The obituary for Madelyn Ellen Linsenmeir went viral. It was beautifully written and evoked the sadness for the needless loss of a human life. But the Police Chief of Burlington, Vermont, Brandon del Pozo, raises the question that few want to think about, likely because he and his officers fetch the dead bodies of junkies for whom no eloquent obit is written.
Why did it take a grieving relative with a good literary sense to get people to pay attention for a moment and shed a tear when nearly a quarter of a million people have already died in the same way as Maddie as this epidemic grew?
Did readers think this was the first time a beautiful, young, beloved mother from a pastoral state got addicted to Oxy and died from the descent it wrought? And what about the rest of the victims, who weren’t as beautiful and lived in downtrodden cities or the rust belt? They too had mothers who cried for them and blamed themselves.
We have become a nation of sops, crying over sad stories of empathetic tragedies while remaining blissfully ignorant of the ugly side of the street, where people for whom we have no tears die alone.
A genre of journalism has been built around appeals to emotion, and we suck that crap up. For every story that evokes our empathy, there is a story that repulses us, a victim for whom we feel nothing but disgust. This is true for addicts. For prisoners. For sex offenders. For victims of crime. For us. We adore the stories that bring tears to our eyes and refuse to put in an iota of thought about the rest of the tragedy, the parts that don’t confirm our bias or make us feel warmly sad.
This was the ignorance that fed our War on Crime, our War on Drugs, and now our war on anything that makes us sad. If you read the story of the addict, whose “disease would not let her go until she was gone,” do you think about the junkie who murdered some other mother’s child to get enough cash for his fix? Do you shut out anything that makes you feel guilty about being selectively empathetic based on the last sad story you read?
This isn’t about picking teams, but about being as simplistic about intransigent societal problems as your heartstrings will allow.
She died just like my wife’s cousin Meredith died in Bethesda, herself a young mother, but if Maddie was a black guy from the Bronx found dead in his bathroom of an overdose, it wouldn’t matter if the guy’s obituary writer had won the Booker Prize, there wouldn’t be a weepy article in People about it.
But if there had been, early enough on, and we acted swiftly, humanely, and accordingly, maybe Maddie would still be here. Make no mistake, no matter who you are or what you look like: Maddie’s bell tolls for someone close to you, and maybe someone you love. Ask the cops and they will tell you: Maddie’s death was nothing special at all. It happens all the time, to people no less loved and needed and human.
Whenever you read a sad story that breaks your heart, remember that it was chosen for that reason, not because it answers any questions or solves any problems. It’s clickbait. It’s evocative and heartrending. And it makes you less capable of grasping the nature of problems and their solutions. It feeds your desire to feel at the expense of your need to think.
Now that so many of you have cried for poor Maddie, and as the “opioid epidemic” is the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, will we fight the war on drugs with renewed vigor to save the next Maddie?
This is what I’m tired of: Arguing with sheriffs about their deputies carrying Naloxone at national conferences. Arguing with corrections officials at home about getting all inmates who need it on medication-assisted treatment early on in their sentence and keeping them on it even after they leave. Getting mocked by reactionaries because I won’t arrest desperate people for using non-prescribed addiction treatment meds.
You read about Maddie. I knew that dead guy in the Bronx bathroom from 30 years ago. You were all demanding harsher sentences because something must be done. And you’re still fighting the wrong fights, finding the wrong, invariably simplistic, solutions because you only see the sad stories and not the ugly ones.
There are real problems out there affecting real people. A lot of their stories are pretty awful; they’re not sympathetic. They’re not heroes. But they’re still human beings, and they’re on both sides of all equations, even if you never read about them. They are just as worthy of survival as Maddie, even if you never hear their stories or their stories won’t make you love them.