Like most mediated Americans, I'm fascinated by the Jaycee Dugard story. To recap briefly, at 11 years old she was abducted by a drug-crazed rapist/pedophile who claims to be a messenger from God. He's deluded to the point that he believes he has invented a machine that can channel the voice of God. Meanwhile he confines his victim in a compound while fathering two children with her. He has shielded her from the reality beyond the fence, but teaches her how to become a computer graphics expert. We have yet to learn the further horrors perpetrated by the abductor, Phillip Garrido.
Now, I don't mean to be flip or to denigrate the great tragedy of this incident. But I see in media coverage some persistent tropes and larger issues that warrant investigation. First, Americans are particularly fascinated with abductions. My Italian partner was horrified and fascinated by the number of abduction posters around the US, in particular when you enter Wal-Mart. Obviously it's a huge and significant phenomenon, and a sign of our collective madness.
Beyond the countless sad stories of ruined life, abductions are also part of a larger cultural mythology. From the earliest days of cinema to the X-Files, it has been a constant theme. For example, the myth of the baby-stealing gypsies repeats itself throughout the history of film. But even before that there was the 19th century genre of native abduction tales in which young white women were taken from civilization, then safely return after an ordeal with "savages." The homecoming is always tainted by a bonding to the abductor and changes resulting from the period of capture. Recent alien abduction stories update and maintain a continuum from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. Somehow, throughout the pantheon of abductors, civilization remains the stabilizing and normal reference point to cope with the horror of removal and displacement.
Yet western civilization is itself a removal and displacement machine. To quote Andy Warhol, Being born is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery. This is the story of the past 5,000 years. We have been kidnapped from Earth, but fail to recognize the aberration. Is it fair to say that as hostages to abstract principles, we suffer from collective Stockholm Syndrome — that we have bonded with an abusing overlord?
Clearly the experience of Jaycee Dugard's family is quite real, so I don't want to relegate it to the status of myth. However, is not the story also a model for the history of western civilization? According to ecopsychologists, and particular Paul Shepard's book Nature and Madness, we took a turn from a sustainable neolithic culture that did well for hundreds of thousands of years to one dominated by a murdering, misogynistic God. Shepard's claim is that as a civilization we have been essentially abducted from a nurturing "ontogenesis" with nature — a coming into being through bonding with Mother Earth. Meanwhile the abductor(s) — priests, scientists, teachers, politicians — claim their right to do so because of commands from a monotheistic (and literate!) Lord talking through boxes (books, TVs, radios, computers).
Perhaps Jaycee Dugard's story has such resonance because deep down inside we all feel like her: our culture, dominated by an abstract force field called God/Capitalism, pushes us into schools and institutions that separate us from a profound and loving connection with the world. It breeds us to become robotic slaves to an international, abstract monetary system, and demands that we never leave the compound, lest the world "out there" derange us. We're kept locked up and domesticated through punishment and rewards that entangle us in a violent domestic partnership based on the rule of an abusive patriarch and the threat of human sacrifice.
Don't believe me? If you are male, recall how, as a child in school, if you ever left the black box of acceptable male behavior (patriarcal culture), you were beaten back into the box by your classmates. The culture literally uses violence to keep you from being a whole person. And when violence doesn't work, then a shitty diet, deformed curriculum, and the dehumanizing life of corporate enslavement finishes the job, all the while you are promised that at the end of the line is Heaven. Meanwhile, we perform human sacrifice through rituals of war that send the future to die in the urban slums of Empire for the Lords of Freedom, Democracy and the Market. Criminals are electrocuted or injected with poison to reaffirm the authority of our abstract, disembodied Sublord of Justice.
So, lifting a page from Orwell's 1984, we engage in a collective ritual of hatred aimed at Phillip Garrido who is called an abhorrent deviant, yet our media system and culture turns a blind eye to the very reality in front of us: that the globalized economy is raping and pillaging the earth in the name of our ever-punishing deity and its free market, creating a world that presently has more slavery than when it was legal. We are pressured to serve the system as serfs at the command of disembodied voices coming from a box, and to take as normal the rants of insane men who claim to be authorities of these abstractions.
Again, just to be clear, Garrido is a sick, dangerous man who has destroyed many lives. He deserves his future confinement and punishment. My goal is to simply to look at this case as a teachable moment to reflect upon madness, civilization and media.
Apologies for feeling a bit cynical today. I still love the world.
Image by doug88888, courtesy of Creative Commons license.