Wednesday, July 6, 2011

When the bough breaks.

“A babe in the house is a wellspring of pleasure, a messenger of peace and love, a resting place for innocence on earth, a link between angels and men.” –Martin Fraquhar Tupper

She had the most beautiful brown eyes, expressive and full of curiosity. But her life was stolen from her before it had even really begun. Her name was Nixzmary Brown. Never heard of her? Neither had I, until about an hour ago.

I’m writing this in the immediate aftermath of the Caylee Marie Anthony case, which has absolutely riveted the entire nation, keeping Americans glued to magazines, the Internet and cable TV for months. The trial ended yesterday with the surprising acquittal of her mother, Casey. While most of us suspect that Casey chloroformed little Caylee and dumped her tiny body in the woods near their suburban Orlando home, the jury was unconvinced.

But as heartbreaking as Caylee’s death is, it doesn’t hold a candle to Nixzmary’s life. By the age of 7, Nixzmary – who lived in Brooklyn, New York – had experienced horrors most of us literally cannot imagine. Nicknamed “Diablo” (The Devil) by her mother and her boyfriend, Nixzmary had been singled out among her siblings as deserving of special treatment.

For months, Nixzmary had been confined to a back room with nothing but a dirty mattress, a wooden chair (to which she was often duct-taped) and a litter box. She was beaten daily with a leather belt. She was not allowed to eat with the family. On the day of her death, Nixzmary was hungry. She got loose and took some yogurt from the refrigerator. Her mother ignored her cries as her boyfriend flew into a rage, dousing Nixzmary with water and pounding her head into the bathtub until she died.

Nixzmary, who should have been enjoying second grade, weighed 36 pounds at time of autopsy.

Nixzmary’s story brought to my mind a similar case, that of Elizabeth Steinberg, also 7, also beaten and starved to death over many months by her “parents,” also in New York City. In both cases, repeated calls had been made to child protective services by teachers, family, friends and neighbors, yet nothing was done. Nixzmary’s case resulted in “Nixzmary’s Law,” in which the state of New York made life without parole the maximum sentence for killing a child “in an especially cruel and wanton manner.”

Lisa Steinberg’s case, which happened in 1987 before the explosion of the Internet and cable, received what was then a huge amount of media attention. (A true crime fan, I confess to owning several books about Lisa’s life.) Her murder was considered all the more shocking because her caretakers were highly-educated professionals (Joel Steinberg an attorney, Hedda Nussbaum a children’s book author). But I’d never heard of Nixzmary until I did a Google search on “parent” “child” “murder.”

And that’s what gets me about the Anthony case. Not just that I believe the killer is going free, but that while millions of Americans have been captivated by the coverage case since Caylee’s remains were discovered in December 2008, it has seemed as if Caylee were the only child to be (allegedly) killed at the hands of a parent. And what’s more: many of these other young victims suffer unspeakable cruelties before they die.

Of course, no one will forget the Jon-Benet Ramsey case, which may never be solved. But, like Caylee, Jon-Benet was a pretty little white girl who lived in the suburbs, and appeared to have been well-treated – even cherished – until her death.

Have you heard of Lydia Schatz? She was one of three Liberian children adopted by a couple in rural Tennessee who belonged to a Fundamentalist Christian sect that demanded “Biblical chastisement.” During a homeschool lesson, 7-year-old Lydia mispronounced a word; as discipline, her parents took turns whipping her with a piece of plastic tubing for hours – until she died of kidney failure. Authorities removed eight other children from the home, several of whom had also been beaten.

Have you heard of Melanie Beltran? Five-year-old Melanie was beaten to death by her mother for throwing up her dinner. But first, Skokie investigators revealed, Melanie had been “routinely” tied up by both parents. She had been forced to eat hot peppers, been burned by cigarettes and made to drink from the toilet. She had seven siblings.

Have you heard of Brittany Jacks? Tatianna Jacks? N’Kiah Fogle? Aja Fogle? Their decomposing bodies were found in the Washington, D.C. apartment of their 33-year-old mother, who starved, choked, and stabbed them. (Demons had told her what to do.)

The deaths of all of these young girls were picked up by their local news outlets; I found out about all of them online. But none of these cases were covered in any detail by the national media. I don’t believe it’s an insult to Caylee’s memory to recognize the fact that these children’s stories were even more tragic than Caylee’s, given that they all suffered for months, or even years, before their deaths.

These little girls were Hispanic, Liberian and African-American. Their families lived in trailer parks and tenements. Some of their parents were unemployed. Some didn't speak English.

And if I didn’t know better, I would think that society – and the media – put a low price on their lives.

US Department of Justice statistics show that almost 37,000 children were murdered in the United States between 1976 and 1994 – most by beating, and most by a parent. Child abuse happens in rich and poor families, in suburbs and in cities, and in every ethnic group.

But doesn’t it seem strange to you that you heard all about Caylee, but nothing about Nixzmary or N’Kiah?

Yeah. Seems strange to me, too.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The united state of America

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” – The Statue of Liberty

My employer has given me next Monday off so that I can spend the day visit with family, drink beer, eat hot dogs and maybe catch some fireworks. This is how we Americans celebrate our nation’s 1776 declaration of independence from Great Britain.

While most of us enjoy our Fourth of July holiday, we won’t be forgetting that lots of things in the United States have ground to a halt. Red and blue, young and old, rich and poor, Americans are united in one observation: we seem to be speeding to hell in a handbasket.

The problem is that we can’t agree on who wove that basket and sent it on its way. Some people think that it’s the poor, the immigrants and the people who create regulations. Some people think it’s the people on Wall Street and the CEOs of giant corporations. And some people think it’s God Himself, who must be angry at America for allowing abortion and gay marriage.

My son – a young actor – is in the cast of “Myth America,” now showing at Broom Street Theater: a local venue for “non-traditional experimental … entertainment without censorship.” (He’s the blond hippie on the far right.) Written by Callen Harty and directed by Matt Kenyon, the irreverent satire somehow merges tacky jokes about transvestites and masturbation with thoughtful commentary about the nation we all think we live in.

The play reminds us that even though Republican Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann believes the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly to end slavery,” half of the men who wrote our Constitution owned slaves, and in Article 1, Section 2 of the document they decreed that a slave would count as three-fifths of a person for purposes of voting representation.

Further, the play reveals what might be news to a lot of Americans: the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln was deeply torn about the issue of slavery. As he wrote to Horace Greeley in 1842, “If I could save the Union without freeing ANY slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing ALL the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would do that.”

One skit leads the audience through seven generations of the fictitious American Corporation, which first grows wealthy on the backs of indentured servants and then discriminates against the Irish, Asians, Hispanics and other “foreigners” who have come to America in search of the better life they’ve heard about.

But the most poignant moments of “Myth America” happen toward the end, when to the tune of Smile Empty Soul’s “This is War” (“Now it’s down to this, just you and me / I’ll blow your fucking head off for my country”), the cast lays bare the extent to which the United States has depended on violence to serve its interests. Reciting a literally endless list of armed conflicts through the years – with an ironic backdrop of U.S. Presidents’ quotes about peace – each member of the cast rolls up on the floor; they’re then covered with a bloody flag and mourned by Lady Liberty.

As a proud parent, I’ve seen the play more than once and I plan to see it again before closing night. Someone on the other side of political debate might assume that when I leave the theater, I’m filled with hatred for the United States. But they would be wrong.

The truth is, I’m filled with pride that (at least right now) I live in a country where my son can be in a play like this and not fear arrest or torture. And I’m relieved that (at least right now) I can still investigate the “real” history of the United States, the bad as well as the good, and even blog about it without hearing a knock on my door. (USA PATRIOT Act be damned.)

Like most Americans right now, I fear for the future of my country – even though my fellow Americans disagree about what we should fear. But I still believe in the IDEA of America. The fact is, America has never been the nation we believed that it was. But unlike many other countries, it was founded upon an ideal, a concept, that I believe in with all my heart.

And that’s what I’ll be celebrating on Independence Day.