Friday, February 27, 2009

What Would You Think?

by Diane Fanning

If someone you loved, or even someone you knew, were accused of a crime would your first response be to seek refuge in denial? I’ve always believed that I’d be able to look truth in the eye and accept it, no matter how distasteful or horrendous. I did, at least, until a recent event occurred just blocks from my home.

For years, we’ve all watched the neighbors and friends of serial killers, mass murderers, pedophiles and others express shock when crimes are disclosed so close to their doorsteps. How many times have we heard: “He was a nice guy, a quiet guy, a good neighbor?” How many red flags sprouted out of his front lawn while no one took note?


Even more amazing to anyone looking at a crime from an objective distance are the family members that never noticed. The estranged husband of Susan Smith stood beside her as she sobbed coast to coast. He believed in her innocence. We, the public, believed in her innocence.

The wife of BTK Dennis Rader claimed cluelessness about her husband’s crime. (below: decades old snapshot of the Rader family)

Many scoffed at her ignorance—others refused to believe she knew nothing. How could she climb into bed with him night after night and not know about his secret life?

Kathleen Peterson had no idea that her husband Michael led a double life—outwardly heterosexual and monogamous but engaging in sex with men at the Y, trolling the Internet for homosexual pornography and even contacting male escorts on-line. Kathleen didn’t know until the last night of her life. Her murder kept Michael’s secret for a while—but not for long.

And yet, when the evidence of his responsibility for this homicide came cascading around him, family members stood by his side refusing to accept his culpability—seeing him as persecuted instead of prosecuted. No surprise that his biological sons since questioned about involvement in the cover-up made public displays of denial in their best interest.

But what of Martha and Margaret? Michael was guardian of those two girls from the time they were very small. They stuck with him through the trial and through his appeals. He was convicted of murdering the mother figure in their lives but he was also suspected of responsibility for the similar death of Martha and Margaret’s biological mother, Liz Ratliffe, sixteen years earlier. And yet, they found their refuge in denial—in the place where facts are irrelevant and emotion trumps evidence.

The proclivity for denial doesn’t end with murder. Many times, stalwart family members hearing accusations of serial rape have stood up denying the guilt of a son, brother, husband or father—even when confronted with the panties of victims stuffed in the corner of his dresser drawer. Learning of charges of pedophilia, some still deny even after learning that their loved one’s computer was filled with thousands of indecent images of children.

So how would you react? How would I? I’d like to think that because of my background, I could be objective and stand always in defiance of the siren call of denial. And then I read the headline about someone I knew—someone I respected—and I stumbled.

The high school Criminal Justice teacher, a man in his sixties, retired from law enforcement, was
accused of sexual impropriety with a teenage girl in one of his classes. My denial rose up like floodwaters, bearing indignation on its crest.

I was certain th
at the student was making it up in typical adolescent drama queen fashion. She didn’t get the grade she wanted or she felt humiliated in class, or she couldn’t get the letter of recommendation she wanted. I knew it had to be her fault, her problem, her vindictiveness. I refused to accept the possibility that this man I knew was at fault in any way.

I remained there for two days, certain of his innocence. Then the newspapers told the story of his text messages to the girl. He expressed his infatuation with her in vivid words. He wanted to leave his wife to be with her. It was like cold water in my face.

My first thoughts were amazement at the stupidity of this man. Former law enforcement and a criminal justice teacher and yet he leaves a text message trail? After assimilating those facts, I was overcome with outrage. Outrage at the teacher for betraying the trust placed in him by the students, the school, the parents—by society itself.

And outrage at myself for my willingness to believe the worst about the girl who had the courage to stand up to his behavior, face the possibility of embarrassment in her community and the ostracizing by her classmates—the girl who was willing to do the right thing.

Yes, my denial only lasted two days but it was a source of inner shame. I suppose I should be more tolerant in my judgment of myself. After all, denial is a natural, protective reaction to stress. I don’t think I can manage to cut myself that much slack but I do know I can do it for others.

After all, perpetrators on all levels strive for stealth—some perform exquisitely, others are bumbling idiots. Who am I to judge those who are taken in by these manipulators?

When I see a parent submerged in a deep well of
denial, I’ll be empathetic of their unenviable situation. When I see a spouse certain of their loved one’s innocence, I won’t automatically suspect their involvement in the other’s crime or its cover-up. When I see a mother prostrate from the burden of a child’s guilt, cobbling together a flawed alibi to protect the babe she bore, I will understand.

13 comments:

Jan said...

It is very hard to believe that someone you know and have spent time with could do something horrible. I was with my son's family 3-4 times a week. I was shocked. My daughter-in-law's friends and family were shocked. One of Devon's first grade friends summed it all up - he told his mother that he didn't believe it because mommys don't hurt their children. He said, "Boy, she's going to be mad when she gets out of jail at all these lies."

Isn't that what we really want to believe? Mommies and daddies don't hurt their children. Wives don't hurt their husbands and vice versa. At least the people we know would never do such a thing. When the mask falls off it's a devastating shock that leaves you reeling.

Leah said...

I don't think there is any shame in having doubts at first. After all many people have lied with accusations for some of the reasons you mentioned. I probably would have the same reaction until the facts started to surface. Only then can you come to an informed conclusion about a person's guilt or innocence.

Rj said...

This was an excellent piece. I am trying to build a post myself in light of all the murder-suicides and media comments about how "nice" and "normal" the perpetrators were. NOTHING surprises me these days.

The comment by Leah above, is a popular take, but a dangerous one--as people often assume the innocence of those close to them, automatically, and in spite of facts and contrary evidence. And thus people often assume, from the beginning, that victims are lying, vindictive, and deceitful, in spite of a LACK of evidence to prove it so.

"Facts" are ignored evidenced by family court dramas and rape cases and all the murderers and cowards who get away with their crimes.

Diane Fanning said...

Thanks Jan, Leah and Rj. I think there is a perfect balance somewhere between the reaction I had and instantly believing any accusations. I know I'll reach for it if something like this happens again.

Anonymous said...

The parents, spouses, children, neighbors and friends you wrote about are all good people which puts you in very good company. The fault is not with any of them for believing in their relative or friend the fault lies with the criminal. Like you after the facts start coming in and they start looking hard at those facts instead of protecting the wrongdoer they need to help the wrongdoer stand up and take responsibility for their crime or get help for their sickness.

Paralegal Sandy said...

I know I would feel a burden of loyalty to one of my own. Our own, our families, they are all we really have in this world. They are what counts most, to most of us. We put our work, our time, our money and our hearts into these people we call family. And even those we call friends, I think we feel a certain loyalty too. How could we not STAND beside them, even to the very end. They are ours.

I know people that show signs of destructive behavior. Toward themselves, and toward others. But when you really think about it, what can we do. Can we go to the police station and say, so and so said they were going to kill so and so. Was so and so serious, or just venting? Would they really do such a thing? How can we know? If you went to the other person and told them so and so said that, would you be causing them undue stress and worry over something that someone said out of anger, alcohol or drug induced beligerance, never intending to do such a thing? If I tried to do something about it every time I heard something like that, that all I'd spend my time doing.

If you know someone that needs intervention because of chemical abuse, that usually don't do any good anyway ... until THEY want it. So what is the answer?
Yeah I don't always do it, but I do believe in NOT JUDGING OTHERS UNTIL YOU HAVE WALKED A MILE IN THEIR SHOES. A little Compassion toward others really isn't a bad thing. But then I don't believe people who find nothing wrong with taking some one else's life just because they feel like it, should be allowed to walk around free among society, either. So many things in this life are just ...ambiguous.

Penny said...

excellent article, Diane. well written, per usual. i like to think of myself as a compassionate person, but i have been guilty of jumping to a conclusion...later to find i was mistaken.
we are human...afterall.

FleaStiff said...

Many people are programmed to believe good things and to be trusting. Some are even brainwashed to believe that those who are good prosper because they are good and those who are evil perish because they are evil. This inculcated sense of trust is perhaps unwise. If you look to childrens nursery stories you often see lessons of distrust. Perhaps we need such lessons to teach distrust of all people not just the Wicked Witch of the West, the Big Bad Wold and the Evil Step-Mother. A con man knows that people tend to cling to a sense of trust even when they see clues that should be alarming them. We tend to make snap decisions regarding guilt when accusations are made. At the time of the McMartin Day Care hysteria or Wenatchee Witchhunt Trials, I'm sure that children who made legitimate accusations would have been initially thought of as lying. One doctor's wife refused to believe a female patient's accusations of rape against her husband and only began to have doubts about it when her own teenage daughter awoke to find a condom wrapper in her bed. A wife of a Spokane serial killer was amazed to learn of bodies being burried in her own garden. We tend to believe that evil is something that is remote from us. Life is so much more pleasant if don't lock doors and don't turn on burglar alarms and most of the time, nothing will happen. The naive person who so willingly trusts is often made to feel he is doing the right thing. For most of the time no evil happens when the door is unlocked and the alarm left off. Most of the time! So we learn to trust and tend to cling to it.

Rj said...

Exactly what fleastiff said.

A Voice of Sanity said...

You forgot the infamous Herbert R. Baumeister, the homosexual serial killer whose wife, Julie, refused to let police search her property because she couldn't believe her husband was guilty until her son, Erich, found in the family's wooded back yard, half buried, a complete human skeleton. Even then she accepted her husband's explanation!

Dating said...

I like to think of myself as a compassionate person, but i have been guilty of jumping to a conclusion.

Dating said...

I think there is a perfect balance somewhere between the reaction I had and instantly believing any accusations.

Diane Fanning said...

I don't think you can really control your spontaneous emotional reactions but we can control how we express our reactions to others. I don't always remember to do so but it is best to think about something before commenting on it.