Jewish World Review August 9, 2002 / 1 Elul, 5762

Greg Crosby

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Private sorrow as public spectacle | Private sorrow, it appears, is a thing of the past. A family tragedy, no matter how personal, no matter how delicate, is blathered across the airwaves of the nation -- and done so with the full approval (and indeed the desire in many cases) of the people involved.

Reality television shows like the PBS series "Children's Hospital" focus on sick and hurt children. Critically ill kids, some with horrible diseases, some having severe mental trauma, some who have been beaten and tortured by their own parents, is considered "good television." Forget for a moment what kind of TV viewer would actually consider this show for an evening's worth of entertainment -- what is it that motivates the parents to want to broadcast their child's pain and suffering to the world?

Tamara Brooks and Jacqueline Marris, the two girls who were kidnapped, raped, but thankfully saved before the rapist could kill them, are the latest media stars. On the day they were rescued, their parents were on television sharing their personal relief and joy with the world. One father was actually reluctant to leave the cameras, even after the interview concluded, joking that he wanted to get his fifteen minutes of fame in while he still could.

One of the girls, Jacqueline Marris, even did an interview for KABC television the very day after she was rescued! And the camera was so tight on her face, I could count all the studs and pierced earrings along the ridge of her left ear. Four days after being kidnapped and raped both girls appeared together on the Today show along with their parents and other relatives for a real Oprah moment, spilling their guts to Katie Couric. The teenagers recounted their terrifying experience live on national television, giving a harrowing account of their 12-hour ordeal including what it was like to see their abductor killed in a hail of gunfire.

It's no surprise that the two teens were bombarded with requests for interviews all weekend from television stations everywhere. Hollywood producers and network executives have been beating down their doors to buy the rights to their story for television movies. I'm sure a book deal is in the offing as I write.

The nine miners who were saved last week have already made a deal with The Walt Disney Company to do their story for a TV movie. The studio paid them about a million dollars collectively for the rights. You can be sure that book rights are also in discussion for these guys. Can merchandising rights be far behind?

The mother of murder victim Samantha Runnion did the Larry King Show the day after her daughter's funeral. As the hour show went in and out of commercials, still photos of the girl were flashed on the screen as the song "I Can Fly" from Disney's Peter Pan was playing in the background. The funeral itself was televised -- held at the gigantic Crystal Cathedral and broadcast throughout the country, hundreds of millions of people had the opportunity to experience and gape at what should have been a family's private moment, a last loving memorial to their child.

Grief has changed---it has become public spectacle. Everywhere throughout the country people lay tons of flowers not at gravesites, but at the public places where people have died. Street corners, roadsides, any place where someone had been killed becomes a shrine overnight. Teddy bears, framed photographs of the victim, dozens of lighted candles, carloads of flowers, hand written notes and poems, pile up on public sidewalks. Everybody cries for everybody. Funerals are televised, doves are released to the heavens, people who never knew the victim or victims weep openly and join hands with family and friends as they walk into the ocean or form a circle in the desert. Like professional mourners of old, it's community mourning, but on a large scale.

A loved one's pain, a woman's rape, or a child's death are all grist for the national public mill. What was once strictly private grief, a family's highly personal sorrow now becomes a public commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder or to the television outlet with the most affiliates. And it's not just for the money either-- it's the fame.

Americans, and maybe all people in today's world, want to be rich and famous. Everyone, it seems, wants to be a movie star -- at least for awhile. For Bill Clinton, becoming the President of the United States was good, but you always had the impression that deep down HE REALLY WOULD RATHER HAVE BEEN A ROCK STAR.

Most people do not possess that extraordinary combination of talent, ambition, luck, and whatever else it takes to achieve fame and fortune in our society -- so if it takes a tragedy to do it, well then, so be it. On with the show! "My teenage daughter was abducted, raped and almost killed, but heck...I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. De Mille." It's show time, folks.

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.

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© 2001 Greg Crosby