in today's society.) To imply that this comes down to gender bias--and that my bias is exclusively pro-male--is outrageous and absurd.