Tied to the tracks

Anna Quindlen

November 16, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

LYLE and Erik Menendez killed their parents. There is no disputing that. In the den of the family home in Beverly Hills they fired 15 blasts from two shotguns, nearly blowing off their father's head and shooting their mother as she crawled across the floor.

As they sit in a courtroom in Los Angeles fighting for their lives, facing the gas chamber, the only matter at issue is why. At first the answer seemed apparent. The Menendez brothers stood to inherit millions; after their parents were dead, they went on a rich kid's shopping spree, Rolex watches and sports cars.

But during their trial the two young men have testified that money had nothing to do with the murders. They say that their father, a wealthy entertainment executive, sexually abused them when they were children. Erik told a harrowing story of being pushed down onto his knees to perform oral sex. Lyle's eyes filled with tears as he recounted being sodomized in what his father told him was a male bonding ritual.

And so the question has become: venal rich kids or tormented victims? Which are the Menendez brothers?

Few seem to consider a third possibility: maybe both.

The victim mentality may be the last uncomplicated thing about life in America. It teaches that, as surely as a man in a black hat twirling a long mustache ties a sweet innocent with ringlets and a white dress to the railroad tracks, those in trouble must be cut from whole cloth. It's why a sex crimes prosecutor once said that his perfect rape victim was a shy virgin living at home. Jack the Ripper knew what he was doing when he picked on prostitutes, inconvenient, unconvincing objects of empathy.

The U.S. Supreme Court took on this issue in a different guise last week in a unanimous ruling on sexual harassment. Teresa Harris, a manager at an equipment rental firm in Nashville, had a boss who thought "Let's go to the Holiday Inn and negotiate your raise" was a clever riposte, who made demeaning comments day after day, week after week. A strong woman, Ms. Harris put up with this nonsense for two years for the sake of a good job, then quit and promptly filed suit. Alas, she made an unsatisfactory victim.

The lower courts were looking for Little Nell on the railroad tracks, weak and wan. They ruled against Ms. Harris because her boss's conduct was not severe enough to have caused "psychological injury." What was wanted was a hysterical collapse, a ruined life, the inability to work. Nonsense, said Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who concluded that legal protection "comes into play before the harassing conduct leads to a nervous breakdown." In other words, you can be a victim of sexual harassment without being a victim.

Society's standards admit to fewer variations and complexities; you can't help wondering, reading the court papers, whether Ms. Harris was ever tempted to help her case by hewing to the view of her proper role and simulating a case of the vapors. Until she reached the Supreme Court, it was an either-or situation: either she'd been destroyed by the harassment or she hadn't been harassed.

The defense lawyers in the Menendez case are clearly hoping to make the either-or approach work for them, both in how they have portrayed the defendants and how they have portrayed the two people they shot and killed. Kitty and Jose Menendez were not as story and song would have Mom and Dad: no heart-to-heart talks, no cookies baking in the kitchen. He was savagely dismissive and verbally abusive; she drank and didn't clean the house or comb her hair.

This is their posthumous misfortune. There are good victims, who must be avenged, or bad ones who somehow deserve to die. The television movie, and there will be one, and soon, will have to purify or demonize them for the sake of plot. And Lyle and Erik will become in the script either tormented, abused child-men or cold-blooded climbers in Porsches. Not both. Never both.

The ultimate either-or decision belongs to the jurors in the Menendez case. But perhaps they will consider things that we overlook when we are turning public tragedy into social mythology: sometimes bad things happen to bad people, that it is possible to be both victim and victimizer. Life is so messy that the temptation to straighten it up is very strong. And the results always illusory.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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