The public, the private and everything in between

1. In late February and early March of this year most southern Michigan residents were captivated by the story of Tara Grant, a working mother in her early thirties who went missing right around Valentine’s day. Tara Grant’s husband, Stephen, reported her missing five days after she first disappeared, claiming he waited so long to go to the authorities because his wife spends the work week in Puerto Rico and he thought she left for work early after a fight they had.

I remember looking at S. when this news came out and telling him to feel free to report me missing as soon as possible, please, god forbid, should I not be where I say I will be after, oh, say, one day.

This is a horrible thing to say, but I’m going to say it anyway. I knew, KNEW, Tara’s husband Stephen killed her. From the first news broadcast I knew it – Stephen Grant didn’t receive one bit of the benefit of the doubt he deserved. My girlfriends and I all agreed he had those crazy eyes…those crazy wife-killing eyes you always see in news broadcasts. I’m not usually so quick to judge but from the first I knew no one would find Tara alive, that her children would grow up without their mother.

After several weeks, Stephen Grant was caught essentially red-handed. When the police came to search his home he took off for the Northern part of the state, stealing a truck and eventually abandoning it and running from authorities on foot, through a snow storm, until police finally cornered him on a blustery cold, slate-gray day. They’d found half of Tara’s body in the Grant garage. Stephen confessed. In a fit of rage he killed his wife. The rest of the details you can read if you google his or her name, should you be so inclined.

Details of the Grants’ relationship emerged here and there….she was a workaholic who loved her job while he resented taking care of the children. He sent sexually explicit emails to an ex-girlfriend and drilled holes in the walls to spy on their nanny. They had loud, raucous, violent fights that neighbors overheard.

Another thing I hate to admit: sometimes I judged Tara Grant. How could she NOT know her husband harbored the ability to kill? How could she leave her children in his care day after day after day? Aren’t there…signs? But that dishonors this woman, and the thousands in America every year, who die from domestic abuse. Who knows what kind of slight shift takes place beneath the surface?

But yes, so many little details. So many warning signs that make sense only in retrospect, after the tragic ending of a woman’s life. Fights neighbors didn’t report. Nannies who continuously quit, so uncomfortable they were working in the household. Sleazy emails to an old girlfriend…all events just private enough to keep those who could possibly intercede from doing so, because they didn’t want to intrude on the Grants’ privacy, even when their arguments spilled beyond the confines of their home and bled into the windows of their neighbors, arguably taking the issues public.

2. And of course, this week we have the devastatingly damaged Seung-Hui Cho, who murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech this week in a rampage that is beyond comprehension. And of course, details of this extraordinarily disturbed individual have emerged, and the many, many warning signs he could be a danger. Upsetting emails to female students. Writing that so disturbed his professors he was individually tutored. Roommates who expressed their concern about him because of his inability to carry on even the most basic conversation. Dozens of moments and experiences that only make sense afterwards…that only fully come together once havoc has been wrecked. Like it or not, Seung-Hui Cho was protected by the same government protects our own rights, and you can’t institutionalize a student for unnecessarily violent writings, nor can you kick him out of school for refusing to speak in class. At least, not in a society where privacy is still valued, where we still allow, however surprising it may be, people to be individuals. We tend, generally, to allow people the ability to conduct their marriages and raise their children in private…to become the people they are with little interference from the outside world. It’s surprising, really – in a country as media-saturated as ours, that we still distinguish between the public and the private.

3. In the midst of all of this, the killings at VT and the most violent week in Iraq to date, our Supreme Court took the time to uphold the ban on partial birth abortions, which I find ironic. Abortion, to me, is the greatest brouhaha about what should be a non-issue that I can think of. I have many, many feminist friends who believe the government shouldn’t be able legislate what happens to our bodies, and even more feminist and non-feminist friends who vote solely on this issue, determined no patriarchy will dictate what happens to their bodies, but to me with this issue we’ve put the cart way before the horse…we’ve allowed ourselves to believe these arguments hold water against the conservative right who spend more time valuing unborn children than the grown-up ones we send to die in an unending, heart breaking war. My view on abortion is this: until women are safe from men, not only in public spaces but in the private ones, until there is a guarantee that no young girl will be molested by an uncle, no young woman raped on her way to the campus library, until husbands and boyfriends stop killing their wives and we exist in a world where violence against all woman has ceased, abortion must be legal. It must be legal for all the women who NEED it to be, who simply can’t imagine bringing into the world a child. Certainly, and unfortunately, this means some women will abuse the system, and certainly, and unfortunately, this means some babies that could be adopted by desiring families won’t be carried to term, but for the most part these are the exceptions rather than the rules, and it seems to me ludicrous to place more value on the lives of the unborn than we do on those who are alive right now. The fact that our highest court even spent time having to think and consider an issue when murder and war are slowly destroying the lives of hundreds of thousands is an embarassment.

4. I remember learning about the public and private spheres as a freshman in college at Michigan State University. My professor discussed the spheres and said the private sphere, the sphere of the home, was where women first began to glean power for themselves…they became in charge of the morality of the family and, as such, “tamed” the wilder inclinations of men. Because they had little to no power in the public sphere, the sphere of government and coffee houses and work, feminism began in the private sphere. I think this separation still very much exists, although thankfully women have advanced tremendously in the public sphere.

I don’t know. At what point should the private no longer be so? When should a student’s disturbing writing be grounds for institutionalization? When should fights between a husband and wife be reason to call the police? How private should private be, and who can ever possibly take it upon themselves to turn the private public? We are living in a precarious time, a time when both spheres are bleeding into each other and the line of demarcation is wavering. There is great potential here. Either we will become a society who ostracizes even more violently those who are different from us, suspect of every quiet student who doesn’t dress like the rest, suspicious of any husband or wife who doesn’t drag his or her child to every Saturday soccer game, or maybe, just maybe, we’ll become a society responsible to something greater than ourselves. If anything good at all can come from our current events, from global warming to the war in Iraq to the shootings at VT, it is the chance to live for something greater than our own particular pursuit of happiness. We might, in due time, become better than what we are now.

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7 Responses to The public, the private and everything in between

  1. Andi says:

    Stunning commentary. Absolutely positively stunning. Will be using part of this in an impassioned post on my own blog later.

  2. LK says:

    I agreee with Andi.

    So many disturbing juxtapositions.

  3. litlove says:

    Wonderful post, Courtney. I tend to think that in order to manage the public/private divide we need better transition zones. More support networks within the community, less intrusion by the media. There should always be someone available who will listen, and reliable sources of free citizen’s advice. It’s not going to solve everything – people have intransigent wild sides – but it might help a little.

  4. Emily says:

    Terrific thoughts here, and I’m glad to see someone noting that Supreme Court decision. I’m afraid it’s been pretty much buried, what with the focus on VT. What appalled me was Justice Kennedy’s quote that the vote “expresses respect for the dignity of human life.” My response: whose dignity? Certainly not the dignity of the woman who doesn’t want to have the child. And what kind of dignity does an unwanted child have?

  5. Fence says:

    Interesting post. Increasingly I find myself thinking that there really is no difference between the public and the private. That everything is political.
    Or at least that there is substantial cross over between the two.

  6. Pingback: Susan Hated Literature » Blog Archive » The blame game

  7. I also found this a stunning post. I can’t yet see how people like Cho or Grant can be stopped from acting on their madness, but our social networks are somehow failing if the signs they do exhibit are not noticed and acted upon. However I fear the freedom of weird but non-psychotic people being infringed upon. It’s a very fine line, but I guess we all have to take responsibility one way or another.

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