Thursday, February 26, 2009

Because we all need to turn again

What follows is a completely ad hoc sampling of headlines from the American press on Ash Wednesday. I’ve chosen seven items, with a nod toward the cumulative total signified by the Seven Deadly Sins.

● 4 teen boys allegedly raped girl, 13 (Star Tribune of Minneapolis-St. Paul)
● Choir leader accused of sex with teen (Star Tribune)
● US is vast arms bazaar for Mexican cartels (New York Times)
● Ex-councilman’s aide, two others guilty of fraud (Philadelphia Inquirer)
● UA student tried to kill newborn (Arizona Republic)
● Autistic son charged with murder in mom’s death (Forth Worth Star-Telegram)
● Murder-suicide silences house of music, laughter (Miami Herald)

Newspapers are on the precipice in the Internet age. But even a glance at them is a reminder of the human need for confession and absolution.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Baseball's Faustian Bargain

In the Faust legend, an aging scholar makes a deal with the devil to exchange his soul for demonic assistance in obtaining a young woman’s caress. The ensuing tragic consequences make “Faustian bargain” a shorthand phrase for giving up too much to gain an immediate objective.

The ongoing fallout from major league baseball’s steroids scandal shows the fateful consequences of a Faustian bargain still unfolding. On February 11, five-time All-Star shortstop Miguel Tejada became the first high-profile player to be convicted of a crime in connection with the scandal. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for misleading Congress about the use of performance-enhancing drugs by withholding information about a former teammate’s use of steroids and human growth hormone (HGH). Tejada also admitted buying — but not using — HGH, and will be sentenced (probably to probation) later this year.

Meanwhile, two of the most celebrated players of the past 25 years find the legal pincers closing on them. Career homerun leader Barry Bonds, whose bulging muscles and outlandish accomplishments exemplified the steroids era, goes on trial next month on charges that he perjured himself when he denied to a federal grand jury in 2003 that he ever knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs. Dominant starting pitcher Roger Clemens, whose productivity over more than two decades seemed to defy gravity, is being investigated by a federal grand jury. Clemens may have committed perjury last year when he told Congress that he had never used steroids or HBH.

For individual players, direct legal penalties are only one consequence of their choice to use banned or illegal substances. They also must confront the court of public opinion, where an angry mob is already forming to make Yankee superstar Alex Rodriquez’s life miserable now that media reports have linked him to the use of performance-enhancing drugs in 2003. Though major league baseball (MLB) did not have any penalties in place for testing positive at that time, Rodriquez now must face the fact that his desire for fame has backfired on him, as he morphs into the infamous A-Fraud.

One also wonders what the long-term effects on players’ bodies will be, after rolling the dice with dangerous drugs. It can't be good.

All along, MLB’s response to the use of performance-enhancing drugs has been cynical and slow to form. As sports commentators have written, the toll on the goodwill of the fans from the 1994 strike severely cut into MLB’s revenues. The homerun derby unleashed by steroids in the late 90s was the antidote to the attendance decline, and took the game to new heights of popularity at the gate. One can see now, however, that in baseball, as in Ponzi schemes and fraud of all types, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


Gus Van Sant’s film “Milk” offers a vivid account of last eight years of the life of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected to significant public office in the United States. Moving to San Francisco in 1970, at the age of forty, Milk soon became active in the political organizing that led to his election to the Board of Supervisors in 1977. He was at the forefront of a turbulent national debate about civil rights for gay and lesbian people when he and Mayor George Moscone were murdered by Dan White, Milk’s former colleague on the Board of Supervisors, on November 27, 1978.

The notorious “Twinkie defense” at White’s trial in 1979 has generated a tremendous amount of commentary — and given rise to misleading myths and misconceptions. In popular consciousness, the notion took hold that White was convicted only of manslaughter for the double assassination because eating an inordinate amount of junk food (such as Twinkies) had caused him to become depressed, and therefore incapable of the premeditation necessary for a murder conviction.

In fact, Twinkies were never mentioned in the courtroom. The defense’s psychiatrist testified that White’s reliance on junk food was one of several symptoms of depression. Other factors included quitting his job, avoiding his wife, and becoming slovenly in appearance. White was paroled in January 1984, after serving only five years in prison for the double homicide. Less than two years later, in October 1985, he committed suicide, leaving a note saying he was sorry for the “pain and trouble” he caused.

Van Sant’s film, with Sean Penn as Milk, neither flinches from depicting the assassinations nor dwells on them. The focus is on Milk’s participation in the bruising and demanding politics of California in the 70s. His contribution extended beyond the Bay Area to an active role in successfully opposing a proposed statewide referendum that would have allowed public employees to be fired for suspected homosexual activity.

In this tumultuous political climate, Milk’s important victories often came at great personal cost. I’m referring here not merely to the courage he showed in the face of death threats, or to his senseless murder by White. The private cost of public engagement can affect any public figure, gay or straight. But striking a balance between public and private was particularly challenging for a pioneer like Milk, at a time when gay relationships were still emerging from the shadows. Toward the close of the film, in a touching scene involving the opera “Tosca,” Milk seemed to be moving toward some sort of rapprochement between his public and private selves — before his life was cut short.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Super Sized Incarceration

The super-sizing of American convenience foods (and waistlines) has been well documented. Erik Schlosser began publishing parts of “Fast Food Nation” in Rolling Stone in the late 90s, and Richard Linklater followed up in 2006 with a fine film of the same name. These and other works have exposed the grim production realities behind the shiny sales counters, extending back deep into the food chain, and contributed to a greater level of awareness of the considerations involved in Americans’ national struggle with obesity.

The data are disturbing. In the last forty years, the number of Americans classified as obese has risen from 13 percent to 31 percent, and nearly two in three are overweight, according to the standards used by the Centers for Disease Control. An astounding 3.8 million Americans are over 300 pounds and an equally astounding 400,000 people are over 400 pounds. Many factors beyond the ubiquitous “would you like fries with that?” contribute to this. Yet in public health terms, all that extra weight clearly puts millions of people at increased risk of harm.

Is an analogy to America's super-sized corrections system too obvious? More than 7 million people — 3.2 percent of the adult population — were imprisoned or under community supervision in 2006. The number of incarcerated Americans kept going up in 2007, by 1.5 percent, with 2.3 million prisoners in state or federal prisons or local jails. This means that more than 1 in every 100 adults in the U.S. is behind bars. These numbers are several times more than in any previous era in American history and place us as an outlier among developed nations.

What are we getting for all this stepped-up incarceration and expanded community surveillance, which of course costs a pretty penny? Yes, offenders must be appropriately punished. But for how long? I’ve heard George Will and others argue that crime rates would be even higher if there weren’t so many people behind bars. This position doesn’t really recognize that virtually all offenders who are imprisoned will eventually be released to the community. “Reentry” is the term of art in the corrections biz, and it’s all-too-often overlooked in what passes for national debate on these issues.

In the Gospels, Jesus urges his followers to avoid litigation wherever possible, lest they be put in prison for contempt of court. If that were to happen, he warns, “You will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” Will America be able to reassess its criminal justice policies before we pay our very last penny and find ourselves unable to borrow more from the Chinese?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Marguerite at the Scaffold

In the third act of Minnesota Opera’s production of Gounod’s “Faust,” Marguerite — the woman Faust seduced and abandoned — is in her prison cell, awaiting execution for killing their child. Amid the orgiastic chaos of Walpurgis Night, Faust sees a vision of her facing the scaffold and, with assistance from Mephistopheles, visits her in prison. Refusing Faust’s pleas for her to escape with him, Marguerite goes to the gallows. Her soul is saved, however, after she implores heaven for help and angels intervene.

However one interprets the cosmology behind the Faust legend, one cannot but see Marguerite’s plight through the prism of what we now know about postpartum depression. Rather than the devil being personified by Mephistopheles, it often comes in the form of “The Noonday Demon,” as Andrew Solomon put it in his National Book Award-winning book. Solomon’s book deals broadly with the phenomenon of depression, of which past-partum is one (often terrible) type.

The most notorious national case of filicide is probably that of Andrea Yates, who in 2001 killed her five young children (ages six years to six months) by drowning them one by one in the bathtub of their Houston home. Yates had been battling postpartum depression and psychosis for years, but was initially sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 40 years. That sentence was later overturned and in 2006 a Texas jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity. The court then committed Yates to a state mental hospital. The terrible circumstances of her case are well documented in “Are You Alone?” by Suzanne O’Malley and “Breaking Point” by Suzy Spencer.

Another tragic case of the criminal justice system’s failure to take proper account of postpartum depression is still unfolding in Iowa. Heidi Anfinson was convicted of second-degree murder after her two-week-old son Jacob drowned in bathwater in September 1998 while under her care. Anfinson contended that Jacob’s death was an accident, but she was sent to prison, despite considerable evidence (not adduced at trial) that she was suffering from post-partum depression.

After years of legal battles, Anfinson’s conviction was overturned in October 2008. In granting her the right to a new trial, the Iowa Court of Appeals held that Anfinson’s trial counsel had erred in ignoring evidence of her compromised mental state. Even if her counsel was not making outright defenses of insanity or diminished responsibility at trial, the appellate court found that evidence of the toll depression had taken on her was directly relevant to her defense of accidental death.

This evidence could have helped the jury understand how Anfinson could have left her infant in the bath while going into the next room to use the telephone, why she might bury the body under rocks at a nearby lake, and why she might seem flat and unemotional to investigators when questioned about Jacob’s disappearance. If Heidi Anfinson was suffering from severe post-partum depression, a condition so bad it included elements of self-mutilation, her behavior may not have been bizarre at all. Criminal justice practitioners should learn to recognize signs of "the noonday demon" when they see it, even if its calling cards are not always Faustian devils with horns and tails.