Each summer for the past seven years or so, my upcoming English I students have been required to read "A Tale of Two Cities." These students usually do not forgive me for this assignment until November or so.
By then, they understand the novel and carry with them a degree of pride that they have conquered a challenging text. When asked why I require such a difficult work to be studied, I reply, "Because it is difficult." Students rarely like the book, but most respect it - and themselves.
As past students know, I become so focused on attempting to relate this text to disinterested eighth-graders that I become, well, somewhat obsessed. I see connections between life and literature at every turn: in movies, in athletic analogies, in commercials. It will come as no surprise to these former students that I see a comparison between "A Tale of Two Cities" and the Casey Anthony trial.
I confess. I have watched not all but too much of this real reality show this summer. I am not proud of it. I have tried to understand my interest and cannot. Yet I and thousands of others are not alone. A fascination with the gruesome, the macabre, and the shocking elements of life is not new. Why, it was recorded in ... "A Tale of Two Cities."
During the trial of an accused traitor to England, spectators watched in fascination, sure that the verdict would be "guilty" and they would also become the spectators of the accused's violent death at the hands of the court. A carnival atmosphere carries a cross section of society into the courtroom, none of them remotely associated with the accused other than their own certainty — and enjoyment — of his guilt.
"The sort of interest with which this man was stared and breathed at, was not a sort that elevated humanity. ... Whatever gloss the various spectators put upon the interest, according to their several arts and powers of self-deceit, the interest was, at the root of it, Ogreish."
Humanity has not yet been elevated, as evidenced in its still on-going fascination with the trial of Casey Anthony. Oh, I understand HLN, CNN, FOX, and others. They are making money. Their interest is fairly straightforward and uncomplicated. They are giving the masses what they/we want.
But why do we want it? Are we ogres who enjoy the tribulations of others?
Are we reassured that, hey, we might be dysfunctional, but we are not as bad as that family? Or is this saga playing against our stereotypes about what bad people are supposed to look like?
Rather like Ted Bundy and other famous reprobates, Casey Anthony is too pretty to be bad. And she is white. We are conditioned to judge by the outside. It takes too long to figure out the inside. That is too difficult, too time consuming. We want to judge quickly, based upon our prejudice and past experiences. It's just easier.
As with Casey Anthony, the accused mentioned above, Charles Darnay, is found not guilty to the dismay of those clamoring for seats and a view of the already condemned. As they leave the courtroom, amazed that this man has been set free, "... a loud buzz swept into the street as if the baffled blue-flies were dispersing in search of other carrion." The court observers are shocked, surprised, and disappointed. They leave dissatisfied, still wanting blood.
I understand the differences between the two cases. I know the current sentiment that a child's death has gone unpunished. I feel the sadness of the loss of such a beautiful, innocent life. I do.
Yesterday, my husband pointed out to me an article in the AJC. As a strong man who frequently sees people in unkind conditions in the course of his work, he was nevertheless moved by the facts of this young woman, Faduma Sakow Abdullahi, and her five children. Trying to escape the drought and subsequent starvation in Somalia, she attempted to travel by foot to a refugee camp in Kenya.
A day away from her destination, two of her children, ages 4 and 5, died of hunger. Moving on with her other three children, she left the two under a tree, unburied. In all, Faduma saw more than 20 children on the side of the road, left behind by those who sought to save the living.
If we stare in fascination at a pretty young woman accused of the most heinous of all crimes — callously killing her own baby — how then can we turn away from Faduma's two children? Are they of less value? Is it because they do not look like us? Is it "nature" vs. an act of intended violence? And which of these conditions can we address now?
As depicted in "A Tale of Two Cities," the death of innocence is a common theme in literature and life. So is our fascination with the uglier, base side of humanity. As a society, which will we choose to be our focus?
Renee Hand Morris is a teacher and Maysville resident. Her column appears frequently and on gainesvilletimes.com.