Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Melinda Duckett vs. All of Us

In today's SF Chronicle, columnist Jon Carroll pleads with liberals and progressives and decent people everywhere to conserve our outrage and not waste it on the likes of Nancy Grace.

"In these troubled times, outrage is a limited commodity," Carroll writes. "There are only so many hours in the day... So we need triage. We need risk assessment. We need to remember that just because the herd is running some place doesn't mean that we have to run that way too."

But Jon, I think I can spare a moment of spittle-spewing indignation in memory of Melinda Duckett, who was suspected of murdering her 2-year-old Trenton and foolishly agreed to go on national TV to talk about it. Duckett killed herself the day her interview with rabid talk-show host Nancy Grace aired on CNN, which ran an announcement of the suicide at the bottom of the screen. Classy. I've read the transcript and it's pretty clear that Grace grilled Duckett into incoherence, intent on solving the case right then and there in front of the whole audience.

Here's the context: Duckett had been laid off from her job and was going through a divorce with Trenton's father, who'd been hit with a temporary restraining order. Parents, try to walk a mile in her shoes and imagine the stress of a situation like that. Here's a 21-year-old woman, barely an adult, who was probably living every moment of every day with fear and anxiety. She's isolated and taking care of a toddler. She probably doesn't have much help or support. The money was running out. There's evidence that the dad was abusive, though I'm not going to say if he was or wasn't because I wasn't there.

Being a parent provokes a curiously bipolar response to a case like this. On one hand, it seems impossibly monstrous that any parent could commit an act of violence against a helpless baby; some of us want vengeance on behalf of our own children. On the other, I think that if we are willing to dig deep, most parents will find moments when we've all been pushed right to the edge of violence. (Think four in the morning and the baby's been crying for an hour and you've got a big meeting at work in five hours and your spouse is irritable and not much help and your arms are getting tired from carrying the baby and if you have to shush one more time you're going to scream...)

I've had sleep-deprived, stressed out moms tell me that they feel like they are going to die; one said that she didn't feel like she could control any aspect of her life and that she was angry at everything, including her little boy. I've read that moms who kill their kids often convince themselves that their children are better off dead, given the reality the family is facing. Certainly, there's no shortage of parents, moms and dads, who beat their kids to within an inch of their lives. This isn't to excuse the parents - they should be tried in court and either treated or punished, as the case warrants - but if we can try to understand the conditions that would drive a woman (or man) to that extremity, we might be able to help prevent a disaster or heal a family that's been through one.

That said, I don't know if Duckett was innocent or guilty. I have no idea if Nancy Grace drove Duckett to suicide. Neither do you. I'm less concerned about the facts of the case than about what the Nancy Grace interview reveals about our culture and parenting. In the transcript, Grace is conducting multiple interviews simultaneously, including with Melinda Duckett, her estranged husband Josh, and a circus tent of guests who critique Duckett's "performance" as the interview proceeds.

At one point, Duckett, who was probably exhausted and is visibly confused, says she doesn't want to answer a question "because I'm not dealing with media very well." (Turned out later her divorce lawyer had advised her not to answer certain questions.) Grace turns to Marc Klaas, president of an organization called Beyondmissing and crusading celebrity father of the murdered Polly, for an opinion. "Nancy, in these kinds of cases the media is never the problem," says Klaas, whose job is to appear in the media. "The media is always a friend, it's about sharing information. It's about transparency, it's about working with the authorities. It's about working with the media and it's about getting over that hump that people are looking at you. And quite frankly, Melinda is not doing that very well at all."

"The media is always a friend"? "Melinda is not doing that very well at all"? Who the hell is this guy? He acts like the "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" for parents of missing children. Perhaps he should have coached Melinda beforehand, maybe gone through her wardrobe and shared his favorite hair gel, developed some talking points and blocked some tragic poses. Then perhaps Duckett might have performed to his satisfaction for our friend, the media. Even assuming that Klaas sincerely wants to help parents find abducted kids, I'd respectfully suggest that his appearance on Nancy Grace's show didn't help anyone except Marc Klaas. It's fun to be on TV, isn't it, Marc? Remember back when it was just a means to an end? How naive you were, back then. How much more sophisticated you are now.

And how sophisticated we all pretend to be. I scanned editorials, blogs like the one you're reading, and talk-show discussions. Newspapers and many blogs dutifully roasted Grace for being crass, but a substantial number of TV talking heads fell over themselves with support for Grace and her tactics. Duckett was an adult, say the talking heads. She should have known the score, and if she didn't, it's her fault. She should have watched more CNN and maybe taken some notes, for future reference, back when she had the chance, presumably. She didn't even have the common decency to have attended j-school.

Melinda Duckett may or may not have committed a crime. That hasn't been proved one way or the other. But in my eyes, and of course in the eyes of lots of people, CNN and Nancy Grace stand convicted of turning a family tragedy into entertainment. Grace and homelander celebrities like her say they're trying to "reunite families" (direct quote from a press release!), but they do nothing of the kind. Instead they directly hurt the families who stumble, blinking and nervous, in front of cameras hoping for help or vindication or sometimes fifteen minutes of fame.

That alone is wrong, but it's much bigger than the families who land in the spotlight. In a mindless drive for eyeballs and profits, mainstream media cheapen the culture that's supposed to bind us together and they drag their audiences into moral and political fantasylands. Many editorials I read faulted Grace for her journalistic ethics and technique, but to me the media's systemwide failure is moral (in failing to distinguish right and wrong) and political (in abandoning their historic mandate to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted - today in the media and in every major institution, it is the comfortable who have their backsides kissed and the afflicted who gets their asses kicked).

When we can't find justice in the real world, we look for it on TV. We seek the appearance of justice and indulge ourselves in fantasies of moral rectification. Maybe that's necessary in fictions like 24 or Over There, but it's terrible and destructive when enacted as ritual slaughter on TV that purports to be reality, starring real people who don't have the benefits of a script, teleprompter, or competent legal representation.

Sometimes when I look out at the world I've helped to make - through inaction or self-indulgence - for Liko, I want to cry. We can do better than this.


Naz said...

You bring up some good points which i hadn't thought of. Being male I really hadn't given much thought to what Melinda was gaing through as a single mom. Hopefully she didn't kill her child & her response to being grilled wasn't guilt over doing so, but one hting I was thinking when seeing Josh Ducket talk about his deceased wife was that he really shouldn't have been telling the media about her bad traits- you know, speaking ill of the dead & all- no matter what she was like in person.
Anyway, thanks for droppin by my site- this story is getting a huge amount of attention from surfers- I'll put a link to your article in my story on Melinda

Chris Smyr said...

Most of us will never understand the trials that Melinda had to go through in making a life for herself and her son. 2 jobs, school, a messy divorce, the stigma of being a young, single mother in our society, and in passing before her death, the loss of her son and bearing the burden of guilt placed by media shmucks like Grace.

Who on this earth could cope well with these stresses? And Grace still asserts that Melinda's stuttering on her show incriminates her. It's shameful.

Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

Reading this makes me foam at the mouth with anger. I really hate most aspects of our media – especially the aspect of exploiting family struggles for entertainment. I hadn’t heard of this story and felt for the mother as I read your interpretation of it. I usually do find myself empathizing with the mother of tragic stories, even when I don’t like what she may or may have not done.

If only she had a supportive and loving environment to help her out.

Anonymous said...

That's so horrible... I wonder as I think about videoblogging some interviews, what effect the camera itself and the idea of the camera would have on people's stories. Maybe audio is better as it doesn't carry that weight of "being on tv".

The other aspect of this - is the way motherhood itself opens a person up to a particular kind of attack. If you look at news stories about abusive men, the language slants the story so that everything is still the mother's fault, for choosing the wrong guy, for not keeping him happy, for their life being chaotic, for provoking him, for having a boyfriend at all... just infinite... The mother's incoherent reaction to tragedy is often shown while a male reaction of incoherence or incompetence is rare. The men in the stories about (bad) parenting are "absent" and invisible or the story focuses on their profession or work life or pressure on a job. Whether the mom works or not is not talked about the same way. I'm just trying to say that the way women are under fire is different; it is a different kind of scrutiny.

Anonymous said...

Mindy loved her Son more than anything. Those of us who knew her know this. We also know the media and the police twisted and manipulated facts to suit their own needs. End result, I lost a friend and Nancy grace gets record ratings.


Anonymous said...

First of all I think that the insults to Marc Klass need to be put aside.He's not trying to get media time,he's a father who understands what it is like to lose a child!Nancy might have been crass after a while,but look at the two questions this woman refused to answer.She acted like she didn't even hear the question a number of times.She could have said she was adviced not to answer the questions.Two very simple questions!!Maybe you have not noticed but in one of Melinda's answers when she describes her little boy she uses the word"was".Nancy Grace is a woman seeking the truth and justice not ratings.I don't watch Nancy Grace to see her lose her temper,but to get information on current cases.I never knew this woman named Melinda,but I will say this...she acted very suspicious!!

B. said...

This is ridiculous. I mean I understand some of your points, but you have to play Devil's Advocate here.

If your little son was missing, wouldn't you comply with police completely and without question??? Honestly if you really wanted to find your baby, you would do anything at all to make it easier on the people who are trying to find him. You wouldn't refuse to answer simple questions.

I also know that there is one person who ultimately decides whether or not to end their own life, and that is THAT PERSON. You can try to convince, coax, haggle, harass, and push someone into suicide, but in the end that is their decision. Honestly, Nancy was just asking questions that all of us were asking. She wasn't nice - she shouldn't have been. She was trying to get answers. And if that made Mindy commit suicide, then I guess she didn't have much to live for in the first place.

It was Mindy's stupid fault to agree to do an interview TWO WEEKS after her son went missing, if she was truly that distraught.

I think it's ridiculous that there's a lawsuit pending against her. The family is misplacing their grief about the loss of TWO loved ones and trying to focus their anger on something else. What Mindy did was totally selfish; the family was already distraught over losing Trenton, and now they're upset over losing Mindy, so they turn to the only person they know to blame.

This also raises suspicions:

"Also, Leesburg police confirmed on Thursday that a MySpace.com posting that included death threats and racial remarks directed at Melinda Duckett was written by Melinda Duckett. The posting appeared on Josh Duckett's MySpace page, but he said he didn't write it.Computer experts now believe that Melinda Duckett hacked into his account and posted the message to set him up."I said that since Day 1. I knew for a fact," Josh Duckett said on Thursday. "She was the only one that had the passwords to my e-mail account and everything. So, I knew from the start and I said that. I mean, they tried to set me up, and they failed."

Consider that.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

I first posted this entry in Sept. of 2006; it is now July 2007 and "Melinda Duckett" is still by far the most popular search term that leads people to Daddy Dialectic. The comment from Bree, above, just came in.

I think my point is a pretty simple one. You don't investigate or try criminal cases on TV. Trained police investigate criminal cases and those are tried in a court of law. Anything else is a kangaroo court, a star chamber, a mob. There is, of course, a place for journalism as watchdog for authorities, as part of a system of accountability--but this isn't journalism and accountability is exactly what Grace lacked.

Anonymous said...

Your point about the way Nancy Grace treated Melinda was right on except for one point. To further imply that Josh was abusive was as harmful to him as it was for Nancy to all but accuse Melinda of killing her son. I know you put the obligatory "I wasn't there" at the end, but the facts were still out there that she had a very long history of false reports and claims. To say nothing of that judges Joshua too.