Monstrousness of Empathy

When a private tragedy becomes public property

Jen Wick Studio

Empathy image


On July 24, 2009, my colleague's seventeen-year-old daughter was murdered in her car in Los Angeles. At first, the police said her death had occurred from a head trauma, that someone or something had caused Lily to slam her head into the inside door panel with such force that it had killed her. That's all we knew. It was more than enough. Within hours of Lily being found, both because bad news travels fast and because Lily's father is a well-known journalist, other journalists, myself included, were pushing the story forward. We transmitted this information as soon as we heard it, via email, blog, the web, editorials, Twitter, and telephone.

But transmission was not the first thing I did. The first thing I did was say, no. No, this did not happen, in broad daylight, to the child of someone I knew, a child who had attended grade school in LA with my daughter for six years. Then I got in the shower and cried. I cried for any fear Lily faced and told her how sorry I was, and I cried for her parents, knowing the floor of the world had dropped from under them, that they were now falling through space or doing their best to not fall through space, but what was there to hold on to? I imagined them wanting to reel back a day to when their daughter was safe, or even to the time of their panic, the time of action, of calling her cell phone, of calling the police. Though how long this not knowing could be endured, I had no idea.

Since becoming a parent I have thought that if my child were missing it would be worse to not know her fate, to be suspended in that terror. We have all seen the TV news shows where the mother's voice breaks: the five-year-old was just playing in front of the house; she was just riding her bike and we never saw her again, that was twelve years ago. Still, I imagined Lily's parents would choose to stay within the panic rather than learn what they learned the following morning: that during much of their time of action, their child was dead.

I did not, in those first minutes, think of revenge, and did not think Lily's parents would. I thought: there's no room yet to include others. The wound, for a very short time, was theirs only. And then it was ours, we were spreading it, disseminating what we found. Later, the wound was torn open by as many people as wanted to be part of it. This was where the problem began.

I was part of the problem. Shortly after reading about Lily, I posted a short piece, a few paragraphs, on a well-read media website. I had qualms not about the writing but about the posting. I felt as though I were barging into the room of a patient who had suffered third-degree burns, moving close to the bed despite knowing my touch, even one breath, might infect him. I had not seen Lily or her parents in several years; I had not known them well. What was I doing here?

I posted it anyway.

People started to forward what I had written; they reposted it. I received an email from a woman close with the family who said she was thankful for what I had written because she could not express what she was feeling, that what happened to Lily “makes me want to put my own daughters back inside my body.”

I passed along that sentence to three people. I cited it in a blog post. But I stood back from writing more about Lily, ashamed that doing so might be inviting myself to stand in the enormous light her murder was generating. Within a day, there was a cavalcade of people writing about her, classmates and local publications, national and international media. Her death was on the TV news.

Three days later, Christine Pelisek, a crime reporter for the LA Weekly, told us what had happened. Lily had spent several hours with the killer. Twice, she called her parents asking how to get cash from an ATM machine with her credit card, and when they asked her why, she said she wanted to buy shoes. They told her the card was not set up that way and urged her to come home. Video taken at the ATM machine show her nonetheless trying to get money, the killer beside her, and other customers coming or going. Lily does not shout. She does not grab a bystander's arm. She does not say, “Help me.”

Later, there was speculation online that the reason she did not do these things was because her mother was an attorney who had done work on behalf of the homeless. Lily—a National Merit scholar, a thespian, a writer—was planning to work that summer with the homeless, and, it was suggested, perhaps was not scared of the situation or the person who many of us would have been scared of.

She met this man near the campus of the law school where her mother is a professor. Her mother had asked her to pick up some papers she needed. Lily picked them up around two in the afternoon, and while leaving, was approached by the man who would eventually kill her. By five, the man had driven Lily's Volvo, with Lily in the passenger seat, to a parking lot. By 5:30 p.m., the police had picked him up several blocks away for drinking a beer in public and possessing a crack pipe. He also had the keys to Lily's car and her cell phone. Lily was found the following morning. Her throat had been slit.

Learning of the details was when I started to think of revenge. I lay in bed for two nights, not sleeping easily, trying to come up with what I would do with this man. I settled on taking him up in a small plane and flying him over the ocean, twenty or thirty miles offshore. And opening the door and pushing him out. I accounted for his trying to take me with him by harnessing myself to the inside of the plane. He would not survive the fall, but if by some miracle he did, it would be pleasant to think of his terror in knowing he had no chance to get back to shore. He would be there alone. Maybe he would cry. And shortly, he would drown or be eaten; in any event, he would eventually be eaten. I surmised that in this way this man, who had been arrested ten times and had recently been released from prison, would be doing something beneficial. He would be feeding the fish.

This was a twist on the penal colony in the middle of the ocean fantasy I sometimes had. After mentioning over coffee my plane-drop solution to an attorney friend, I learned such penal colonies still existed. But the attorney disagreed with my slapping culpability on the killer, not because he might be innocent but because he thought the man could not help himself.

His explanation made me uncomfortable. I could not support the idea of taking the teeth out of justice. I knew about sociopaths, had written about them. I had interviewed John Wayne Gacy shortly before he was executed. I knew, too, about people whose psychological breaks compel them to acts they would not have committed while whole. For the past two months, I had been writing about Amanda Stott-Smith, who on May 23, 2009, dropped her two young children from the Sellwood Bridge. Her four-year-old son drowned. My position, that we should try to understand why Stott-Smith did what she did, invited shock and scorn; people considered her a monster, doubly culpable, and suggested an apt punishment would be to lower her into the Willamette River, preferably weighted with cinderblocks. I did not see a paradox in feeling sympathy for Stott-Smith and hate for Lily's killer.

Within hours of the story of Lily's murder breaking, an anonymous woman online blamed Lily's mother for asking her daughter to run an errand. When I read this comment, I wanted to find the woman; I wanted to pin her with my eyes and say, in a menacing way: This is your solution? To slap the parent who has just found out her daughter has been murdered? I wanted the woman to feel shame.

I wanted to shame a woman for what she wrote online and to kill a man for what he had done, because within days of Lily's murder I was one of a great many people who considered themselves affected by her death. People needed to move closer to the incident, to more deeply feel its impact. A Facebook page dedicated to Lily's memory soon had 2,436 members. They posted comments saying they did not know Lily or her family, but they had kids; they drive by the law school, they were so, so sorry.

Meanwhile, Lily's parents said nothing publicly after that first day, when they expressed their love and loss. A few days later, at a memorial gathering for their child, her father spoke: “She could see right into our souls without even thinking about it, and she loved us anyway.”

“Her absence empties the world for me,” said her mother.

I knew this, knew it upon hearing of Lily's murder. Knew because, for several years after my daughter's birth, I would sometimes wake in the night weeping uncontrollably, waking with what seemed to be cobwebby star-stuff still around me, as though I had just been transported from deep space, where the truth had been revealed: the only important thing, the only endless thing, was my love for and connection to my child. Her existence had placed me on a continuum, a cable I previously knew nothing about, could know nothing about, but which I now knew was infinite.

The day Lily's parents found out their child was gone, I knew the cable in their hands had gone slack. They were holding it but it did not lead anywhere. I did not know how they could go on, or how we were supposed to support them.

What could I offer? My husband is a coffee roaster and when people are sick or hurting, I sometimes sent coffee beans. I printed a shipping label. I tried to write a card expressing my condolences; I tore it in half. I tried again. I asked my daughter to sign it, and to include the year she graduated from the school she and Lily attended. She gave me a queer look that told me she did not like doing this. That she knew it would not help.

The label and postcard sat in the same place for a week. I decided I could not send the coffee, because every time her father drank it he might think, I am drinking this only because my child has been murdered. I could not do that. I could not impose myself. Again, I wondered what I was doing, who I was doing it for.

Later in the week, James Ellroy wrote about Lily for Newsweek. He had met her once. Ellroy is a good writer; he knows how to memorialize, and because I thought his piece showed some truth, I tweeted it. My Twitter followers retweeted it more than any other piece I have posted. Again, Lily's story was spreading. Again, people were moved, but not everyone.

“It's madness and blather,” a friend emailed me, of the Ellroy piece. She thought he had intruded on Lily's death for personal reasons. I considered her opinion. I had read Ellroy's books about his mother's murder and knew how he ingested other tragedies, other murders, and reworked them as narrative. Some said he was greedy for grief. Considering his life and career, I did not think he could help it or would want to.

I thought about tattooing on my arm, “It's not about you,” because I was afraid I did the same thing, that I have done so here just now.


Death and Dying, Justice, Privacy, Media and Journalism


No comments yet.

Also in this Issue

Burning Bushes

An Anecdotal Glossary of Spectacle

Fearful Beauty

Rodeo City

Monstrousness of Empathy

In Search of the New