It’s a common theme in novels and on TV: the parent, spouse, child, friend or lover who will go to any lengths to protect a loved one who has committed a crime. The various Law & Order shows use this kind of “twist” so often I can see it coming early in the story and always groan, Not again.
Fictional parents, in particular, seem willing to do anything to prevent their kids from facing the consequences of their actions. A teenager killed somebody? The parents may try to cast blame on someone else – someone innocent – and if that doesn’t work, either Mom or Dad will confess to the crime. Sometimes it turns out the kid really didn’t do it, so the whole family is off the hook after the parents have proved how much they love their offspring. I always get the strong feeling the audience or reader is supposed to find this heartwarming.
How true to life is such a scenario? I’ve heard of plenty of people who decided not to report crimes, but most seem to have been motivated by a desire not to get dragged into a legal mess. Some of these stories are bizarre. A few years ago a young man here in Northern Virginia murdered his family and left their bodies in their Great Falls mansion for about a year. He told local acquaintances they had all gone home to Hong Kong and been killed in an auto accident. He told Hong Kong relatives and friends they died in an accident in the US. During the time their bodies were decomposing in the family mansion, the killer took his fiancé there, showed her his handiwork, and told her what he had done. How did she react? She broke off her relationship with him –- and kept silent about the murders. It happens. The desire not to “get involved” seems deeply ingrained in human nature.
But how many people would actively protect a loved one who has committed murder? We’ve all heard stories about relatives turning people in. The Unabomber’s brother identified him and helped authorities catch him. A young boy who murdered a neighborhood girl and hid her body in his room was reported to the police by his mother. How many people, hearing of these incidents, shook their heads and said they could never rat out a family member?
What emotions are fiction writers trying to touch in their audience when they portray a family’s frantic effort to cover up a crime? Is this supposed to be a noble, selfless course of action that will give the offender a chance to go on to a normal, happy life? Does anyone believe that’s possible? Does anyone think ahead and wonder about the future of a young killer who has learned he can get away with murder? Would you want a kid who had murdered somebody sleeping down the hall from you every night? Or would he still be your sweet baby boy, no matter what he’s done? Would you go to extraordinary lengths to keep him out of prison?
Suppose the crime were less serious – shoplifting, for example, something a lot of kids do at one time or another. Merchants these days, suffering huge losses to theft, tend to come down hard on shoplifters of any age. Are parents justified in trying to keep their kids out of the juvenile justice system for stealing a small item from a store?
Physical bullying used to be seen as a rite of passage, something a lot of kids have to put up with. Fathers would teach their sons how to fight back. But now bullying is more likely to result in assault charges and lawsuits. Bullies who were once given time to grow out of their aggression now find themselves facing a judge. And in many cases, their parents vigorously defend them, determined their kids will not be punished for “kid stuff” that ought to be shrugged off. Should these parents try to protect their children, or should they let the kids face the consequences of their actions?
What would you do if you knew a loved one had committed a crime? Have you ever read a novel or watched a TV show or movie that made you stop and wonder how you would react if you faced the same dilemma as the fictional characters?