We tell ourselves that laughter is a natural defense against the indefensible. When we chuckle nervously during a high school lecture about the Armenian genocide, or clutch our sides during that Seinfeld episode when Jerry and his girlfriend make out during Schindler’s List—that’s normal, even healthy.
When we laugh until we cry at news footage of Antoine Dodson, who has some neck-poppin’, hip-swivelin’ words of warning for his sister’s assailant; or Sweet Brown, whose recount of escaping a fire is notable for an adrenalized invocation of her lord and savior, we’re spitting into the gnashing maw of pitiless horror.
But when our endorphin levels plateau and our bellyaches subside, do we remember the starved, singed bodies? Do we put ourselves in Dodson’s shoes, chasing off the intruder who’d begun to rape his sister? Do we imagine all that Sweet Brown, and everyone in her apartment complex, lost in the blaze?
We “like” and “share” interviews with Charles Ramsey, the Cleveland man who’d sat down with some McDonald’s when he heard the screams of a woman next door, a woman he’d never seen before but whose name he knew from news coverage of her abduction (and presumed murder). Though three women were liberated from a decade of rape and torture, the media’s response is best encapsulated by a Gawker headline: “The Hero Who Rescued Three Kidnapped Women in Cleveland Is Hilarious.”
Max Reed writes that “Charles Ramsey … is more than just a good Samaritan and hero: He’s also an amazing interview. (And even better on the phone with 911.).” Yes, in the ever-churning world of mass media, the sound bite is the end all be all, but there is something sickening about the gleeful obliviousness with which Ramsey’s interview has been circulated. Commenters under Reed’s post mull over the merits of Ramsey as an SNL skit (“The hairpiece will be epic.”) or a radio DJ (“I would even dare say, he is talented at this stuff. Sad that it seems life wasn’t too kind on him [see his teeth, for example] because I’d venture he would be a hilarious radio host at least.”). Talented at what stuff, exactly?
Ramsey’s actions are unquestionably heroic. In a world when so many people still ignore the thumping and the muffled sobs on the other side of the wall, when nobody asks about a black eye, he didn’t shy away from aiding in what he first thought was “a domestic violence-type situation.” It’s not a bad thing to celebrate Charles Ramsey, especially if his act of valor can be used to address (and remedy) bystander complacency.
However, the ways we’re talking about him are problematic. Just like the reactions to Dodson and Brown, they traffic in racial, gender, and class-based grotesquery. In a thread accompanying a CNN article called “Charles Ramsey: Hero of abductions case, instant Internet star,” commenters call him a “ghetto superstar,” and suggest that he and Sweet Brown should mate: “Their baby would be nothing short of pure awesomeness.” When one commenter remarked that, “his language was quite [sic]…..colourful,” another one quipped, “Well, he is colored.”
The memeification of Charles Ramsey, just like the auto-tuning of Sweet Brown and Antoine Dodson, isn’t laughing to keep from crying—it’s laughing to keep from feeling. Our apartments weren’t burnt to the ground. Nobody broke into our homes, tried to rape our sisters. We don’t have to live in older buildings made from cheaper, more flammable materials. We don’t have to live in an unsafe neighborhood. We remain a comfortable, unblemished “Us,” and they are, in their tragedies, reduced to a pitiful, laughable “them.”
Indulging in our basest, most lazy instincts will keep us from plumbing the full depths of an inchoate horror. We should be enraged, and not only (obviously) at the men who abducted, beat, and raped these women. We should demand accountability from a police department that flat-out ignored repeated calls from neighbors: women on dog leashes, paraded on all fours; women pounding on windows. We should question an entertainment industry that peddles these sorts of images, from hardcore porn to Law & Order: SVU, Fifty Shades of Grey to run-of-the-mill slasher flicks, as titillating. But anger would necessitate action, the upending of so many systems and policies, so many entrenched “truths” that we’ve all gotten so comfortable with. So we laugh at Ramsey’s love of Big Macs and his prolific use of “bro.”
As I look at photographs of the weather-stripped old house that was, for ten years, these women’s living tomb, I can’t bear to (and yet I can’t stop trying to) imagine what fresh Hell awaited them with every breath they took. And I know I’m not alone. This specter of violence hangs over every woman, every girl, every time she hustles through a parking garage; each time she takes a new way home. It is present whenever a car slows down to follow her when she’s walking alone; it is present in that friend-of-a-friend who tells her she’s had too much to drink, he’ll drive her home.
With each new revelation – that the women were repeatedly impregnated and beaten into miscarrying; that a woman’s name was carved into the basement wall, next to the letters RIP; that one of the kidnappers was seen walking with a six-year-old girl he called his “girlfriend’s” daughter—I’m overcome with an ineffable grief.
Certainly, laughter can be a great comfort in trying times, but there is nothing funny enough to replace ten lost years. The “hilarious hero” narrative has subsumed the truth that Amanda Berry’s fortitude was her salvation. She risked death when she tore a hole in the screen door, when she screamed for help. Her voice, which had been smothered in a thick-walled dankness, pierced the open sky.
Just a day before Amanda Berry’s rescue became international news, and the man who helped free her became “the male Sweet Brown,” Elizabeth Smart’s remarks about how abstinence-only education damages rape survivors was one of the most heavily trending topics on Facebook. “It’s feeling like ‘and who would ever want me now,’” she says. “… And that’s how easy it is to feel you no longer have worth. Your life no longer has value.” She was lionized—and rightly so—for being blunt about she endured, for saying the words, “I was raped.” And if we can commend her for those words, we can do better than creating umpteen remixes of the “I barbeque with this dude!” dubstep.
Some might say we need this levity to try and wrap our heads around what went on inside those walls. What we really need is empathy, to not see people as punchlines. We need to sit inside our terror and be moved by it. Charles Ramsey—who told Anderson Cooper that he’s having “trouble sleeping” now (and who wouldn’t)—gives us the simplest, most powerful perspective: “Put yourself in her shoes.”