The Aunty-Christ and outrage

It’s irritating when your conscience gets in the way of your outrage.

I enjoyed the best kind of outrage over a media story this week. It was the best kind because it involved an incident far away in America that didn’t involve anyone’s racial or sexual identities, so I didn’t have to pick through the sludge of positionality in order to enjoy the sweet fruits of indignation. I could just hiss and tut without having to do a damn thing about it. Oh sweet, sweet self-righteousness.

In the state of Connecticut a case came to trial in which Jennifer Connell, a 54-year-old human resources manager from Manhattan, sued her 12-year-old nephew for breaking her wrist, the hoodlum. In my family breaking a relative’s wrist would have a more traditional WASPy remedy – strained silences and a chilly tone to Christmas cards – but Ms Connell chose to sue the little beast.

How had this delinquent broken her wrist? Ballpeen hammer? Nunchuks? No. On the day his 8th birthday his aunt drove to his home in Westport, Connecticut for his birthday party. She recounted in testimony that when she arrived at the house, the defendant became overly excited to see her. “I remember him saying, ‘I love you Aunty Jean!’ ” she said, voice still choked with the horror. “Then he was flying through the air toward me!”

Her nephew weighed 22 kilograms, and the action of jumping into her arms caused injuries to her wrist – those injuries must have been extreme indeed, given that the incident occurred four years ago and she was still wearing a brace in court this week. In a gruesome litany of suffering, Ms Connell testified that her life with a wrist injury has become very difficult, since “there are a lot of people in New York” and “It made it very difficult to hold my hors d’oeuvre plate at a cocktail party last year”. The child should have known better, Ms Connell declared in court, while the villain himself cowered bewildered in the dock. He had behaved inappropriately, and now he must pay.

I prepared a very jolly piece about this story. (By “prepared”, I mean that while taking my usual fretful Thursday-morning pre-deadline walk, I’d suddenly cried out with relief, “Oh! Thank god! I know what I can write about!” and received a sour look from the Malawian guy on the corner who sells cigarettes and handbags from a suitcase and has some different opinions about what constitutes a hard day at the office. Ah, positionality, you cruel scamp, can I never escape you?)

I was planning to strike an hilariously satirical tone, expressing support for Ms Connell’s law suit and demanding litigation against all people who ruin our lives with unsolicited niceness. I would urge sanction upon Stephen, who washes cars near my house and who noticed that I dropped something from my pocket as I passed and chased me down the street to return it, thereby delaying me by fifteen seconds and causing me to catch all the red lights across town, thus missing the last space for free parking at my publishers’ office. Stephen! You owe me R12-50 for street parking!

I had a number of other beefs against the virtuous, but something troubled me about the case of Jennifer Connell. It was too perfect a story: it too fulsomely satisfied too many easy preconceptions about America being overly litigious. It too neatly satisfies simple narratives about how old-fashioned common sense and decency is being discarded by a selfish and self-righteous modern society. Above all, there was too much hatred and loathing for this woman on social media. Too many people were too enthusiastically volunteering to ruin her life and have her fired. I don’t live by many rules, but one of them is this: don’t join a mob.

It took three minutes of research to discover a different version of the trial, namely:

1) that the law suit against the child was a legal convenience because household insurance had refused to pay Ms Connell’s medical costs unless she won judgement against a member of the household.

 2) that insurance companies can’t be named in civil suits

3) that there’s almost certainly no feud within the family but a mutually agreed collaborative process by which Mrs Connell might try claim compensation.

Passionate fans of insurance companies might tut at that, but it’s a very different story to “Woman sues nephew for loving her too much”. It’s hard to imagine public outrage at “Woman tries legal measures to claim from insurance company”. It’s hard to imagine the Internet nicknaming that woman “the AuntyChrist”.

It’s a pity, because I had a whole column in mind, and it would have been easy and quite funny. Heck, maybe I still can write it. Do facts still matter when it comes to outrage?

Times, 15 October 2015