Friday, October 12, 2007

Domestic Disturbances: Judith Warner

October 11, 2007, 10:25 pm
Where’s the Safety Net?
Tags: ,

I just can’t get out of my mind the story of Carol Gotbaum, the 45-year-old Manhattan mother of three who died in a Phoenix airport holding cell on September 28th on her way to alcohol rehab in Tucson. Her funeral was held this past Sunday on the Upper West Side. At the start of it, Rabbi Robert Levine of Congregation Rodeph Sholom said, “The central teaching of both Judaism and Christianity is to love your neighbor as yourself. But at that airport … there was no such love offered to our Carol.”

This lack of basic agape is, far beyond what the police did or didn’t do, or her family did or didn’t arrange, or what the already contested autopsy report will or will not find, the disturbing crux of Carol’s story. The base level of lovingkindness, decency, compassion and empathy that most of us assume, or at the very least hope, we and our loved ones will encounter in life appears to have been entirely absent from the boarding area where Carol lost it completely, after repeatedly being denied access to a connecting flight. She became hysterical, was arrested and locked up and, within a matter of minutes, was dead.

The seeds for the tragedy that has now left her three young children motherless were sown before the police showed up and wrestled her to the ground. They’d blossomed well before she was left alone, handcuffed and shackled to a bench in her cell. They were planted when airport personnel called the police, rather than attempting in any real way to deal with her on a human level. As she bent herself double, threw her Blackberry and screamed, did it dawn on no one that she was a woman who needed help?

“If the airline or the police authorities had treated Carol with some modicum of sensitivity and grace, or if one single person at that airport had put an arm around her shoulders, sat her down and given her some protection, she might still be with us today,” her husband, Noah, said at her funeral.

Perhaps witness reports will eventually show that some such care was shown to Carol. But none have emerged thus far and, frankly, there’s every reason to assume the worst. For we all know what air travel is like today. For passengers, it’s one petty insult and indignity after the other.

And that’s when things go without incident.

In the past, when faced with the frustrations of air travel, passengers had, if not the right, then some ability to fight back. If, say, you were seated on a trans-continental flight 10 rows away from your four-year-old, you could raise the issue, and if you were ignored (as you often were), you could kick up a fuss and pretty much embarrass someone into setting things right.

Now that’s all over. You voice a complaint and they threaten to call security. This is enraging for anyone, under any circumstances.

Imagine what it would do to you if you were already depressed, even suicidal.

Imagine some bit of typically maddening airline officiousness happening to you on a day when you were already feeling embarrassed and ashamed. You were all alone – half a continent away from your husband and children, and the friends who were supposed to meet you hadn’t shown up. Imagine, under these circumstances, that you got to your gate one minute late. You learned that your seat had been given away. A man then offered you his seat on the next flight out, but the gate agents wouldn’t let you take it, because to do so, they said, would be a “security breach.”

“I’m not a terrorist,” Carol Gotbaum screamed. She was, she said, just “a pathetic, depressed mother.”

You may say that you’d never lose your cool like Carol Gotbaum. You’re not an alcoholic. You’re not a depressive. You are supremely self-controlled. Good for you. Right now. Today.

But have you never had the experience of being close to losing it? Have you never felt yourself starting to crack when, say, you’ve been fighting with your husband and your credit card’s rejected, or you’re worried about your health and you’re late for a long-scheduled, absolutely critical doctor’s appointment, and they cancel it, and won’t reschedule it? At times like this, if there’s something bigger going on — and at times like this there often is — it’s very easy to snap.

It’s easiest to snap when you feel you’ve been trying to do your absolute best. This, I imagine, underlay some of the rage that Carol Gotbaum felt when she saw herself stranded in Phoenix. Think about it: the sole reason she was in that airport, instead of having flown directly to Tucson as planned, was that she’d decided at the last minute to see her children off to school for one final morning. She’d had to take a later, non-direct, plane as a result. (And to the many readers who will say – as people around the country have already said – that Carol’s husband should have been there on that plane with her, I would just suggest that perhaps he wasn’t there because Carol wanted him, in her absence, to be in New York, close to their kids.)

Carol, of course, can’t tell us any of this for herself. But it doesn’t take a whole lot of soul-searching to imagine what she must have felt.

A friend of mine, newly divorced, has been struggling a great deal lately with the financial and emotional stress of being a single mother. Recently she found herself screaming at a man in a parking lot who, she believed, had drawn his car in too closely to her young son. She’d berated the man until he started screaming back.

“Am I losing it?” she asked me a few days afterward.

“Yes,” I said. “You have to be careful.”

You have to be careful – because it’s never a good idea to yell at strangers, particularly when you don’t know the mental state of the stranger who triggers your explosion. You have to be careful, because, as a woman, you are always at a physical disadvantage. You have to be careful because, as a mother, you cannot afford to put yourself in a position of danger.

When we have our wits about us, we know all this. We may often enough feel like we’re about to “lose it,” but we don’t, because, when push comes to shove, a self-preservation instinct prevails.

But what if it’s precisely that instinct that’s gone missing?
Who, then, will catch us if we fall?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may want to look up the word "officiousness." Its meaning is the opposite of what I think you intended. Someone who is officious is someone who is overly helpful. I don't think that's how you view the airline personnel.

5:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a job where I deal with the public a lot - a diverse clientele ranging from homeless to wealthy. Carol Gotbaum behaved like so many upper-middle class, middle-aged women I deal with - totally entitled and with no concept of her own relative unimportance within the world as a whole. This is my least favorite demographic group because they are needy, demanding, and intolerant of anything less than first-class service. If they don't get what they want, they have a low threshold to throw an irate fit - regardless of how trivial the problem may be. In sum, I think what Carol Gotbaum did was theatrics - and she thought that it would get her what whe wanted, and never considered that it might get her in trouble - because she is an upper-middle class white woman.

3:58 PM  
Blogger greenpagan said...

You mean workingclass and poor people don’t get upset when dealt with unjustly by persons in authority who fail to follow procedure? Gotbaum’s case is more accurately viewed within the context of a health emergency. She was obviously out of control and shouldn’t have been traveling alone.


5:21 PM  

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