DAMSEL IN DISTRESS

Being in Indiana for a couple of days has put me squarely in the epicenter of a severe outbreak of Missing White Woman Syndrome (MWWS). If "Help! Missing!" posters could bring someone back to life, we'd have like 15 Lauren Spierers by now. The case is not only a matter of tremendous local interest and controversy but it is fodder for the national media as well – CBS, CNN, Fox News, USA Today, and on and on. Three observations:

1. Remind me again why we care? Let me rephrase that: remind me again why we care selectively. People who like to pretend that our society is classless and post-racial and all that other sweet sounding pap need look no further than Jessica Lynch, Natalie Holloway, JonBenet Ramsey, etc etc for contradictory evidence. Finding exact statistics or reliable estimates is difficult, but the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children lists 920 female children who have gone missing in the last five years and have not been found. If we were to get a number including male children, adults, missing persons who were eventually found, and cases that never get reported, we would see that literally thousands of people go missing every year. Why do we fixate on a handful of them?

2. Good question, Ed. Let me answer that: because as individuals and as a society, we divide our fellow Americans into Innocent Victims and People Who Had It Coming. When young, pretty, upper/upper-middle class blond girls go missing it's a huge tragedy because We think that isn't supposed to happen to her. That's only supposed to happen to the underclass we stridently ignore. No one cares when a young black teenager disappears because, well, that's what the media and society at large expect to happen to black kids. You know, the girls all get murdered by their Pimps and eventually the boys all get shot in drive-bys or end up in prison. And We lack sympathy because We rationalize the decision to blame the victims: their parents are all Welfare Queens or they choose to live in poverty and kill each other like animals so hey, what else do you expect to happen?

Hispanic kids can disappear without notice because Hispanics are generally the invisible underclass (and backbone) of the urban economy. Besides, how can we search for some Mexican kid – they all look the same anyway!!!! Ha ha ha. But what a tragedy about poor Lauren. It's not the crime that shocks us but the shattering of our expectations. Being the victim of violence is practically the birthright of little Ebony or Luis. Lauren's birthright was wealth and privilege, so it's jarring to the average suburban Nancy Grace fan to see that she won't get it.

3. Lest you think this hoopla is harmless, the media circus and public attention impact the way the police/prosecutors operate. In fact, it guarantees that the case will be nearly impossible to resolve. When the public works itself into a frenzy over the matter the police go under the microscope – why can't they find that poor girl? They know they have to charge someone. In Spierer's case, they're just dying to charge one of the men who were with her before she disappeared. As a result, not one of them is going to cooperate with the investigation and offer information that may be useful. Every one of them has a lawyer and instructions not to say one single word (which I don't criticize – people who offer information in high-pressure situations like this usually find themselves suspects in short order). Let me throw a hypothetical at you.

Let's say I walk Lauren back to her apartment. I see her get in someone else's car and then no one ever sees her again. I tell the police "I was alone with her, and I'm the last person to see her before she disappeared. I saw her get in a car with someone I didn't know and that's all I know." That sounds like a helpful thing, right? I might even be able to describe the car or the driver. That kind of information could move the case toward a resolution. But these days – and given the mindset of cops/elected officials – the more likely outcome is that I find myself a suspect or perhaps even charged with murder for A) admitting to being the last person who saw her and B) offering information that can't be corroborated in a case where the cops desperately need to charge someone – anyone – to mollify the public. So of course my lawyer instructs me on the only logical course of action: say absolutely nothing to the police or anyone else. It doesn't matter that you're innocent and you're trying to help; they'll pin everything on you in a heartbeat if you give them the opportunity.

And with that, I'm already angry at myself for having been sucked into devoting 780 words to this case. As sad as her disappearance is for her family, the cold reality is that what happened to her is unfortunately common. I'm not any more or less concerned about her family and her fate simply because her parents are loaded and she was pretty.

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42 Responses to “DAMSEL IN DISTRESS”

  1. daphne Says:

    What, no reference to Casey Anthony? BTW, and quite irrelevantly, I'm headed to Indiana this weekend. Thanks for the warning. Until now I had never heard of this case.

  2. ts46064 Says:

    Living in Indiana Ive heard plenty about this case. Ive also heard plenty of victim blaming. Hearing "What business did she have being out so late" or "Why was she out with boys at her age" is all too common.

  3. cromartie Says:

    The core of truth of this story can't be understated. Some time in the late 1980s to mid 1990s, traditional forms of media, television news, AM radio and newspapers decided to abandon any idea of community coverage in favor of narrow-casting to only the most profitable demographics, which happened to be various forms of white people ages 25-54. That this corresponded to major media conglomerates either going public or being purchased by publicly traded entities is not coincidental.

    Once this happened, it gave birth to the full on white -ification of most major news outlets which, eventually, led us to this sort of Nancy Grace environment where the only missing kids are white, blonde suburban teenagers or young white children. Because HNN and the Today Show and GMA sell ads on the basis of the white 25-54 year old housewife who eats this type of story up watching. And continuing to watch. And if they can hang a minority for the crime, even better.

  4. FMguru Says:

    Good points, well made. I do disagree with the conclusion that the disappearance/abduction of young women is "unfortunately common." It's quite uncommon – in a nation of 300 million people, you cite a rate of unsolved disappearances of girls at less than 200 per year. Old people dying in household falls is unfortunately common. Getting killed by drunk drivers is unfortunately common (though less than it was 25 years ago). Deadly influenza epidemics are unfortunately common. Young girls disappearing are not, but the way they get hyped and overexposed means that people think it is way more common than it is (which has additional society-distorting effects).

  5. Jude Says:

    Actually, I'm surprised this story hasn't gotten more national attention. Or even regional. I live in Wisconsin, and I only know about it because I know one of this person's cousins.

  6. Peggy Says:

    While enjoying a bottle of wine and a game of Uno in a public park with some friends, I recently met a young man (he claimed to be 22) who said he had just been down to Bloomington and knew "the truth" because he had found out from a bouncer at Jake's that… she had gone to Elletsville.

    Dude was high out of his mind and trying to get us to give him a beer, though, so I'm pretty dubious.

    And anyway, who would voluntarily go to Elletsville??

  7. comrade x Says:

    Ed nailed it when he wrote about this Nancy Grace driven media hysteria interfering with solving the case. If you were the last male to admit seeing her you would be a dead man. If you were a black or Latino male in that situation, you would be a really dead man. Who's going to come forward with that kind of witch hunt going on?

  8. btown observer Says:

    You've done better.

    As ts46064 states there has been no shortage of victim blaming in this case regarding 1) who she was with 2) how late she was out 3) what substances she was into.

    And your discussion of race obscures your more important point that what really matters in this case is money and networks. In September 2010, an impoverished white young mother named Crystal Grubb disappeared in Bloomington. Her naked body was found in a field in October. This case hardly generated any coverage (although thankfully has received coverage since the Spierer disappearance). And no arrests have been made in this case.

    Furthermore, I would argue that the Spierer case has generated more national coverage than the Jill Behrman disappearance of a decade ago because of the family backgrounds and connectons of those involved. Robert Spierer is a prominent New York CPA specializing in high net worth individuals. According to his public profile, he had been frequently quoted in the Wall Street Journal. It is not surprising that he has been able to utilize these connections to muster attention for his daughter's situation.

  9. Sluggo Says:

    I think it hit the news this morning in Virginia. I can't remember if it was national or local.
    I think it this type of story has more to do with class and wealth than race. I think that a pretty, wealthy black girl whose family is well connected will get coverage. It also seems to happen more with small towns.

  10. acer Says:

    @FMguru:
    That's one thing that's always bugged me about Nancy Grace, John Walsh and all the Missing White Girl stories. The undersexed suburban moms who make up the core audience for this stuff can easily conclude that This Happens All The Time and You Just Can't Trust Anyone, which in turn makes life even more insufferably fearful and boring in their families and communities.

    Ever since Natalee Holloway, there's been something about these stories that I've found powerfully obnoxious, as much as I've tried not to think about them at all. And Ed finally crystalizes it. These stories don't rise to the top because we need mascots for the horrible dangers white suburbanites face. They're special and important because, well, these girls were supposed to have charmed lives. That's why it's a "tragedy." All those black kids on milk cartons, and decadent trailer trash like Crystal Grubb? Well, their lives were going to suck anyway.

    It's all just more wealth worship. We may as well have Royals.

  11. c u n d gulag Says:

    The MSM nationalizes local stories so that we're distracted while the rich pick our pockets and saunter away.

  12. Mr. Prosser Says:

    Wayne Bennett over at The Field Negro has written a number of times about the lack of coverage if the missing girl/woman is a minority. He's worth reading.

  13. LordDon Says:

    @FMguru
    Thank you for saying what I felt compelled to log in and say. This isn't "common", your children have a better chance of dying on the way to school in a car crash than they do being abducted.

  14. double nickel Says:

    Sadly, Jay Rosenbaum's life is also about to change dramatically. Do they still have lynch mobs in Indiana?

  15. Ellie Says:

    I have to say, this left me wondering what would happen if a pretty black girl from a wealthy family went missing. Would the media hype it? Would people care?

    It would be a chance to observe class-vs.-race at play, that's for sure.

  16. J. Dryden Says:

    I would posit the notion that–just to tweak the racial politics a bit–these stories get play because they look/sound like the nice, clean, satisfying narratives provided by movies/television. Thanks to Hollywood, we think of kidnapping/disappearance as something that happens to Julia Roberts and Julianne Moore, i.e. pretty, privileged white women. So when such a story comes along in real life, media outlets know that their audiences will go for this story because it reminds them of the exciting world of cinematic fiction. I'm tying this back to Ed's idea of there being no distinction between fiction, satire, and media coverage. In this, there's a proven audience for the Young White Woman In Peril stories, thanks to the offerings of the multiplex. Young women of color, however, don't look right for the part, however, and so Americans, who can only feel feelings that they have been programmed to feel by fiction, don't care.

    Which, frankly, is much creepier to me than plain ol' racism. Evil, I can wrap my head around. Vacuity, not so much.

  17. Sluggo Says:

    @Ellie,
    If she is from a small town and her family is connected, then it could happen. I don't think this is racial, but it certainly is tribal, and if that girl is a member of the privileged tribe she would get their concern.

  18. eep and cap Says:

    This is why I don't watch TeeVee anymore. I don't want to give advertising dollars to the creeps who feed upon this crap.

  19. Major Tom Says:

    I chanced upon the Nancy Grace show last year – With all the missing "tots", repetitious, out-of-focus, 7-11 security video snippets, and a perfect-hair hostess that kept cutting off the interviewees halfway through their elaborate 10 second answers to thank her viewing audience, before cutting to a segment on the week's fallen troops – I thought it was a spoof.

  20. Grumpygradstudent Says:

    I agree with the general thrust of the argument that white and rich people get more news coverage when they are victims of crime than do non-white and poor people and that that sucks. But the idea that this is harmful to the investigation here is bullshit. Whatever problems may arise from too much attention are going to be more than counterbalanced by alerting more witnesses who may have useful information to share. In the first week of the case, when there was still a chance that this girl was alive somewhere, that is a HUGE deal. And while it's sad and unjust that this much attention cannot be generated for every missing person, I refuse to make the perfect the enemy of the good in this case.

    I also don't blame the public for finding this case interesting. This girl disappeared off the face of the earth within three blocks of her apartment on a well traveled, well lit street in a sleepy college town. In many cases of disappearance, there are plausible alternative scenarios. Somebody ran away, somebody was in trouble and wanted to dissapear, somebody had family troubles and wanted to cut off ties with them, somebody pissed off a gangster and needed to disappear, etc. Those are not plausible explanations here, and while, yes, that is related to socioeconomic class, that also makes this case a genuine whodunit, a fucking mystery extraordinaire, and I'm sorry, but that is fucking interesting. I also disagree that the "victim blaming" meme has been all that noticeable in this case. I've been following it pretty closely, since it happened in my town, and I've seen very little of that.

  21. Marc Says:

    Is there a single high profile case of this type where the young woman wasn't white? If not, can we drop the desperate post-racial attempts here in the face of evidence?

  22. mothra Says:

    As Daphne says, what no mention of Casey Anthony? I recently had the misfortune to have to travel to Washington D.C. for work and spend time in airports. The CNN was all OVER this Anthony case–which I'd never even heretofore heard of. I don't think. Then I get home and there is a front-page story about the case in my local newspaper? Why? Makes zero sense to me.

    But thank you, Lord Don for reminding us that no, abductions and disappearances of people are not common, and particularly not of children and by strangers. I would argue that the media hype of child abductions and murders by strangers has led to our children being obese. Parents don't let their children out to play, cart them from point A to point B in SUVs to watch them run around in a park and "play soccer," then go through the drive-through on the way home for fried fast food because there's no time after all the driving around to fix dinner.

    Grrrrrr.

  23. acer Says:

    It's worth noting that, while launching her career as a propagandist, Ayn Rand got sucked into one of these stories. And developed a huge crush on the bad guy.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Edward_Hickman

  24. nicki Says:

    @ Marc.

    I am not sure that what you are reading is some desperate attempt at being post-racial, so much as an effort to problematize race as always THE driving factor behind what gets covered. Perhaps being white is a necessary but completely insufficient criteria for garnering media attention.

    The case of Crystal Grubb mentioned earlier raises class as an alternative powerful explanatory factor. Along with the Spierer case, the two cases represent a sick natural experiment-
    In the past year, two white women in their 20s have mysteriously disappeared from the streets of Bloomington after partying/hanging out with friends. The first case hardly generated any local media attention to say nothing of national media exposure. The same cannot be said of the second case.

    The mother of the first woman is illiterate and poor. The father of the second woman is a high profile New York based accountant and wealthy.

    So Marc, tell me how a racial explanation can help make sense of this?

  25. Darby Witherspoon Says:

    As a native to the Bloomington area I feel there is a missing component to the whole debate at the local level: the apartments where she was living and the bar she visited that night, and the culture they support and have helped spawn in my town over the past 5-7 years.

    Smallwood apartments, on the exterior, may appear to be nothing more than ridiculously overpriced luxury accommodations. I use to deliver for Jimmy Johns(a late night sandwich chain) and had the misfortune of having to deliver food there often. I never went unarmed. Amongst the 'support staff' of the bloomington college party scene the place has a quite a reputation as a haven for rich kids to party in a 'safe' venue (as in safe from the cops). The building has its own private security, to whom you have to show two forms of ID to get past the lobby. There are cameras covering every square inch of public space in the building, whose interior looks more like Caprini Greene than a luxury high rise. Homeland Security busted a fake ID ring there, I think I remember.

    Several years ago, on a delivery, I happened to share an elevator with one of the security guards. I asked him why the security was so tight. His response: "That poor girl. I hope she ended up okay." The look in his eyes said enough.

    I posit that the real problem here isn't the racist media coverage or classist public reaction or victim-blaming, but the fact that Bloomington and specifically Indiana University has sought out a crowd of 'too stoopid for Ivy League but too rich for tech school' breed of east coast yuppie spawn and with them an 'I've got $5000 a week to spend at the bar'/'boys-will-be-boys' rape culture.

  26. acer Says:

    @double nickel:
    Geez, I hadn't thought of that.

    It's going to take a lot of "big-shot lawyers" to get his life back to normal.

  27. Charlie Says:

    How much of this do you think can be applied to perceptions of foreign countries? Do we expect Africa and the Middle East to be poor dictatorships and so ignore the mass of pain and suffering that could be eased for a fairly small amount while spending trillions on defense against the Bad People? It's like that line from West Wing, "why is an African's life worth less than an Americans?"

  28. Ike Says:

    Who watches the GODDAMN news anymore? Geesh. Haven't tuned in since about 2002. No, I take that back. I watched some of 2003's Shock & Awe live via Satellite.

  29. Brandon Says:

    "But what a tragedy about poor Lauren."

    Umm, yeah…actually, it is pretty fucking tragic. The fact that the media might not pay as much attention when people of other social backgrounds disappear could trigger two reactions. One, let's do a better job of not discriminating and give just as much attention to other cases. But you seem more concerned about begrudging her the amount of attention she has received.

  30. Brandon Says:

    @ Marc:

    "Is there a single high profile case of this type where the young woman wasn't white? If not, can we drop the desperate post-racial attempts here in the face of evidence?"

    Yeah, the Huffington Post, ABC and some other national outlets have been reporting Michelle Le's disappearance pretty heavily.

    http://abcnews.go.com/US/missing-nursing-student-michelle-le-case-now-considered/story?id=13778175

    But, I guess that doesn't count, since Asians are practically white, huh? And what's with the talk of "post-racialism", what a fucking ridiculous straw man.

  31. Eric Titus Says:

    This is all about white suburbia and "don't talk to strangers". Children in suburbia are taught to fear "strangers" and "snatchers," and the parents themselves believe in the possibility of their children disappearing if they stray too far away in the mall.

  32. IUAlum Says:

    I would call it "missing college student" syndrome. There was a lot of coverage in the media when male (straight or not) college students with Indiana connections went missing, e.g. Wade Steffey, Patrick Trainor, Andrew Compton. IMHO, it is better to have too much attention in the media (and by LE) than not enough. Molly Dattilo, Shannon Sherrill, Lola Fry and Margaret Hayes (among others) all disappeared in central Indiana and were never found. Molly's disappearance was initially ignored by the police and the media, which brought about a change in Indiana law so that LE is required to pay more attention to reports of missing adults. A side effect of the Lauren's disappearance is that Morgan Johnson (a missing adult black male from Plainfield, IN) and Frank Giza (a missing adult male last seen in Bloomington, IN) are getting more media attention.

  33. witless chum Says:

    I definitely think this stuff has had pernicious effect on society. My parents let me roam the woods and fields of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, despite the chances that a black bear might have decided to kill and/or eat me. It happened a few times to kids, I'm pretty sure I heard as many stories about that as I did about kids getting abducted by strangers.

    I'd like to see Nancy Grace furiously berating a bears' attorney.

    "Umm, yeah

  34. Brandon Says:

    @ IUAlum –

    Excellent post.

  35. Jack Says:

    This is the bottom line here. Friends and family of a 20 year old girl, daughter, sister, etc. took the initiative to use social media (Twitter, Facebook, and news outlets) to get the word spread across America and hopefully the world, that their loved one was missing. The reason that the other cases in the above mentioned posts did not get the same attention, is not because they are not white, rich girls, etc., etc., but because their parents and friends didn't go to the lengths that these people did to get the word out there or gain their support. Anything short of this is racist, ignorant and downright idiotic.

  36. chickjustin Says:

    We care because this keeps happening. Too many girls keep turning up missing in Bloomington. They are always found dead, naked, and strangled north of Bloomington.

    The cocaine mafia does this. And MCSD, BPD, and FBI are that mafia.

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