The Affluenza Defense, and why you’d want it too

In case you’ve avoided the internet for the last week, let me catch you up:

ethan-couch-abcEthan Couch of Fort Worth TX was 16 years old. One night last summer, he and 7 friends went out for a joyride in his Ford pickup. They stole some beer, got totally trashed, sped down a country road, and Ethan managed to steer his truck off the road and into a group of four pedestrians — killing all of them, and injuring several of his passengers.

Last week, his manslaughter trial concluded. Instead of receiving the maximum 20-year incarceration — the sentence sought by the plaintiff — Ethan instead was sentenced to a surprisingly-mild 10 years probation, accompanied by treatment at a high-dollar equine therapy center in the northeast.

The putative reason for this leniency was the novel testimony from psychologist Gary Miller — that Ethan was not culpable for the crime, because his upbringing failed to imbue him with any sense of consequences for his actions. His parents were evidently god-awful. His father was a rampant, manipulative control freak. His mother was a creature of indulgence, satisfying her every material whim with a never-ending stream of decadent purchases. As Ethan grew up between these two, he became a pawn, a bargaining chip; they used him as a medium to fire blows at each other, while their marriage disintegrated into eventual divorce.

All this, Gary Miller said, meant that Ethan grew up in a poisoned reality. In time, he developed a dissociation from the meaning of his own life and actions, and of the consequences thereof. As a result of this affluenza, he could not be held accountable for his bad choices. And the judge bought it. And Ethan got probation instead of jail time. And his parents are paying about $500,000 a year for the equine therapy. That is the whole story, as I have heard it.

And so, the world is pissed off. I can’t imagine how robbed the families of the victims might feel. Others are crying out that this is an exemplary case of the end of personal responsibility in our culture. Understandably so.

And then clever blogger Jessica Ann Mitchell fired out a scathing parody of the whole thing — Povertenza. Using the same phrasing employed by Ethan’s defenders, she repurposed the affluenza defense for low-income perpetrators, for all the juvenile repeat offenders that come from broken homes. They ought to have the same immunity, she reasoned. Their childhoods are worse than Ethan’s was, to be sure. And yet their lack of money, lack of a distinguished background, ensures that these kids who most need this kind of leniency are never the ones who get it. It’s high injustice. She’s right.


But I’m going to leave most of that alone today. I’m not going to consider whether Gary Miller is an ass or not. I’m not going to assert that Ethan should be doing serious jail time. A thousand other people have already beaten me to all of that. Instead, there was something that struck me as interesting about the Affluenza defense. It has to do with perspective, and storytelling. And it has to do with Ethan.

On the one hand — let’s face it — he is probably an irritating little brat. I mean this with total sincerity, not hyperbole. I’m sure he’s the kind of guy that I would have called a douchebag when I was in high school. I’m sure that he’s the kind of guy that would piss me off as he speeds down the highway in his F-350, tailgating and cutting people off without remorse. If I were to give him the time of day, to listen to him speak about anything at all, I’m sure I would think he was an entitled, vapid little shit.

And he really might be all those things. Legitimately. But that’s not the full breadth of his story — that’s just a scratch at the surface. We have only the facts and opinions that have been relevant to the crime, the trial, the sentencing, and whatever injustice or lack thereof has been perceived by the media. We don’t know hardly anything else about this kid.

But, let’s try. Let’s try to know more about him. Give me your permission to speculate. I’m not trying to exonerate this kid, not by any means. But let’s just speculate. Come with me into a gritty, textured cinematic montage, set against a backdrop of ambient melancholia. In fact, I dare you to open this song and let it play in a background tab while you continue reading:

A boy is born one day in the late 1990s. He is born into a family that is already dying, already coming apart; he is born into the hands of two parents who have nothing real to give to him. They try to appease him with toys, favors, privileges, and fancy clothes. But they are busy feuding, busy waging war on each other and on themselves — they are too busy to give the boy any true care, any closeness, any intimacy, laughter, or depth. They are decoupled from the true things of life, so they have no way to teach this son what it really means to be alive, to be healthy.

The music grows more strained, the chords more desperate. The boy grows into the shape of a young man, but his heart is still infantile, needy. Lacking the guidance and closeness of a mature father and mother, the boy makes his own way in the teenage world. He finds a strange kind of shelter in drunkenness; he finds a hint of intimacy amongst his accepting peers; he finds a vague pulse of life whenever his pickup truck powers through the unknown night at high speed. He discovers traces of joy in these things, which he finds nowhere else — so he runs to them again and again. His Friday and Saturday nights, wasteful though they may seem, are what he looks forward to. These nights are what make sense to his starving heart.

And then one night, four pedestrians find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time – in the path of an indifferent F-350, packed full of drunk teenagers. The next day, Ethan awakes from this stupor, this smoggy half-dream, under the cold green fluorescent lighting of a police station, to find that he is a murderer. A quadruple … murderer.

This, now, is a different portrait of the wayward son Ethan.
Let’s be honest though, this is all theater. It is slanted storytelling, exaggeration, speculation, and so on. Or is it? I’m not sure. I think this story could be a fair reflection of reality. But who knows? I don’t know. The point is, the nature of this narrative is vastly different from what the media-sphere is peddling. I don’t know about you, but this alternate story stirs my emotions. It is not so easy for me to hate this kid outright, when his story is packaged this way.

Don’t mistake what I’m saying here, though. I am not trying to justify Ethan. I am not saying he’s innocent. I am not saying he was sentenced righteously. I am not contradicting those who are outraged at injustice in the system, like Jessica Ann Mitchell. I’m not saying any of those things. I don’t have enough skin in any of that game to comment rightly.

Here’s what I’m saying: Gary Miller’s Affluenza defense leads us toward something increasingly rare in our culture: empathy.

Recall that quickening of our hearts, elicited by the cine-montage from a moment ago — that quickening is a momentary stab of empathy. This empathy asks us to consider that maybe Ethan, like all of us, is not just a reckless idiot, but also a sufferer of pain; that he is not just a spoiled brat, but a boy who never got a real relationship with his parents; that he is not just a murderer, but also a human. As broken and malformed … as the rest of us.

For the purposes of the justice system, this is all somewhat irrelevant. But for the human system, nothing could be more relevant.

The experience of empathy toward a wrongdoer leads us back to the author of empathy. Get ready for the Jesus juke, here it comes. As the squires of Rome led Jesus out to the hill of his execution; as they broke his knees with a sledge and put nails through his hands; as they mocked him and shouted insults, and divided up his clothes as spoils … amidst all of this, somehow he interceded for them. Forgive them, because they do not understand what they are doing. As they destroyed his body, he offered a justification on their behalf, or rather a pardon.

The affluenza defense, or the povertenza defense, both bear a resemblance to this pardon. They both remind us, at their termini, that wrongdoers also suffer themselves; that abuse begets further abuse; that scars and sins get passed down through generations; that it only takes a finite amount of pain before a person’s rational decision-making becomes short-circuited. That any human, great or wretched, has in himself the necessary evil to commit genocide.

Sufjan Stevens said this best, at the end of the song you’re listening to:

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floor boards
For the secrets I have hid

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