Sunday, June 1, 2008

Drawing conclusions from an evil act

By Rick Morris

Recently, my hometown newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, ran a series that is justifiably drawing nationwide acclaim. Film critic Joanna Connors produced a very raw, in-depth account about having been raped in 1984. Prior to the last year, she had not been publicly identified as a rape victim, but she came to decide that she could both put the incident behind her and help others by telling the tale in this manner.

Here is a video in which Connors explains the series and what happened to her:

Beyond Rape: a survivor's journey

Here is the outstanding story, one that should earn Connors a Pulitzer for the outstanding journalism as well as courage demonstrated.

As is generally the case when something very revealing is made public about someone, in this case how Connors handled her situation with great dignity, you learn a lot more about them. I can certainly say that she is the kind of person that you respect more the more you learn about her. Like many people in the Northeast Ohio area, I’ve had my fair share of issues with the Plain Dealer over the years and I don’t always have the warmest attitude toward film critics in the first place. My tastes are generally far more populist than theirs; rarely will you find a film critic who will ever say much nice about some of my favorites like Adam Sandler or (back in the day) John Candy. Now that’s not to say that I don’t ever have an appreciation for anything more highbrow, but my interests don’t often coincide with those of a film critic. I mention this to indicate how incomplete an understanding I had of this woman previously, as it is impossible to glean a person’s bravery from reading their movie reviews. She has told a tremendous story that actually ends up being inspiring because of her perseverance in finding answers and I would look forward to discussing that story with her either on the blog here or our FDH Lounge Internet TV show. I will be extending an invitation to try to make either one happen.

My general suspicion that she has a different worldview from mine did prove to be true, however, and the way that people like me think versus the way that people like her think is actually critical to the story – much more than she is aware, by the way.

The story begins when Connors recounts the day of the rape in the summer of 1984. At the time, she was the Plain Dealer theatre critic and she drove in the early evening to the campus of Case Western Reserve University to gather material for a column. She was lured backstage on an innocent pretext by the man who would rape her, David Francis. He was a black man, a detail that becomes central to the reporting of her story for reasons that will become apparent as you read more. The story itself is difficult and upsetting to read, but recounted in a courageous and straightforward manner. From reading the story, you get the sense that she would not have described herself as brave at the time, which is understandable, but she worked to put Francis away. I think any honest person would describe that as bravery.

She speaks in terms of trying to prevent this horrible crime from happening to anyone else, and she mentions her daughter as a specific example. Purely in that context, I decided to offer my own critique about some of the circumstances surrounding what happened because as I mentioned, I drew a few conclusions that she either would not agree with or did not occur to her. I agree that this is one of the worst crimes that can be perpetrated and it’s unfortunate for men as a whole to be tarred by sickos like David Francis.

To begin with, Connors and I have wildly different backgrounds, at least from a social science perspective. She grew up surrounded by, and partaking in, what she herself described as the “knee-jerk suburban white liberalism” of Evanston, IL. I grew up in a city not at all noted for racial progressivism, Parma, OH. During America’s defining hour in terms of civil rights back in the 1960s, Parma was led by a mayor notoriously unfriendly to blacks. It was the case then, and remains the case now, that a large elderly component of the city raised in a more primitive time shared that mayor’s fear of blacks. Court-mandated efforts toward integration have since broadened the city’s ethnicity, while doing little to dispel the public image of Parma [Side note: should it not be considered more insulting that the courts are of the belief that racial integration comes by building low-income housing stock? To me, that unfairly and inaccurately assumes that blacks cannot afford the existing middle-class housing stock]. The net effect is that so many people from Greater Cleveland assume that all residents of Parma are racists (I learned the depths of this assumption firsthand at college; I attended Ohio University, which had a large Greater Cleveland contingent, and I can’t tell you how many people seemed like they were ready to fit me for a white sheet merely upon learning that I came from Parma). This is particularly the case if you don’t meet the standards of today’s progressivism, as opposed to that of 1964; like a great many people who came from Parma, I think the 1964 Civil Rights Act was an outstanding piece of legislation to remedy gigantic historic wrongs (although that was well before my time), but I support it in the initial context that did not lead to quotas. Like many from Parma, and from a great many other areas, I’m in favor of eliminating discrimination but not moving beyond that color-blind standard. That separates me from the people of Evanston, who seem by Connors’ description to subscribe to “white guilt” (my words, not hers) that is fairly foreign to people from Parma, who by and large don’t feel guilt for anything that they themselves have not perpetrated.

The gulf in our racial perspectives manifests itself in a sentence very early in her story, one that appears several paragraphs before the rape even occurs. She describes her ride from downtown to her destination near University Circle, which crossed several poor, high-crime neighborhoods

“Rush hour had begun, the daily exodus of workers leaving the city for the suburbs, hurrying through the ‘bad’ areas. You could almost hear the steady beat of car locks clicking at East 55th Street, the percussive soundtrack to Cleveland’s racial divide.”

I read that passage and two thoughts come to mind. Because of the respect I have for Ms. Connors, what she’s been through, and the bravery she’s shown, I’ll show the respect not to patronize her.

  1. My instinct when I read that passage is that she’s thinking, subliminally or otherwise, that good progressive folks like her from places like Evanston, IL don’t click their car locks out of the same sense of primitive fear as, say, people from Parma, OH. I’ll grant you that might be defensiveness on my part about the aforementioned assumptions people have made about me based on the geography of my upbringing.
  1. I wonder if it’s ever occurred to her that while white people undeniably click their car locks when going through areas in “the hood,” black people do so as well. Are there not a great many blacks fearful of crime and wanting to protect themselves? Additionally, by definition, none of them would be inhibited by the syndrome of “white guilt” that might keep them from locking the door. Why does the clicking of car locks automatically sound like white fear?

To me, it’s interesting that she mentions East 55th Street specifically, because I once worked with someone who suffered a smash-and-grab there – in traffic, no less. Somebody came up to her car when she was stopped at an intersection, broke her windshield, reached in, took her briefcase, and went on their merry way. So having heard that, I can understand why that area of town might unnerve people. Crime on East 55th Street isn’t just an abstract concept when somebody has told you a story like that.

Additionally, while in an ostensibly safer area, Public Square in downtown Cleveland, I was chased by a group of black youths into traffic as they sought to mug me while I was waiting for a bus. I certainly don’t associate their actions with that of an entire race, and the same statistics that highlight disproportionate minority crime numbers also demonstrate that the vast majority of that population is law-abiding, but in light of another point Connors makes, I find our respective perspectives to be interesting again.

Connors mentions later in her account that she was upset enough about the fact that she developed a fear of young black males to mention it to her therapist. Quite reasonably, the therapist asked her if there were ever circumstances where she ever feared young white males, Connors answered “yes,” and the therapist was able to hone in on what looks to be more white guilt in terms of her reaction.

There are young black (and Latino) males who imitate the dress and mannerism of gangbangers who I see who cause me trepidation. There are also whites about whom I could say the same, whether they are those who imitate the dress and mannerisms of biker gang members or skinheads. Personally, I don’t feel any guilt about fear that is probably quite rational. To me, if you’re not communicating suspicion of others in a rude, overt manner, you need not be ashamed for putting personal safety first.

Connors’ exchange with her therapist puts me in mind of a passage from David Horowitz’s excellent book “Destructive Generation” about the failings of his fellow 1960s radicals. A San Francisco lawyer plagued with white guilt started working for the Black Panthers, defending them ardently against all crimes and refusing to believe anything negative about them. She would have considered any criticism against them to be inherently racist. Authorities subsequently found her body in the Bay after the Panthers subsequently decided they were done with her. At least she could say that she was pure enough to never fear anyone different from her! Well, moral purity never comes cheap, does it?

Connors’ sense of guilt – not the traditional irrational guilt that rape victims suffer, but the pre-existing guilt about having the advantages of a white person in America – manifests itself again in her evaluation of the additional differences that economic class distinctions add to the argument. Part of her research for her story took her to poor and disadvantaged areas in an attempt to understand the circumstances that hatch monsters like David Francis. I find myself in complete agreement with Connors’ husband’s sentiment that Francis was a monster for whom there could be no sense of understanding because the same unfortunate circumstances had not similarly corrupted everyone. Connors found her husband’s gut-level feeling too primitive. I do not criticize her journey, because she found healing and comfort in the kindness of people like the sister of her rapist and other folks she met along the way. If anything, the positives she took from meeting these people help prove that everything, no matter how twisted and dire, does happen for a reason.

But I do believe that her sympathy for everyone less advantaged than her did get the better of her on one occasion. During Francis’ trial, some of his key alibi witnesses, who were lying for him, were welfare cheats. Connors doesn’t use that term, because she no doubt would find it too harsh, but inasmuch as they were demonstrably breaking welfare rules (by falsifying information about live-in boyfriends), I’ll gladly call them that. When her lawyer informed them that he could discredit these witnesses on the stand by calling their legal standing into disrepute, she stated, “I did not want to win that way.”

Think about that for a moment.

She did not want to get welfare cheats, who were lying to help keep her rapist out on the streets, in any trouble.

Well, she’s a better person than me, I suppose. Or perhaps more na├»ve. I’ll leave that judgment to others.

Fortunately, David Francis was put away anyway and subsequently died behind bars in 2000. Part of her well-chronicled journey included going to the prisons he inhabited and ultimately, the prison graveyard where his bones were buried. She only learned of his passing in the last year when she began her quest to gain more understanding about all aspects of this tragedy.

As I mentioned, I respect Joanna Connors greatly after reading her story and having a full understanding of her immense character for the first time. It is in that spirit that I offer my thoughts and attempt to contribute to the public understanding on this matter and why I chose not to condescend to her by pulling any punches about what I perceive from my standpoint to be flawed views about race on her part. I believe strongly that if she is trying to communicate a strong rape-prevention message to her daughter or to others that she should emphasize that fear can sometimes be a strong manifestation of common sense. Now, demonstrating that discomfort in an overt manner is rude (and can be quite counterproductive if you’re dealing with the kind of people you suspect them to be) and should be avoided, but acting on the impulses your antennae send you is very smart indeed. Whether it be locking your car door in a high-crime area or avoiding strange young men after dark, simple crime prevention should never be confused with knee-jerk racism. Confusing the two can have dangerous consequences indeed.

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