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Lisa McInerney: Tragic cases don't need a side of victim-blaming

Tragedies like those which befell Jill Meagher and April Jones are awful and sad – but some people feel the need to turn them into a morality play.

Lisa McInerney

NO SOONER HAD the heart-wrenching news about the discovery of Jill Meagher’s body come in than the retrospective, offensively useless advice began.

Advice like this: Very sad that the girl was violently raped and murdered, but what was she doing walking home alone late at night? How terrible for her husband, but he should have walked out to meet her. So heartbreaking that she was targeted by a predator, but she really shouldn’t have worn heels she couldn’t run in…

And so on and so forth. Expressions of sympathy from perfect strangers, qualified with faux concern at the perceived mistakes of a woman whose only role in this case is that of the victim. Jill Meagher was not asking for trouble by simply attempting to return home after a night out, and yet a certain section of a frightened public sought to make her share some of the responsibility for her rape and murder.

Two other recent high-profile cases have been characterised by the same kind of reaction, that kind of panicky, tetchy assertion that in their actions or intentions, the victims brought their ordeals on themselves.

Fifteen-year-old Megan Stammers ran away to France with her maths teacher, a married man twice her age. The law is clear: as she is below the age of consent, Megan is deemed not to be mature enough to fully understand the implications of her actions, and so cannot consent to an adult relationship.

That didn’t stop distant onlookers from proclaiming that 15 is old enough to know right from wrong, and so Megan must share responsibility for the fallout of her ill-advised affair with a grown man who’s been to university, who’s pursued a career, who’s sat there contemplating beef or salmon on his own wedding day, who’s experienced all of these things and therefore has a wealth of social and emotional knowledge not yet encountered by the little girl he ‘fell in love with’.

“Hand-wringing strangers”

Five-year-old April Jones was snatched whilst playing with friends near her home at around seven o’clock in the evening. A child is hardly inviting abduction just by being outside, yet from a distance, hand-wringing strangers put it to no one in particular that her parents should never have allowed her to play outdoors in a housing estate on an autumn evening. Lack of knowledge about April’s home, family, or community failed to dissuade outlying experts from peppering public conversations with their take on the proper care of five-year-olds. Sure, her parents are distraught, but what did they expect, allowing such a mite to play away from the house?

Perhaps you were one. Perhaps you read of Jill Meagher’s death and wailed that if only she had taken a taxi home, she’d still be alive today. Perhaps you dismissed the distress of Megan Stammers’ parents because she seemed so carefree, holding the hand of her maths teacher as they took a cross-channel ferry into the sunset. Perhaps you declared, frustrated, that April Jones’ parents must be bad people to allow their little girl outside the door unsupervised as dusk was falling.

Perhaps you did. And while no one deserves congratulations for masking victim-blaming as common sense, there’s certainly good reason why we indulge in it.

It’s very hard to cope with news like this, even when we’re not directly affected. It is human nature to empathise, and so even though we don’t know the people involved, or their circumstances, we become upset when we think about the beautiful young woman who was only trying to get home after a night out with friends, the silly teenager whose involvement with an older man put their families under so much stress, the tiny, defenceless child who should be tucked up safe in her bed, but isn’t.

“Such things couldn’t happen to us”

We become upset not just for them, but because of the unpredictable nature of the events that brought them to our attention.

We reassure ourselves that such things couldn’t happen to us, because we are smarter than that.

That these people are but the protagonists of a morality play staged just for our benefit. That we’d always remember there’s safety in numbers on nights out. That we’d always remind our thirty-year-old husbands to be wary of the wiles of fifteen-year-olds who’d lead them astray. That we’d never allow our children to be taken from us. That the world is full of monsters and that it is our responsibility to spot the wolves in sheeps’ clothing. And that we’d be a damn sight better at it.

But that there’s logic behind every kneejerk reaction should equally mean that we can intercept, acknowledge, and change our behaviour. It’s not as if we can’t figure out that taking potshots at the choices of the victims of horrific crimes is unnecessary, unkind and pretty damn unappealing.

The shoulda-woulda-coulda belated advice, or the loud declarations that we would never be so careless as to endanger ourselves or our families in such a manner, belong only where they started: in the closed-off and not entirely wholesome part of ourselves that subsists on schadenfreude and gets off on condescension. What’s most irritating is that the answers to the superfluous questions we ask as part of that victim-blaming reaction aren’t difficult to answer.

“Entirely reasonable expectation”

Why didn’t Jill Meagher get a taxi? Because she lived five minutes away and had the entirely reasonable expectation that she would arrive home safely. Why would police bother looking for a lovestruck 15-year-old who’d run off with a teacher? Because she’s a lovestruck 15-year-old, not the fount of all wisdom. Why would April Jones’ parents allow her to play outside alone at dusk? Because they too had an entirely reasonable expectation that their daughter could play with her friends without being abducted.

It’s reasonable, too, that we should take the misfortune of others and use it to better inform ourselves of the risks of an unpredictable world. All the same, if you cannot elevate your sympathetic reaction beyond speculation, beyond redundant ifs and buts and the odd interjection of “… it begs the question…”, then you may well be doing it wrong.

There’s a difference between the victim and the orchestrator of a crime, and it’s a miserable thing to not know that.

Read previous columns on TheJournal.ie by Lisa McInerney >

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Lisa McInerney

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