The Greatest Show on Earth?

So an actor died this past week… You probably heard.

I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit and I’ve decided I want to talk about it… But I’m not going to mention his name because… well… because I don’t want to. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked his movies, and from what I have heard, he actually seemed to be an okay guy as far as actors go. He didn’t get married and divorced multiple times, he didn’t inflict a chaos-infused personal life on the general public. The guy made movies, acted in plays and he was really, really good at it. That said, I didn’t KNOW him. I never met him, he wasn’t my hero and I can’t say I knew anything about him at all. So I don’t want to talk about HIM so much as I want to talk about us… as a society… as a people… as a species, and how we react to the deaths of people we don’t really know.

Just to get it out of the way… We suck. And this actor’s death once again brings that sad fact into painfully sharp focus.

The truth, dressed in it’s most modest clothing and standing quietly in the middle of the information freeway, is this:

If someone’s life was none of our business… their death is certainly none of our business.

There are a few exceptions, but not many. Perhaps I should say: “-their death is none of our business unless it’s a matter of public health, or their death in some way affects our civil rights.” Otherwise, just shut up about it okay? SHUT UP!

I’m not certain why we can’t seem to grasp the whole concept of privacy in death. But I have a few theories. We really love to be informed. I agree with most folks that it’s a good idea to be informed- violence, superstition, corruption and tyranny flourish in societies where the general populace is intentionally kept in ignorance. So, to a degree, information is something of an inoculation against such evils.

The problem is, we’ve taken this idea to the extreme and created an intellectual climate in which we believe we are self-righteously entitled to absolutely anything we want to know. If a president has a dog, we want to know it’s name. If an actress has a baby, we want to know if she’s going to breast feed. If a celebrity has sex, we want to see the video… hooo boy do we EVER want to see THAT video.

If someone dies, we want to know why… and we want to see the body… naked, if at all possible. We want to jam our noses into their mortal wounds and take a good long whiff of their viscera. Then we want to finger the embalming holes in their skin, trace the Y-incision from the autopsy with our tongues and then tweet about our self-indulgent devastation. We’re not actually going to GAIN anything from it… we didn’t necessarily KNOW this person… but we still want to see… and judge… and comment.

I’d like to blame the media, but I can’t really say it’s all their fault. One could argue that the whole media monster evolved to fill a need that we already had… the need to know. But the media, in it’s most common incarnation these days, isn’t about feeding a need nearly so much as it drives to create one. And we help them by consuming the quivering slop that they dish out and call “journalism”.

I don’t know where the phrase came from: “The public has a right to know…” or whatever the fuck their utterly-bull-shit-self-justifying line-of-drivel is these days. But the media convinces us that we want to know something. They convince us that we have every RIGHT to know something- and they are working… nay, they are FIGHTING for our right to know… they are our advocates in the war against ignorance! Hell, they’re our champions!

Except they’re not, especially not when everyone wants to know about YOU.

I’m getting off track.

The afternoon that this actor was found dead, I went to an exercise class. During warm-up, the instructor mentioned that the actor had passed. Instantly everyone was abuzz with comments. When did he die? Where did he die? What did he die of? And, naturally, somebody decided to go ahead and spray this shit all over the room:

“They say he was found with a needle in his arm!”

I grit my teeth and spoke up. Because whenever anyone starts talking about the mechanics of death, I tend to feel like something of an authority.

“They can’t possibly know that with any certainty,” I snapped. “The media makes up lies all the time and then publish it in the hopes that they’re right. I’ve seen it happen.”

Naturally, the people who didn’t shoot me a “what-the-fuck” look simply sighed with exasperation and continued on with their speculations about what they had now decided was the actor’s lurching monster of a heroin addiction. I was just that weird girl in the back of the room… the one who touches dead people… like… on purpose.

If they would have bothered listening, I would have told them the story of a happily married couple in Maine who had their deaths crucified, spread-eagle on the internet by that oozing legion of shit-smearing monkeys known as the media.

I had been called to the tidy little suburb by local police who had been contacted by the local mailman after he found a note in the mailbox belonging to this couple. (Lets call them Mr. and Mrs. Jones for the sake of clarity.)

The note was from Mr. Jones and, admittedly, it initially seemed to indicate the worst had occurred. In this note, he basically stated that both he and his wife were now deceased in their house and would someone please call the police.

This note seemed consistent with the behavior of a man who had first killed his wife, and then himself. I have no problem admitting that. Initially, we treated the situation as a murder-suicide. Of course, we didn’t call the fucking reporters in and tell them so… no way. But naturally, when the police cars started showing up, some local dim-wit of a housewife decided to ring up the local newspaper and the next thing you know, there was a swarm of buzzing insects… all with questions and cameras and the utterly ludicrous claim that the “public had a right to know.”

Now, no one who was actually a part of the investigation even bothered to make eye-contact with these ass-holes. But the neighbors apparently weren’t the type to learn from example- strange, since all of their houses looked equally boring and every single one of them was wearing the same goddamned yoga pants and Uggs- you’d think that blind imitation was the language of the realm.

Anyway, as soon as the news vans rolled in every single local came prancing out of their homes, full to bursting with comments and sound-bytes for the reporters, because after all…. why stay at home and WATCH television when you can be ON it?

I remember one woman stood in the middle of the lawn across the street from the Jones’ home and squealed with melodramatic torment to anyone within ear-shot that “… they were such NICE people…” and she “… just couldn’t BELIEVE that HE would DO this…”

Mind you, no one official had actually SAID that Mr. Jones had killed Mrs. Jones and then himself. But it appeared that when the officers had asked the neighbors when was the last time they had seen either Mr. or Mrs. Jones, everyone correctly surmised that they were both dead… then INCORRECTLY deduced that Mr. Jones was an enraged murderer, I guess because that’s how these things go on TV.

This was where everything really started to get fucked up.

Mr. and Mrs. Jones had two adult sons whom we were trying to reach to notify them of their parents’ death. Ideally, we would have dispatched uniformed officers to either their homes or their places of work so that they could be notified in person by someone who had been briefed on EXACTLY what information we did and DID NOT have at that time.

Of course, we never had the chance to perform this task in such a respectful and compassionate manner, because before I had even entered the house to completely document the scene, someone ELSE had already contacted the eldest son of Mr. and Mrs. Jones on facebook to ask him about the death of his parents.

Yes… on facebook.

Apparently, this person had seen the “breaking news” reports claiming that Mr. Jones had murdered his wife and then himself. Seeing the Jones’ house on the television, this “friend” realized exactly to which Mr. and Mrs. Jones the news report was referring. Rather than stand at a respectful distance and wait to see how the whole situation unfolded, this numbskull jumped on facebook and started assaulting the Jones family with queries as to what happened, then updating his own status to read that he was “shocked and saddened” by this whole turn of events…

… so shocked and saddened that he obviously had no choice but to treat the whole calamity as though it was a delectable, high-school rumor. It wouldn’t surprise me if this dip-shit posted a “selfie”, wiping tears from his eyes and wearing an expression of bewildered misery.

I was halfway through my scene assessment when my pager started beeping incessantly, Mr. Jones Jr. was calling every public service office in the county, trying to get anyone to tell him what the hell was going on.

In short order, he was directed to the Medical Examiner’s office and ultimately, to my pager, at which point, I had no choice but to call him and let him know that I really had no information to give him just yet because we had literally JUST ENTERED THE DAMN HOUSE! He asked me who told the news-reporters that his dad had killed his mom if no one had any information yet. I had to tell him that I had absolutely no idea where that report had come from. But the media does what they want- and in the absence of actual data, they just started making shit up.

It wasn’t until the next day, when Mrs. Jones autopsy was completed, that the truth of the matter came to light. Mrs. Jones had died of a brain aneurysm… a big, fat blood vessel in her head had burst and killed her. Upon finding her body, Mr. Jones was so incredibly devastated and disoriented that he hanged himself in his bedroom closet.

The local newspapers completely dropped the story at that point. The big, front-page-domestic-homicide-horror-show had dried up and they moved on to the next, fresh corpse. Mr. Jones was never publicly exonerated for killing his wife. No retraction was issued. No one apologized to the sons for spreading such a deplorable lie. No one cared, the media got their story, they got their ratings, they got their web-site hits… and that’s all that mattered to them. The neighbors got to see themselves on the nightly news, wailing like a bunch of Old Testament mourners. As far as the world knew, the man was a murderer… and that was that.

I wish I could say that was an isolated incident. Everyday I’m approached by a swarm of curious, smut-seeking lookie-loos every time I park my truck.

“What happened,” some bulging-eyed onlooker will demand as I climb out of the driver’s seat. “Is someone DEAD?” They glance at the “County Medical Examiner” printed on the door of my truck and then peer suspiciously around us, wondering if they may have overlooked some spectacular carnage.

Generally, I’ll reply: “It’s nothing. Everything’s fine,” or, “It’s not really my place to talk about it,” or I’ll say, “Dude, I’m just here to get some groceries…” because, yes… that happens.

I’ve had to herd spectators away from car accidents… people who crossed police lines and slyly sidled past fire-engines in the hopes of getting close enough to actually SEE some free-range gore.

I’ve dragged family members into bathrooms or stuffed them in that very same truck and driven a block away from a scene rather than leave those ravaged souls on display for a gaggle of neighbors whose capacity for compassion or tact seems to have evaporated out of their gaping mouths.

I’ve seen people pull out cell-phones and take pictures of blood on the pavement.

I saw one guy lift his tiny-toddler son on to his shoulders so that the little tyke could get a better view of a suicide victim who had plummeted off a parking garage at the mall… apparently, defending his boy’s right to see splattered brain tissue before heading inside to get a cinnabon.

We are over-exposed. We are over-indulged. We are over-informed. We still want blood-for-sport, just as much as the thronging crowds of the Roman Coliseum. Only now we want it in high-def surround sound on the nightly news. We want to see bodies, we want to gorge ourselves on bereavement, we want devastation and tragedy. We all want a piece of everyone’s big, fat death pie.

Why?

Why is it so hard to accept that some things really are private? Why have we all forgotten how to avert our eyes for decency’s sake?

I don’t have the answer.

All I can do, is shake my head, wave the gawkers on and say with as much pleading conviction as possible,

“Please, move along…. there’s nothing to see, here.”

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