Cashing In on Our Lives

JOANNE JACOBS

April 20, 1993|By JOANNE JACOBS

San Jose, California. -- First, I saw it on ''L.A. Law.'' A father murders the man who raped his teen-age daughter, breaking into the guy's home to do it, and pleads not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. The single father says the rapist taunted him with the degradation of his child, who still suffers emotionally from the attack years later.

The jury acquits the killer, even after he says on the witness stand that he knew exactly what he was doing. Because they feel like it.

Then I saw it the next night on the evening news: A California mother on April 2 murdered the man who sexually molested her son, shooting him in the courtroom during a preliminary hearing. Relatives say the molester smirked at her, what a cousin called a ''visual attack,'' causing her to lose control. Her 11-year-old son still suffers emotionally from the attack five years ago.

No doubt Ellie Nesler will plead temporary insanity in the murder of Daniel Mark Driver. The jurors will forget about her walk to the car to get the gun and the walk back to the courtroom, about the gun pressed to the back of the man's head, the five bullets. They will jump at the chance to acquit her.

Then, the circle will be completed. She'll sign a deal with one of the producers that have been swarming all over Jamestown, California, and we'll sit down in our living rooms to watch ''A Mother's Anger: The Ellie Nesler Story.'' The TV movie will include one character who will give a pompous little speech about the dangers of vigilante justice. This will promptly be forgotten in our identification with the pain of the abused child and the enraged mother.

Perhaps I'm wrong. The TV movie may come before the trial. Mrs. Nesler doesn't seem eager for publicity, but how long can she hold out against talk shows, ''reality'' shows, movie producers?

After all, NBC started filming ''In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco,'' without a clue how or when the stand-off would be resolved. David Koresh was said last week to be considering movie deals, which cheered up FBI agents, who were getting tired of listening to bad music beamed at the Waco compound.

I wonder who will play Woody Allen in the TV movie on his custody fight with Mia Farrow over their (sort of) three children. Will Mia play herself?

Duke in ''Doonesbury'' has staged an avalanche, pretending to be trapped in his cabin, so that he can sell the movie rights to his dramatic rescue; the rescuers have made a deal for a cut of the movie rights with Duke's chum, Honey. This is a joke, but too close to reality to be really funny.

As soon as you heard about the kindergarteners trapped in the World Trade Center, what did you think? TV movie. You are not surprised to hear that the kids' parents are mad because they weren't offered a cut of the action -- their individual children's ''stories'' not being deemed worthy of purchase. You figure: It figures.

There is a cost to the relentless merchandising of personal and public tragedies, and it is not just the trivialization and glorification of violence, the idea that the solution to humiliation, frustration, injustice, pain and despair is to shoot the bad guy in the head.

That is bad enough, but there is another corruption to televised ''real-life'' dramas: The ''story'' of any American is expected to be for sale. The only question is what price your life can pull. If you don't sell your story, others in the circle of victims or perpetrators will sell theirs, and you will be only a minor character in the drama -- played by some actress from a canceled sit-com -- and with nothing in the bank to show for it.

No sorrow is too private to be depicted on screen, polished and politically corrected by a scriptwriter. Our lives are for sale, and we have to hustle or we won't even get a cut of the action.

Joanne Jacobs is a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.

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