The JonBenet case, examined.

The JonBenet case, examined.

The JonBenet case, examined.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Aug. 21 2006 12:50 PM

Little Miss Sunshine

America's obsession with JonBenet Ramsey.


Here you come again,
Lookin' better than a body has a right to;
And shaking me up so
That all I really know
Is here you come again—and here I go!
—From "Here You Come Again," sung by Dolly Parton, written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil


It probably shouldn't surprise us that JonBenet, like Roderick Usher's sister, won't stay buried. It's the return of the repressed all over again, here before us, strutting its stuff and doing its cultural work because we so badly need it. Where else can we find forbidden material served up to us in ways we can both enjoy and disown? We have to deal with a most uncomfortable heritage: an "innocent" child who is also deeply eroticized. That's an unthinkable idea, but JonBenet is one of those stories that allows us to think it.

It's not just the JonBenet affair that does this return act for us: We had Michael Jackson in two distinct performances, also separated by a decade, and pedophile Catholic priests in a reprise as well. Even McMartin came as a double-header drama. When things are running a little low in the erotic-child-spectacle area, we simply reach into the well and draw up again what has served us so richly in the past.

JonBenet takes to the runway again because a happy confluence of events gives us the chance to put her there. It's really all our doing, even if the police helped out. True, we have a confession of sorts from one John Mark Karr, but the criminal case seems to be melting before our eyes as the days pass. CNN lets us know that the confession will keep us busy for some time: "Far from laying to rest the 10-year mystery of who killed JonBenet Ramsey, the stunning admission … only deepened speculation about whether the soft-spoken schoolteacher committed the crime."

The discourse is alive; the game is afoot. Makes one wonder if we aren't giving Karr's background and confession so much prominence because they feed our deep personal needs and not the needs of justice. Just why is it we need to hear, once again, about JonBenet and the beauty pageants, the murder and the bad parents, about the little body unveiled?

We know about Karr, it turns out, largely because he carried on a four-year correspondence with a University of Colorado journalism professor, Michael Tracey, who finally became "concerned" this past May and took the e-mails to authorities, who moved with some speed to make the arrest. Tracey, the producer of three documentaries on the JonBenet case, is motivated, he says, by the desire to show how overblown the coverage is: "I don't regard JonBenet's murder as an important story." He is publicizing it to demonstrate its insignificance and to illustrate what is wrong with American journalism.

Now, there's a dedicated ironist for you: He spends all this time illustrating what a trivial subject he has! But, of course, Tracey badly misses the point: JonBenet would not get all this attention did we not want to bestow it. It's not the media forcing on us something we'd rather not have: We're lining up at the trough to be fed. The story has too much in it for us, even if the murder part of it is, as Tracey suspects, window dressing.

This story allows us to fulminate against trivial problems while ignoring huge problems close to home, meanwhile wallowing in self-righteous porn babble: We are able to use the half-clothed bodies of children as centerfolds while professing shock that anyone would so display them. The story is always the same: Somebody else finds the bodies of children irresistible and we want the chance to rail against these monsters, meanwhile relishing the details of the very bodies we claim indifference to. It is a classic example of scapegoating.

For kids really do not fare very well in our culture: Millions of children are, in fact, abused in unspeakable ways. Five hundred thousand kids every year are classified as "throwaways" (children whose parents or guardians will not let them live at home, as distinguished from "runaways"). As many as 800,000 are beaten horribly. Even more are subject to emotional abuse and neglect. How much attention do they get? Instead, we focus our attention, almost all of it, on stranger-danger: things like abductions, of which there are between 100 and 200 annually. Our carefully controlled outrage is generated for our own purposes, certainly not to protect the children.