Why Is Matthew Eappen Sharing Victim Status?

By Fields, Suzanne | Insight on the News, December 8, 1997 | Go to article overview

Why Is Matthew Eappen Sharing Victim Status?


Fields, Suzanne, Insight on the News


Louise Woodward, the au pair responsible for baby Matthew Eappen's death, is a phenomenon for our time. She synthesizes the diffuse and unfocused emotional rage that torments nearly all of us.

A phenomenon differs from an individual. A phenomenon is an event, a happening, an occurrence, a curiosity, a natural catastrophe with personality. If she were Hurricane Louise instead of baby-sitter Louise, accused of murder or manslaughter, we'd describe her according to measurable wind and water velocity, time and temperature. Instead we have to relate to our own immeasurable feelings.

We never will know exactly what happened before Woodward dialed 911 for help for the 8-month-old baby in her care, explaining that in trying to quiet him she may had been "a little rough." Whatever happened when she was alone with the baby got mixed up with lots of other commonplace details, remembrances of things past that occurred between Matthew's parents and the baby-sitter, frustrations and worries that stem from different responsibilities. In the light of hindsight, these memories are not pretty.

What makes the death of Matthew, the subsequent trial and conviction of Woodward and the judge's reversal a chaotic phenomenon is that with the aid of television's bland, blind eye, we think we know more than we really know. Someone who watches the entire trial on television does not have the view from the jury box. The television screen, the central focus on each character, the commentary sometimes insightful but usually inane, shapes the illusion of a lived-through experience rather than a passively observed one.

Television, unlike stage drama, comes literally into our living rooms and gives new meaning to the phrase "household word." Instead of Aristotlean theatrical values of pity and fear-"there but for the grace of God go I"--the eye that watches television becomes the "I" of an engaged participant. (Eye, the jury?) Subjective reality morphs quickly into what appears to be an objective reality.

A similar audience reaction embraced the death of Princess Diana. She became no longer the remote reality but more like a friend. Everyman became her liege man. I asked a woman who told me how she cried when she heard that Diana died whether she had cried at the death of Jimmy Stewart several weeks earlier. "No," she said, with no hint of irony, "because I didn't know him. …

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