Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Would you protect a criminal?

Sandra Parshall

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?


jwhit said...

Give people, give! This is my current wip in a nutshell, only the offending teenage girl is on the run and the parents are a bit 'off' in relation to normal people. Float your ideas out there. Help a girl out. [me] ;-)

Sandra Parshall said...

Yeah, everybody, let's help jwhit with that plot. What would you do if your teenage daughter were on the run? Would you help her hide, or would you help the police find her?

IlanaStephens said...

It would depend upon what she had done. I might work with the police - she'd be safer in custody most likely than out on the streets. But mabye she's been set up and I'd become a sleuth to find the 'truth'. Or maybe you'd help her hide with friends while looking for the 'truth'.

If she'd truly done something aweful and I was certain of it, I'd probably work with the police to bring her into custody.

I'd work to help my kids any way I could, but also feel that there are consequences for your behaviors and decisions.

Now bullying and shoplifting - it has to be stopped, but I don't think we need to come down on them too hard with the first few incidents, but if it starts to become a problem... Hmm.

jwhit said...

Thanks, Ilana. FYI: Pauline is accused of murdering a guard at a department store. She's a 17 y.o. diabetic recovering anorexic. Father is a lawyer, mother a socialite. Her parents don't know if she did it or not. The reason she was arrested is because her father's gun was used in the murder.

Sarah G said...

When I worked in the Records section for the police department, ID files for arrestees always included the names of family. One reason for this was that, if a prisoner escaped, the police knew where to go first.

So, at least there should be an expectation on the part of the police to suspect the parents.

Anonymous said...

I think the reason family members help out one another if someone is in trouble with the law is GUILT.

Sandra Parshall said...

Guilt? How so?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I strongly disagree with Ilana on bullying. I've seen kids deeply affected by being bullied, and while I can't think of cases, I'm sure there have been teen suicides as a result of bullying. I suspect young bullies are not getting a clear message from their parents that this is unacceptable behavior. And how about stalking? At 15, I was stalked by a high school classmate, back when the term "stalking" didn't exist. I was made miserable for a year at a vulnerable age. My friends thought it was funny ("Guess who has a crush on you?"), the school didn't want to intervene and ruin the stalker's college chances, and his parents were indignant and protective of their son. He finally had a psychotic break (on my parents' front porch at the end of the school year) and ended up in a mental institution.

Rhonda said...

I think it's realistic if you set it up right. Some families find the law an inconvenience, but will do anything for their children.

In real life, I do see people giving their criminal children "the ostrich treatment." Plus, news footage is full of mothers who wail, "But my son would NEVER do that," even if his rap sheet reads as long as the begats in The Bible.

I know of one local case where a well2do family shipped their kid out of the country so he wouldn't have to face a rape charge. He stayed away for years.

Now - as for bullying, I think it's a terrible problem and has been since I was a kid in the 1960s. My husband reports having been bullied, too. There's a definite "blame the victim" vibe and always has been.

Sandra Parshall said...

I think everybody involved should come down hard on bullies. Often their parents have taught bullies to behave this way, so the parents can't be relied on to handle the problem. They'll only perpetuate it. Bullying can destroy lives. In extreme cases, it has led to school shootings. It has to be stopped before it can do serious damage to vulnerable kids.

Cowlbelle said...

I've acutally been in this kind of situation. The crime was a misdemeaner, the offender was my (adult) sister, and I found myself, to my horror, lying to a police officer to protect her. It wasn't something I planned on doing, it just kind of "happened." The officer asked me a question and without thinking I lied.

Paul Lamb said...

The trouble with crimes (or criminals) that don't get reported by people who know about them is that by their nature we can't know about them. I have a suspicion that this kind of thing happens all of the time.

If you want to read an excellent novel about a parent protecting his criminal daughter -- and how it destroys his life -- read Philip Roth's novel American Pastoral.

Rhonda said...

Hindsight tells me I might have been a wee bit "ranty" in the part of my post that pertained to bullying. Oops.

gs said...

I don't want to give away any spoilers, but the post reminded me of the ending of a certain Scott Turow novel. Um... one that was made into a movie. Um... starring Harrison Ford.

If you know what I mean.

Sandra Parshall said...

I know what you mean, gs. Don't you think there should be a statute of limitations on spoilers? When a book has been in print for 30 years, shouldn't we be able to discuss the plot openly? :-)