Monday, January 10, 2011

Does this mean Christina Green's parents are suspects?

There are so many obvious facets of the Arizona shooting tragedy that are best left to others to coverand that coverage has, of course, been wall-to-wall ever since the story broke. So I thought I'd highlight one element here on SHAMblog that isn't likely to receive any coverage elsewhere, but may in the end have the greatest (and most improbable) significance for law enforcement.

I invite you to watch this interview that appeared last night on Dateline. The interviewer is Lester Holt, and the subjects are the parents of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, who, as everyone knows by now, was the youngest victim. I don't want to provide too much framing, because I don't want to influence your natural reactions to the video. Suffice it to say that I think you'll be a bit
surprisedby their demeanor.

I hope readers don't think I'm being disrespectful here, or dancing on any graves; certainly that is not my intent. But I couldn't let this opportunity pass, because the Green interview is directly related to a major issue, and an area of the justice system that needs a complete rethinking.
(If you have any level of interest in this topic, please look at the prior item linked here, and also take a few moments to explore the internal links in its second graph.) This interview should be required watching for all juries in all homicide cases. And the truism that it underscores should be an explicit part of every judge's instructions to every jury. The simple fact is, people do not always react "the way you'd expect them to" when faced with a catastrophic loss. They may go to work as scheduled, they may go to parties, they may even go out looking to get laid. They may laugh or seem detached, casual and/or blase. The absence of the "expected" behaviors, or the presence of unexpected ones, should never be taken as a sign of guilt or complicity. Not unless one is also prepared to assume that Christina Taylor Green's parents were somehow involved in her murder.


Anonymous said...

I could not believe the demeanor of her parents. They were emotionless. There daughter had been murdered the DAY BEFORE and yet they talked about it and her like everything was fine. I was disgusted. Glad I wasnt the only one!

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: You can be disgusted if you want--I confess that my wife and I watched this interview with eyes wide (as I'm sure was true in living rooms across America last night)--but the point is that we make a serious mistake in judging the motives of others based solely on outward appearances. Hard as it may be for some of us to accept, I don't think that these folks' demeanors, and even their seeming glibness at times, necessarily means that they love this poor little girl any less than any other parents love their kids. That's my point in a nutshell: When we judge people based on whether or not they react they way we'd react, we make a colossal mistake. This is especially the case when we judge them in a literal sense: in a court of law.

Anonymous said...

There's also the cultural view that people who *don't* break down in the face of loss or tragedy are the strong ones, the ones who are doing well. Damned if you, damned if you don't.

One of my judgments is that possibly the state of shock accounts for what appears to be cool level-headedness and disconnectness. That is the purpose of shock: to protect one's system from the unthinkable. Or, maybe they were holding it together for the interview.

Finally, it looked to me as if her father was getting teary-eyed right when the interview cut.


Steve Salerno said...

Barbara, yes, the father had actually broken down several times during phone interviews I heard earlier that day. I think what threw most people was the mother; she didn't seem to have any of the maternal reactions that we expect from "motherly mothers," if you will. For example, I'm fairly sure that my wife, in (God forbid) similar circumstances involving our grandkids, would be somewhere between inconsolable and suicidal, certainly on the first day, and likely for weeks thereafter. But then, we never really know till it happens, do we...

Dimension Skipper said...

Part 1...

When we judge people based on whether or not they react they way we'd react, we make a colossal mistake.—Steve Salerno

Not only that, but I contend that we can't know how we would even react. We often think we can imagine and do so with seeming certainty, but personally I believe there are some situations in life so horrific that even our imagination falls far, faaaaar short and the only way to really know how we would handle it is to actually be experiencing it (and of course no one wants that).

I know I've sometimes had people say to me (in response to something relatively mundane I've related) something along the lines of, "I would have... [insert some alternative action]." Often the alternative action espoused will feature some form of implied threat or act of physical violence. And yet I could cite very similar examples where the same person(s) did NOT have that reaction they say they would have. In essence they're just mentally posturing for effect and for the sake of their own sense of self/superiority/machoness. However, to be fair, I think that those types of things are often easily recognizable as just that... posturing.

Things like the loss of a child or any close loved one through a horribly violent and seemingly random act and as part of a much greater nationally significant and reported incident?... Simply unimaginable and incomprehensible to my mind. I cannot be in the parents' shoes and will not begrudge them their own personal reaction (or apparent reaction or apparent lack of reaction) to the tragedy.

Dimension Skipper said...

Part 2...

Some things to be considered:

● Not everyone is accustomed or prone to wearing their emotions on their sleeves, but that doesn't mean they don't have them and that they don't run deep. Just because someone doesn’t react how we think we would or that they should, doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling exactly the same things we would. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t, but reactions are different from emotions. Some folks’ reactions are highly driven by emotions at all times. Other folks’ reactions are more intellectually driven, perhaps because they’ve experienced times when emotional outbursts compelled quick reactions that then had adverse consequences. They may have learned how to not succumb to instant raw emotion in general or how to subdue that effect and get it under control quicker, at least to the outward observer. Ultimately people are individuals (not statistical probabilities or tendencies) and simply different.

● Shock can be the root cause of a seemingly detached reaction. Also, shock can be an instantaneous thing or it can be a delayed thing. Or both and even multilayered in some ways. People who have been through traumatic experiences often talk of running the gamut of emotions or not knowing how to feel, that it's just too much to absorb. And meanwhile the mind doesn't turn off so much as it races in 20 different directions without ever settling on one specific reaction for longer than a few seconds at a time. The effect(s) can last for hours, days, months, even years in some cases (though as the duration lengthens, hopefully the emotional impairment will at least surface less and less frequently). Imo (and I'm not a doctor of any kind) that's what PTSD really is in layman's plain English... extreme long-term shock.

● Being interviewed in a TV studio (or even a home setting via satellite link) under the glare and spectacle of bright lights and a crew bustling around doing their own jobs isn't necessarily conducive to "normality" in the first place, so I don’t know that we can expect "typical" reactions.

● How someone reacts on camera in a studio setting some 24 hours (give or take) after the intial news broke and amid subsequent immediate pandemonium and various other newshounds wanting their piece of coverage is, again, not necessarily indicative of "normality." People often seem to assume for some reason that the little slice of someone’s life we see on camera is perfectly representative and I don’t think that’s a safe assumption at all. We don’t have any idea what all went on between the initial incident and the eventual interview that made it to air.

NOTE: I started out watching Dateline last night, but had to turn it off maybe 10-15 minutes into it as I just couldn't take it anymore. (I found no major fault with their coverage beyond my usual distaste for the "packaging"—e.g. somber* incidental music and seque title graphics—of such tragedies for ratings, but I acknowledge that that's "just the way 'they' do things"). I simply mean in this case that I couldn't take hearing any more about the incident itself and the tragedy it is for all involved. I was in no mood as I'd had my fill of vicarious suffering for the day by that point and one can only take so much. Unfortunately for those directly involved in any way they do not have the option of simply avoiding it.

* Not that such programs should use upbeat, happy music... I just wonder why any music is deemed necessary at all, especially with a still currently unfolding event. To my mind it's almost disrespectful to the extreme raw emotion of the incident. To be fair, I can't say I really noticed if Dateline did any such things last night or not. I think I was myself still too absorbed in the rawness of the incident to notice such details.

Dimension Skipper said...

Very brief Part 3 as conclusion...

P.S. I saw Barbara and Steve touched upon some very similar (even essentially identical, but much more concisely put) points while I was composing this, but I decided to let my own expressions stand as they were.

Steve Salerno said...

DimSkip: Which is why I included that last line in my comment, "But then, we never really know till it happens, do we..."

I tag many of my posts (including this one) with "hypocrisy," but I do realize that the situation is actually more complex than that. I'm not sure that evidence of incongruity is always evidence of hypocrisy, since we are constantly evolving as people, and we never quite know where we'll end up. The classic example is the death-penalty opponent who suffers some horrific tragedy--like this one--and suddenly changes his (or her) tune overnight, "deciding" that there are some instances where the death penalty is the only appropriate punishment. (What's that old line? "A conservative is a liberal who got mugged"?)

Of course, what happened there was not the result of a "decision," per se. It was a simple visceral need for vengeance that rose up and completely obliterated the person's ability to approach the situation in a rational manner. That person isn't really being a hypocrite; he (or she) is being, well, human.

Again, DS, I agree with you wholeheartedly: We know far, far less about ourselves than we think we do. It's easy to posture and pontificate when there's nothing personal at stake.

Stever Robbins said...

One of the "Big five" personality traits that have become a significant descriptive model of personality is "neuroticism." People low on that dimension tend to react primarily from intellect and rationality. That makes them really boring to talk about, and you never, ever, see them portrayed in the media. They aren't dramatic, and they make lousy stories. "John and his wife had a big fight. Then they explored each other's needs, found a good compromise, and calmed down." => FAIL "John and his wife had a big fight. She chased him down the street with a knife" => TV contract.

I know someone who is very empathetic to pain and suffering, but when someone dies, he is only sad briefly. He describes it as if the person went on a long trip and didn't take their phone. He says they still "feel" alive, even though he intellectually knows they aren't.

It's tempting to say he lacks empathy, but that's not at all true. He's extremely empathetic and sensitive to people who are present and real. If someone's in pain, he feels it very keenly and goes to great lengths to help them. If they're dead, though, then they're beyond help, and his attention (and emotions) turn to helping the survivors.

Then again, I went to a science and engineering college and most of my friends comes from that subsegment of the population, who may well process rationally things other people would process emotionally.

Steve Salerno said...

Stever: I think those are very interesting points (though I always feel vaguely strange in saying such things, as if I'm the great arbiter of "what's interesting" or not. But in any case...) I too know a few people who are just different from "the norm," reaction-wise--I worked with one in particular at Rodale--and they can be exasperating to be around as you all go through the paces of daily living. There is nothing about them that could ever be described as emotional or histrionic. They are always composed and, as you say, rational; you begin to question whether they even have feelings, let alone are capable of expressing them. The worst reaction I ever saw from the person at Rodale, for example, was on 9/11, when the first Tower began crumbling, and she just sort of shook her head slightly, in the same way you or I might when we realized we forgot to put the garbage out the night before. (Such non-reactions are especially jarring in a woman, of course.) Later, during a meeting, she said, simply, "What a shame." What a shame?? The rest of us are dumbstruck, crying hysterically or stamping around the office, demanding blood ... and ... "what a shame"?

You see this dichotomy in sports as well, in the vastly divergent personas of coaches. On the one hand you have the Tommy Lasordas, who are literally jumping up and down on every major play, and on the other hand you have a guy like Cito Gaston, who reacts to everything, good, bad or in-between, the same way--which is to say, he doesn't react. I don't think we can fairly infer that Gaston cares less about losing, or about his players, than does Lasorda--even though, having managed teams at local levels for many years, I personally skew much more toward Lasorda and cannot even imagine being as seemingly impassive as Gaston.

And then--on a related note--there are the cultural differences. Yeah, I know, we're not supposed to stereotype people, but let's face it, some cultures (for whatever combination of nature and nurture) are more outgoing and emotive, and some cultures are more reserved and stoic. You cannot convince me that children of Asian heritage are as quick to smile and "engage" as children of, say, Hispanic heritage. If you don't believe me, volunteer in a grade school for a while, pay close attention (though you won't even have to), and report back.

But see, I think the larger point is that such people make the rest of us uncomfortable. We don't understand how they can be so composed at times of high emotion, so we judge them and/or we begin to feel foolish about our own level of reaction. Either way, we don't like it.

Anonymous said...

This is tough to read, Steve, in one sense but you do make an important point. We all want to think that our gut doesn't mislead us. We want to trust our ability to size up other people. I had the same reactions you did watching the mother in that interview, only you're right that it isn't fair to assume based on her unusual demeanor that she loves her child any less than those of us who would be hysterical. I see your point about court cases too, but then what is the jury supposed to do? I don't understand how else a jury decides who's lying and who's telling the truth. Maybe this is one of those things that's a little unfair to some people but we have to live with?

a/good/lysstener said...

I'm sorry, that lady is either sedated or weird. She's sitting there smiling about her daughter's interests in civics and baseball? It's a bit soon for that. I can see maybe at a memorial service a month from now, but the same day?!

Even if you're right that we all have individual ways of reacting, my question would be whether people who have those unusual reactions are as emotionally trustworthy as other people. In other words, if they dont' experience the sadness of life as the rest of us do, maybe they can't be trusted to make decisions that value other people's feelings to the same degree either. I know that I would not want someone like this woman as my mother, even while I'm alive! I don't think I would get from her what a child needs in terms of empathy.

Steve Salerno said...

That's another interesting point: Do people such as this woman, who are somewhat detached and overly upbeat, also judge us for being "too sad"? Do they think we're "overreacting"? And would that mean they probably have less empathy than the usual person?

RevRon's Rants said...

I've witnessed lots of folks who pound their chests and proclaim how (inevitably nobly or bravely) they would react to a given situation, only to see a completely different reaction when the situation actually arises. Especially when it comes to defensive/combat situations, I've learned to be gentler in my judgments than is normally my nature. Oftentimes, we strive to act - or proclaim that we would react - as we believe we should, yet the actual scenario unfolds in a manner we'd rather not consider.

Many verbally brave individuals flee when their lives are at stake, and many whom we would think to be devastated react with cool detachment. We can be quick to judge these people only because we are not privy to their circumstances or their mental state. Perhaps the little girl's mother felt she needed to be strong, either for her husband, or perhaps for her daughter (She wouldn't want to see me fall apart).

There's also the guilt factor. I don't think there's a parent alive who hasn't at some point questioned whether having children was a good idea. If your child dies, those questions come back with a vengeance, and for many people, the only way to avoid breaking down completely is to simply dissociate themselves from all feelings where the child is concerned.

Bottom line is that whether we choose to believe it or not, we all live in glass houses; some of us just think that the glass is really stone.

Steve Salerno said...

Tangentially related to Ron's comment: When I was in college, many of us on the football team were also partisans of that quaint pastime called "the sweet science," otherwise known as boxing. (Today, of course, it's all about MMA, UFC, etc.) Most of us on the team were in the same gym class, but now and then there would be random others who ended up in that class, and often did their lifting or after-school workouts with us as well. One such random other was a kid named, appropriately, Fred.

Fred was an average-sized guy, maybe 5-9 and 160 pounds soaking wet, whereas I--regulars know this by now--am a very tall fellow, then over 6-4, and also (then) extraordinarily fit and strong at around 240. I took enormous pride in my physicality; and in my boxing exploits, I fancied myself a kind of poor-man's Sonny Liston. (Look it up.) I swaggered; I menaced. Fred, OTOH, was a classic milquetoast, mild-mannered and obsequious.

One day, for whatever reason, Fred and I were the only ones standing around with gloves on, and I asked him if he wanted to do a little sparring. I knew going in that I'd have to "be gentle" with him, so as not to hurt him in some serious, perhaps permanent way.

To make a long story short--and I'm sure you saw this coming by now--Fred KICKED MY ASS.

I don't know what came over him, or out of him, but the moment we actually started bouncing around the interlaced tumbling mats that served as our ring, Fred transformed into something else. He became indomitable. Nothing seemed to daunt, much less hurt, him. I was boxing full-out before long, unleashing my full fury--and he was unstoppable. He somehow got inside my best offensive volleys and pummeled me. He bloodied my nose and lip. Though neither of us went down, he certainly would've won on points, had someone been scoring. No contest.

But here's the kicker (NPI). The minute we took the gloves off, he ebbed back into that same old Fred. I was stunned. He was once again--instantly--shy, submissive, lacking in any sense of male presence: a follower, the kind of guy who does what the others are doing, or what the others tell him to do.

I've thought about that day a great deal through the years. I don't think that either of the "two Freds" I experienced was fake. They were both Fred; both parts of an incongruous whole. He just became a different person when challenged, an existential thing that existed for that moment (and purpose), and that moment/purpose only. And when the moment was over, it was gone.

Very strange. But all too human?

RevRon's Rants said...

LOL! I can relate so well, Steve. I once thought I was a badass, until a seemingly gentle little old man tossed me around the mats like I was a child.

Once I got over the ego-bruising, he taught me a lot. Among other things, that what we show on the surface doesn't always reflect what we feel inside. The people who pound their chests the most do so for the same reason male gorillas do: to try and deflect challenges without actually having to defend themselves. And those who are secure in themselves feel no need to advertise.