Saturday, July 22, 2023

When Our Children Cry Wolf

All of us are familiar with the story of the boy who cried wolf. For those who aren't, it was about a boy who was tending sheep in the pasture, got bored, so he cried "wolf" to see what would happen. The villagers came running to save him but found him doubled over in laughter at his prank. He did this a second time, so later, when a wolf did appear and the boy called out a third time, the villagers did not come to his rescue and his flock was eaten. In some versions of the tale, the boy was also eaten by the wolf.

Therefore, I understand the various reactions to the story of what might have happened to Carlethia "Carlee" Russell--was she abducted as she claimed, or was this some elaborate cry for attention? Are we entitled to demand an explanation from her, or should we just move on with our lives like those villagers and not come running when the next woman of color goes missing?

I have a lot of conflicting thoughts, some that I shared on social media in response to a post by a classmate that this had been a hoax from the outset. I saw his posts and initially ignored them (because he tends to be provocative), but I also did wonder if there was more to this story than was being reported. What about the wandering toddler on the side of the highway, did no one else who was driving along at that same time see him? Was there any video surveillance that could assist? And once it was reported that she had returned home, when could we expect a statement issued or an interview with Gayle King to warn other young women who might similarly be vulnerable?

Because I was attending a conference, I could not follow the chatter, but I happened to be scrolling my Twitter feed when the news of her return was released. At the time, I just sent up a prayer of thanksgiving that she was found, but I must admit that the details provided regarding her return were suspicious. So I waited patiently for some kind of update that would quiet my skepticism. That didn't happen, because as I watched the briefing offered by the Hoover Police in real time, my heart sank without hearing much of what they had to say. The presser wasn't even finished when I saw the first wave of "I told you so" vindication posts and the inappropriate memes. 

Since quite a few comments referenced him, I thought back to a few years ago when the Jussie Smollett saga generated a lot of righteous outrage due to its perfectly scripted homophobia and violence fueled by Trumpism. While everyone was offering messages of support, I recall sitting on my Twitter fingers waiting for a new twist. As his story unraveled, I was actually relieved (not because of the resulting fallout that destroyed his acting career and threatened the career of Cook County State's Attorney), but because such a brazen attack in Chicago at 2AM that no one heard or saw was too ridiculous to be true.

Thus, as Russell's disappearance was initially shared on social media and calls were made to amplify details to ensure that her case would be treated with urgency, I will simply say that I was praying for her safe return. And I still am praying for her, even if she was not the victim of some predatory crime as we were led to believe. 

This story hit a lot of my buttons, especially as I prepared to take another solo road trip down South this past week (more details to share soon). It was upsetting to think that she could have been possibly lured into a trap that involved using a small child as bait. I fretted that I would have to add this to my ever-growing list of concerns about raising girl-children without the wisdom of my own village mothers. I mourned the potential devastation that would have overwhelmed this young woman's family and community if there had been an alternative unhappy ending. And I was frustrated that just weeks ago we sent the Coast Guard to search for five people on a private joy ride to see an underwater graveyard, whereas a minimal dispatch of resources deployed to find an adult runaway would most assuredly be deemed a waste.

While there has been no definitive pronouncement, public sympathy has decidedly shifted. The villagers have extinguished their torches, put away their weapons, called off the hounds, and are grumbling on social media. It upsets me that the loudest voices of condemnation are coming from within the Black community. And not just from men, so what should we call it when we are determined to disbelieve one of our children unless the outcome of her peril had turned tragic? Why are we so quick to dismiss this as merely the actions of an attention-seeking narcissist instead of as a very public plea for help?

Do we really need her to explain herself, or do we need to give Russell the space to heal herself? I'm not convinced that we need to know everything if the point of inquiry is to subject her to more ridicule. That doesn't mean I am against her facing consequences, but I believe that once it crosses the line to irredeemable public shame, no lessons will be taught or learned. A lot of people act out for attention, and we don't respond with this level of indignation, not even when their antics are fueled by mental illness, substance abuse, a toxic -ism or phobia, or just immaturity. In most cases, we accept that the matter will be addressed privately and move on.

For example, in my area Amber Alerts go out whenever a young person goes missing (Silver Alerts for senior citizens with dementia). In three cases where I have personal knowledge of the outcome of a local Amber Alert, there were no demands for public accountability because we were just relieved that each child was returned home. In one case, the girl who was a classmate of my Niece, was transferred to a new school. In another instance, the mother, whom I knew online through a FB group, updated us and then deactivated her social media account. And in the case where I actively took part in a search, the girl's family expressed their gratitude for our community efforts, but I haven't seen them since. 

Someone reading this might assume that by referring to Russell as an adult runaway and inferring from the title that she is a child, I am infantilizing her to absolve or excuse her behavior. I assure you that I am well aware that she is a grown ass woman who had a job, a car, a concerned boyfriend (ex?), and two loving parents who went on national television to elicit sympathy for what now appears to be a tall tale. Unlike the three young girls I described, Russell is not some impulsive child who ran away to escape some parental restriction or punishment. 

So what.

People from her community and across the nation were invested in finding her, including Angela Harris, who mobilized volunteers and dedicated resources from her nonprofit to search for Russell because she lost her own daughter under tragic circumstances. Instead of responding in anger, Ms. Harris modeled the kind of community response that we ought to emulate in this instance--determination and resolve. We ought to be ready to search under every rock and comb through every field for our missing loved ones, not just because they are well-connected or because their stories get media attention, but because it is the right thing to do. The wrong thing to do is to adopt the attitude of the villagers in the fable and let the wolves have their fill.

My fellow Gen Xers remember when almost every TV sitcom aired a runaway episode. The plot centered on the main character and/or a best friend who made a pact to do something crazy that a parent explicitly forbade, like Vanessa Huxtable (part one and two) sneaking off to have BIG Fun with the Wretched. Of course, the outcome of that episode was unforgettable hilarity, as were other light-hearted runaway storylines such as twins Tia and Tamera plotting to run away in order to stay together (Sister Sister); or baby sister Jennifer Keaton slipping away while big brother Alex isn't paying attention to her (Family Ties). 

There were also the kind of very special episodes that were intended to caution/scare us such as the runaway episode from The Facts of Life that seems most analogous to this situation. Tootie disobeys her parents and Mrs. Garrett by running away to visit New York City on her own. She gets robbed and retreats to a coffee shop where she meets a friendly girl named Kristi who chats her up and buys her lunch. Tootie doesn't realize that this is all part of a set up to recruit her into prostitution. Right before she gets duped into joining Kristi and her pimp, a waitress tips her off to the scam. Mrs. Garrett arrives just in time to whisk her home to safety.

That episode aired 40 years ago, and the message is as poignant today as it was when I was in the fourth grade. There are wolves in these woods, and we need to be vigilant and wary. It isn't a waste of effort or resources to protect our sheep. Furthermore, to mix in another metaphor from Peter and the Wolf (a different fable), we can't barricade our children in the house and expect that simply warning them against venturing out into the world will be sufficient. Due to their natural curiosity and inquisitiveness, some of them will stray, so they need to be equipped with the right tools to defend themselves when we aren't there to prevent disaster. And a good arsenal of tools should include discernment and common sense. Shame and ridicule are useless as they are intended to humiliate and break people, not correct and build them up.

Carlee is home. She has a family who can address her needs in private. There are others who have gone missing who still haven't been found. Still others languishing in foster care or who have just aged out of the system are vulnerable to being exploited in the very manner we feared Russell would be; hence, there are gaping holes in the safety net that don't catch everyone. Several nonprofits such as Angela Harris' nonprofit Aniah's Heart, the Black and Missing Foundation, and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women could use more support and visibility. If it takes crying wolf to get us to come running, then we should ask ourselves why these children have everything else but our attention...

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