How prison-based thinking warps a lack of empathy for “deserving” victims to harm the vulnerable
In a prison-based system, the ones who are harmed most are the ones who are the ones who are most easily punished.
Editor’s Note: sexual violence and mention of rape
I’ll admit it: I have a sort of macabre fascination with true crime. My fiancé is always making fun of me for it, and it’s not a trait I’m super proud of, to be honest. I recognize that how the media handles the sensational abuses they document often fuels the objectification of abuse victims, the very thing that helps perpetuate abuse in the first place. This is why I’ve created some parameters around my true crime viewing and listening habits, the most significant being that I generally only partake if the main perpetrator(s) and victim(s) in the story are non-Black. There just isn’t any amount of further objectification of Black people that is acceptable to my conscience at this point in my life, I tell myself. The objectification of anyone else though…?
I have a particular interest in the stories of pathological scammers and con people. I loved the podcast Dirty John, which follows a man who manipulates his way into relationships for money and drugs and ends with (mild spoiler) a real life “zombie kill” in a public parking lot. I was riveted by Doctor Death, which tells the story of a surgeon who injured, sometimes drastically, 33 of the 37 patients he operated on during his career before he was unmasked as a fraud (two of those patients died). Yesterday, I found myself watching a CBS News special about Elizabeth Holmes, the Theranos founder and former youngest female “self-made” billionaire (this was before Kylie Jenner “self-made” her billion dollar empire from her family’s fortune), whose entire “revolutionary” blood testing business was built on a series of lies. (I really just wanted to hear the deep baritone voice I’d read she faked. I also read she has a dog she tells everyone is a wolf. Yes, the story is as ridiculous as it sounds.)
At more than one point, as I watched and listened to each of these stories, I found myself laughing uncontrollably. It wasn’t just that the lies these white people told were so often completely absurd and unbelievable, it was how so many of their victims were absurdly and laughably primed to believe them, which I naturally attributed to both parties’ whiteness. Even though I understood what happened to these victims to be wrong, I felt little empathy toward them because they had demonstrated so much empathy toward each other in the form of undeserved trust, a pillar of white supremacy, that I could never understand them, and did not want to. On some level, I felt that they deserved whatever happened to them, and so watching their misfortune became no more than guilt-free entertainment.
I didn’t watch Leaving Neverland because of my fascination with true crime. Or maybe I did. But it doesn’t fit my criteria. Or maybe it did. I’d always found myself in the silent faction that believed Michael Jackson betrayed his Blackness by surrounding himself by (and filling his pigment and hair follicles with) whiteness at almost every opportunity (and I also never bought his vitiligo excuse, which didn’t explain his other physical alterations). But I’m mostly being facetious. I have no real interest in denying Michael’s Blackness, and the truth is I don’t really know what made me watch the documentary. But I know for sure I got no guilt-free entertainment from it.
Whether Jackson actually raped his accusers or not, his manipulation of children into these temporary and replaceable “best friendships” that would be devastating to any child’s self-esteem, the inappropriate and documented hand-holding and touching, and the undeniable claims of him sleeping in bed with them crossed what I considered a very clear line into the territory of child abuse. But even as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse myself, it was also very clear that many of them and/or their families were using the star for fame and celebrity. Those two things could be true at the same time, but the latter wasn’t enough for me to defend Jackson. It wasn’t enough for me to call the these accusers’ pain deserved like I was able to in other stories where victims had not earned my empathy. And I think it’s because I approached these stories with wildly different motivations.
When I watched Leaving Neverland, all I could think about was the trauma no one seemed to bother to heal. When I posted my thoughts to Twitter, a Black follower reached out to let me know that they “didn’t believe those white boys who were just out for money,” and I understood. White people are not to be believed. I don’t think it’s illogical for Black people to question these accounts, or even to refuse to empathize with the white accusers after their accounts have been proven to be true (and they’ve been very close to proven). In fact, I think it’s important that we are honest about our feelings so that we can be honest about our motivations in response to them. And I think when we conflate a lack of empathy for victims with them deserving punishment, this motivation is always carceral, and thus it is also always incongruous with healing.
I don’t know if I’ve been honest about my motivations for watching true crime shows where both the victims and perpetrators are white. I say this because there comes an inevitable moment as I’m watching a story about a con artist manipulating white people that almost causes me to cheer for them. Whether Holmes ultimately convinced her investors (including the likes of terrorists Henry Kissinger and Rupert Murdoch) that she was legitimate or not, they were all in this business for personal gain. They had hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in this scam because they had perfected scamming ordinary people out of their money (perhaps in more “legitimate” ways), and their greed was always going to harm the poorest of us. I knew how these investors hoarded their wealth was a horror, but in my thirst to punish them, I was also pressured to horrifyingly laud anyone who was able to turn their greed on its head. Healing was completely none of my concern.
Of course, this ignores the fact that Holmes’ true victims were everyday people, many of them poor and sick themselves, who relied on her useless machines for serious health issues, and in some cases to save their lives. As my friend Lisa reminded me when I half-jokingly told her Holmes was a hero for scamming rich investors, “She wasn’t that smart” to be doing what she did out of a dedication to subverting capitalism and greed. She just did capitalism and greed better than the others, but the victims—the true victims—were the same.
If the two documentaries about the Fyre Festival taught me anything (and yes, I eagerly watched them both), it’s that oppressive violence always coalesces around the most vulnerable, even if no one centers them in the story about that violence. I laughed at the silly influencers who chased clout and fame to that Bahamian island only to find cold cheese sandwiches and no working electricity, music or anywhere to sleep. But it was really the local Bahamian workers who were harmed (and both documentaries spent far too little time exploring how). I can make sure I don’t watch anything where the producers don’t recognize the Black victims, but the reality of TV producers is not ours. Whether I avoid it with my criteria for or not, Black people are always the victims, because anti-Blackness is at the root of all of this violence. And, like supporting prisons, rooting for this violence to punish anyone will always be rooting for it to punish the most vulnerable, whether or not we recognize them as victims.
There is a difference between not empathizing with Holmes’ investors, who lost billions, and enabling her, and that difference is crucial. That difference is in allowing one’s legitimate lack of empathy to turn into carceral, punitive ideas. The problem was never just that people didn’t trust Michael Jackson’s accusers. It was how this distrust evolved into people wanting his accusers punished. Harassed. Facing constant threats of death. And that meant that whatever punishes them, whoever punishes them, even if it is oppressive to us too, gets off the hook.
“It’s like we have this revenge fantasy of harming white folks that we forget to acknowledge how that harm often begins in-house, with Black bodies, before it even makes a dent in whiteness. And then we don’t acknowledge the victims of both intra- and extracommunal violence.” — Brittany Willis
I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with lacking empathy for white people, and even if I did it wouldn’t be honest if I denied that it’s true for myself. Everyone knows that white people lack empathy for us, and maybe we’d all be a little less confused about race relations if we were honest about that too. I would argue that being unbothered by harm befalling those who have demonstrated relating to each other in white supremacist ways is a much less immoral reason to watch and listen to true crime stories than why most people tune into them, whether they admit it or not.
But there is a difference between lacking empathy and seeking revenge, and I’m starting to recognize that the schadenfreude I feel in watching these shows is more the latter than the former. And I’m starting to recognize how this revenge-based thinking—which is symptomatic of a cerceral, prison-based construct of justice—contributes to the problems Black people face, even when Black people aren’t centered in the story at all.
In a prison-based system, the ones who are harmed most aren’t the ones who do the most harm. The ones who are harmed most are the ones who are most easily punished. We might not care about these particular white boys who accused Michael of abuse, but carceral thinking meant we also had to justify Michael’s abusive practices to get revenge on them.
Operating from a place of revenge meant we had to lie and say a grown man manipulating children who barely knew him into sleeping in bed with him for months on end was okay “because he didn’t have a childhood either.” Our desire to punish those we legitimately held no sympathy for meant we had to believe a powerful abuser wholeheartedly, and even call him a hero. And it ultimately meant showing all the little Black girls and Black boys that this is what will happen when they name the violence that powerful people show to them too.
I still plan on watching HBO’s Elizabeth Holmes documentary when it drops later this month, but I can no longer lie to myself and call the entertainment guilt-free. Ignoring the Black people who were harmed by white peoples’ violence, directly and not, is just as much objectifying as anything else, and for too long that was acceptable to my conscience when it shouldn’t have been. For too long defending the punishment of people I didn’t empathize with, defending prisons, was acceptable too.
Perhaps there’s no such thing as guilt-free entertainment in a carceral world. Perhaps there is no true witnessing for victims in a white supremacist one. But they are always still here, and if we listen for them in the silences, perhaps we’ll learn from them how to make new worlds. And if we wrestle with our legitimate anger, with our fair inability to provide empathy to those who never would provide it back to us, without turning to prison-based thinking, perhaps we could be on our way.