On a Wednesday in June, it is reported that a woman in Houston, Texas, has methodically drowned her five children in the bathtub. The day after this horrific news, two things happen. First, the woman’s husband—his wife now jailed, his children not yet buried—stands outside his home and, while displaying a framed portrait of his family, talks at length with the many reporters gathered at his house, as the many photographers also gathered take his picture. Through it all, this man whose family has just been obliterated conducts himself, even in his grief, as if it were the most natural thing on earth to use this moment to be questioned and photographed by a throng of strangers. (Only belatedly do I arrive at the sickening realization that the father behaves as he does because such behavior now is the most natural thing on earth.)
The second thing that happens is an explosion of coverage of the event on talk television, most of it focused on a single question: “Where did the system fail?” The unexamined and unchallenged premise of these discussions is that a properly working “system” would have prevented a mother in Houston from drowning her children on a Wednesday morning in June.
The system under assault covers everything from the medical and mental health establishments to the availability of family support. But the woman who drowned her children did not exist outside this system and had not been ignored, neglected, or victimized by it. In fact, she had received treatment for several years, with various drugs, for repeated episodes of depression. And she did have family support—a mother-in-law who came by daily to help with the children.
If, even under these conditions, the system could be said to have failed the woman, one question logically presents itself: What evidence would be required to prove that the system had not failed her? The answer in this case is both obvious and meaningless: living children. Under the terms of the televised discussion, the only way the system could be said to have worked on behalf of the Houston mother is if she had not chosen to kill her children. In other words, only by doing the most unexceptional thing in the world—keeping her children alive—could the mother’s behavior be seen as proof of the system’s efficacy. But how do you evaluate a catastrophe that does not exist? If you define the act of infanticide as a failure, does the absence of the act constitute a success?
If the questions come back on themselves, it’s because the argument is rigged. No matter. The integrity of the argument is not the point. The point is the need for television programming—product, hours and hours of product. Ghastly occurrences no longer have real meaning in our society. They now exist merely to provide mutually beneficial opportunities for self-promotion to the triumvirate of talk TV, experts for hire, and political advocates.
Show the grief. Find the culprit. Advance the agenda. This is the context in which the unspeakable now exists in our culture. There was a time when we could hear that a mother in America had drowned her children, and we could take that knowledge, unwelcome as it was, into ourselves and follow it wherever it led: to awe at the limits of our human understanding; to relief at the sunshine outside our window; to prayer for the souls of those dear children; to uncompromised sorrow.
But such events can no longer have their way with us, because they can no longer find their way to us. They are impeded by both the nature of television and by the obscenely doubt-free “insights” of psychologists, lawyers, feminists, and all the other media whores. Mock-solemn news accounts of which Houston child was drowned first are interspersed with energetic debates about the conditions under which that child and his siblings might still be alive. To all this, we listen mutely, stupidly, unaffected and unmoved, because the incident that generated the din surrounding us—on a Wednesday morning in June, a woman in Houston, Texas, methodically drowned her children in the bathtub — is being presented not as an act to be felt but one meant, as pornography is meant, to displace feeling. Emotionalism supplants emotion. Sensation suffocates truth. Thus, we respond, but we don’t absorb. We react, but we don’t feel.
And before we know it, we are isolated and self-forsaken, losing our humanity along with our humility, one irretrievable piece at a time. And losing, too, the connections that allow us to seek God in the things we least understand.
On a Wednesday morning in June, a woman in Houston, Texas, methodically drowned her children in the bathtub.
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