In Her Shell
Sunday, September 20, 2009
  Unsettling Thoughts On A Tragic Death Made Symbolic

Like many others I've been following a Connecticut murder case involving a pretty young woman whose body was found stuffed in a wall on the day she was supposed to be married. Just as I was starting to think up a blog post about my shame in this voyeurism, about all the disappearances and murders that aren't covered by the national media or cared about by so many, articles started popping up in Google News to that very effect. The comments section of this article, while disturbing, got me thinking about what draws our attention to certain tragic stories, and it made me think about old Aristotle and the classic tragic hero. So the question is, are we gruesomely fascinated by Annie Le because she was "true to life and yet more beautiful," because her plot was "of a certain magnitude"? I teach my students about Oedipus, Macbeth, Antigone. Do we find it so hard to look away because it's scary that this could happen to someone so high up on the social ladder? Does it make us feel more vulnerable? Or is there some creeping schadenfreude that reassures us that intelligence, beauty, money and power don't insulate people from random cruelty and violence? That wants to generate some rationale, some narrative, to show that she must have had some hubris, done something to cause this, that it couldn't have been so random, so violent? That wants to see how the mighty have fallen? Here is a woman who was killed. She is one of many who are not so roundly mourned but also not so roundly analyzed. She is not one of many but only herself, and irreplaceable.
You know, I think, that someone connected to me through a friend was raped and killed in a particularly dramatic fashion, and in her case, part of the media circus had to do with the fact that her family had actively pursued the press in an attempt to recover her. (She was a missing person for several days before the body was found) The rest of the coverage was because she was beautiful and young, and somehow special.

Someone on the link you posted talked about how this was like a CSI plot, or a movie, and I think that the element of *glamor* certainly adds to the appeal, but at the same time, why is this all over the news? Because the media has decided that this is the story of the week. It's a CSI episode that costs nothing to film, (And I would put money on the fact that an episode "ripped from today's headlines" will be in place within a few months.
It is a fascinatingly complicated question you raise, WT. As Lulu points out, it could be ripped straight from the headlines of a CSI episode. My feeling is Americans and our news media love a salicious and sensationalist story. In large part because so much of American culture is so vacuous, so plotless, so bubblegum.

Anytime a news story reaches a crescendo that equals or transcends fiction it is going to be huge. Any time truth trumps our assumptions about fiction, we can't look away. That can't be real can it? That can't be really happening can it?

It is not strictly wealth based. Think of those three Newark teenagers robbed and killed on the schoolyard last year, it wasn't their wealth or social stature that mattered, it was the unbelievability of the act, ostensibly worse than anything one could have made up. Same applies for that poor girl held in a California backyard all these years, the story is huge because its horror transcends our imagination. Even in these days of omnipresent violence in television, movies and video games, some acts are so beyond the pale that they stand out. The media seeks and hypes those stories in a symbiotic relationship with an under-read, tale starved, American culture which greedily feeds on them.

In this sitting around the proverbial fire horror story of the tragic death of a student from Yale the facts of the case: Ivy Leaguer, about to be married, never seen leaving the building, were the plot elements that made it pop.
Thank you for the thoughtful replies, both. I felt a little embarassed after putting up this post, because in spite of my coolly detached observer role, I do feel sort of heartbroken for this woman and her fiance and their families. Aaron, I hadn't realized that the Newark kids had made national headlines; of course, they were the 'good kids,' the ones who were in or headed for college, who were headed out of the destructive spiral of so many in that city. Lu, I hadn't forgotten about your friend who was killed, and my heart still aches for you.
I have found myself wondering why the media keeps turmpeting the fact that she was found dead on the day she was supposed to be married. Does that make her death any more or less tragic or is it just something to keep the readers coming and sensationalize an already tragic event?

I think this was a great post and stirs up poignant questions we all too often want to avoid.
Thanks lady. I'm still thinking about it, though the mainstream media, apparently, isn't.
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