Affluenza and The Thesis Blues
The “affluenza” case in Texas has been back in the news lately. If you haven’t been following it, the long and short is that super-entitled teenager Ethan Couch killed four people and injured two others when he plowed into a disabled car as he barreled down a street at 70 MPH in a pickup truck. He was drunk out of his mind. The defense portrayed him as a victim of “Affluenza,” which they determined meant that his parents were so rich that he was completely sheltered from the consequences of his actions throughout his life. As such, he had never developed the proper cognitive mechanisms that told him he was doing something bad and that people could get hurt because he had never before done anything bad and nobody had ever been hurt by anything he had ever done. Suffering from “affluenza” helped him escape twenty years in prison. Instead, he gets to kick it for ten years at a swanky rehab facility.
One piece I read when the story came to national attention several weeks ago noted that “Affluenza” is not covered in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Elsewhere, it would seem like a clever defense if it came up in a movie or helped a lovable rogue escape unjust persecution in a John Grisham novel or something, but since actual lives were lost at little consequence to the perpetrator, it doesn’t seem so clever or unique. I can only hope that a greater justice than that which was served in Texas will overturn the ruling and help Ethan find his way to a standard prison, though I’m not going to keep my fingers crossed.
This all sounded a bit too familiar to me when the story broke, and I discovered that it sounded a bit like what I experienced when I worked at a high school down by the Chicago city limits early in the new millennium. These thoughts came out when I was writing my thesis five years ago. At the time depicted in the story, I was in grad school at University of Illinois-Chicago and was working with a lot of Chicago Public School teachers. Though we were only a mile apart geographically, the gap between the communities we served was immeasurable. I was lamenting the students I was encountering at my school and the community mindset that was at conflict with how I was raised:
“My frequent contact with the CPS teachers helped me realize I was no longer teaching for social change. What change was needed for 97 percent of the students at my school, except for moving from middle class to upper class? Most of the students had been born into families that had planned and prepared for their birth. Those same families had lived in the neighborhood for generations; they owned property; many of them also owned a local business. Most students seemed guaranteed by birthright to attend a state college or assume a position in the family business after they left high school.
“Once I began to question what I was fighting for, I began questioning if my school and students needed me. When I had taught poor students at my first two schools, I knew they needed me. Most everything I taught them helped them in some way, or at least pushed them a half inch closer to a better position in life. But my district was already on the winning side of the public education equation. We were living proof that the whiter and richer the school, the more successfully it scores on the standardized tests that essentially determine the worth of a district and community. The glut of money in the community was just one factor that helped the students achieve high scores on the tests that were essentially made to reflect their values and experiences anyway.
“I blamed the same glut for encouraging mindsets in the students that conflicted with my middle-class sensibilities. Foremost was the students’ sense of entitlement. So unknown were consequences that they frequently bragged openly about having swilled alcohol at the previous weekends’ bashes. Some even passed around pictures of themselves dragging on joints. They dared school officials to do something about their brazen behaviors, and when something was done they ran to parents who all too often told the school to mind its own business.
“One episode near the end of my second year epitomized my dealings with the entitled students. I had chaperoned a week-long band and choir trip to Disneyland and soon found myself to be one of the only adults who would intervene with students who were out of control. Much to my surprise, it was me who was wrong for redirecting kids who whined when they didn’t get what they wanted, or for insisting that they speak respectfully to Disney officials and other adults after they routinely went on swearing binges in front of them…”
So it seems that Affluenza has been around a lot longer that I imagined and might be at epidemic level. I guess it won’t be long before more people are claiming to suffer from it, especially if you can use it to escape consequences. But what do you do about a sickness that only affects the rich and well-to-do? Nothing. There is no helping people who don’t know or won’t admit they are sick. Too bad that now it seems their victims can’t even rely on justice.