Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Reflections: Testimony

Mike is the headmaster of the prestigious private school, Avery Academy, nestled in the beautiful state of Vermont. One evening, he receives a tape from his secretary and is grimly asked to view its contents. The tape turns out to be his worst nightmare as he sees three senior boys engaging in sexual activities with an underage girl. All four are from his school, with two of the boys being the cream of their graduating class and in Mike’s high regards. In Vermont, sex with a minor qualifies as sexual assault, a serious crime that would wipe out the boys’ futures. Even as Mike tries to contain the damage to within the school’s premises, and somehow salvage the school’s reputation and mitigate the boys’ punishment, the Internet is flooded with the video stream, leaving him little time to think and react. That evening, and that tape brings about an avalanche of irrecoverable havoc, ripping out people’s lives and dreams. Anita Shreve writes an emotionally powerful story that vividly captures the perspectives of all the different people involved in the scandal, and begs the question of the place and spirit of ethics in this whole episode.

I loved the depth and breadth of Shreve’ thorough and intense exploration of how one event - one impulsive event can cause a tornado of consequences and alter people’s lives forever. I often ponder on how fragile life is in the face of such little events. There are super-powers who coldly calculate people’s lives as pawns in their manipulative strategies to amass power and wealth and get by the scrutiny of laws and ethics. Such people thrive, and here were four teenagers who succumbed to their hormones and lost themselves for an hour of their lives, and yet, the law books are so stringent in their definitions of right and wrong, that the spirit of ethics gets grossly misplaced. All parties on the tape were partaking in consensual sex. While I’m not encouraging and looking past the consequences of teenage sex, especially with underage, vulnerable girls, I don’t advocate a punishment so severe that it obliterates people’s lives, leaving little room for holistic reformation. The trauma of the punishment outweighs the lesson learned, and it only worsens the problem. And the really gut-wrenching part is - it is the boys, the men who pay the price for the rest of their lives as this black-mark tags along with them. The final consequences of this episode were far more unethical and undeserved than the theoretical structures of the ethics behind why the act was wrong and censured.

The book is organized through the voices of the individuals caught in the scandal. No person meant to cause the catastrophe, yet each had their own private issues (who doesn’t?) and small events added up and magnified into a monster during that particular evening. And thanks to the scavenging media, everything was blown out of proportion, malignantly twisted and crumpled. Shreve’s ability to accurately get to the root of the psychological bent of mind of the characters, and to realistically portray their deepest thoughts and emotions is laudable. This story encompasses more than just the nature of teenage rebellion. It subtly teases out the questions of who are the real victims, who are the perpetrators, which event was the catalyst, and who mishandled the whole episode. In a tangled imbroglio like this, there are no concrete answers, yet, the mind can’t be mollified without tormenting itself for answers, and looping itself on the what-if questions. The tentacles of the fateful circumstance gripped so many more people than just the ones who committed the act, and deformed their lives in so many ways.

Despite the weight of the subject, the story is not depressing. It is thought provoking and ends on an optimistic note. It makes us the see the bigger picture in any dire scenario, and urges us to be humane at the right places, and at the right time. Without empathy, compassion and forgiveness, we can never hope to reform troubled individuals, and this statement comes out strong. Ethics and Laws are merely made of words that came out of our heads. Focusing on the technicality and linguistic nature of those sentences and missing the essence of the thoughts and concepts, is a crime in itself.

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