Hey America, do accidents happen anymore? Especially when a kid is involved?
By now you’ve either heard of the horrible incident at the Cincinnati Zoo that ended with the killing of a 17-year-old western lowland silverback gorilla named Harambe in order to protect the 3-year-old child who tumbled into his habitat OR you had a great Memorial Day weekend away from the Internet. Either/or.
This is the perfect (shit) storm for the Internet, especially the American variety, because it involves: a) kids, b) animals, and c) parenting. All of the things that the Internet likes to flip its collective wig over. All of the things that allow the Monday morning quarterbacking to gush forth in a rage orgy. Someone needs to pay! She’s a woman? Let’s call her horrible names! This is our chance, Internet!
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but in the aftermath of all kinds of tragedies in this country, one of the most common questions that’s asked—after “Oh my God is everyone alright?” or “How many people were killed?”—is “Where was the mother?” (always the mother) or “What kind of horrible monster raised this kid-teenager-grown ass adult?”
It was asked after Columbine. It’s asked after other mass shootings because as we all know, mothers alone create mass murderers. And it’s asked any time a child is injured or killed, because we as mothers should at all times be following our children with one of those life net things that firefighters use. But we must also do this invisibly because otherwise: HELICOPTER. Because when bad things happen, someone is always, always, always to blame. And that person is usually a mother. Everyone in this country and on the Internet knows that.
Have you ever seen a silverback gorilla? I have. I took my kids to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. over February vacation. Lots of families! So many kids and parents! So what I’m saying is the zoo was a shit show, like all zoos are! It was the first time we all got a glimpse at a male silverback gorilla. I kept saying things like, “Ack!” and “Holy smokes!” But my internal-in-my-head reaction was, “Jesus Christ, if this guy got out I’d evacuate the entirety of my bowels into my pants and purse and fucking pray to die first.”
So it’s cool that everyone wants to second guess the zoo’s decision from the comfort of their laptops while they leisurely sip a Frappuccino in front of a fan. But I think the expectation that everyone at the zoo would just chill while a 3-year-old boy is inside a gorilla habitat just to see how it all “plays out” is absurd.
But unlike the Internet, I’m not here to pretend I’m some sort of expert on gorilla behavior after one zoo visit. What I am here to do is wonder aloud, to you the people of Medium and America and the Internet, do you believe that accidents happen anymore? Or is everything that goes wrong always someone’s fault? Is there always someone to sue? Is there always someone to point a finger at? Because that must mean that everyone is imperfect and negligent and possibly a criminal. Everyone, that is of course, except for you.
I get it—if someone’s always to blame then there will always be a reason horrible things happen. But that’s just not how things work. Sometimes everything goes wrong, all at the same time.
Six years ago a five-year-old girl in the same town where we now live was killed while riding her bicycle. It happened on one of the first beautiful May days that felt like summer might just come back to Vermont. She was out riding her bike with her parents walking behind, a car approached and was about to turn when he noticed she was having a problem with her bike. He waited. The parents thanked him and waved him on, no one realizing that she had suddenly sped up on her bike, and the driver—not seeing her—turned, pinning her underneath. Neighbors came running out with car jacks, anything, everything they could do to help free her, but it was too late. Nothing helped. They couldn’t save her.
The conclusion of the local news article about her death has stayed with me six years later, “It does not look like any criminal charges will be filed. Police say there is no evidence of excessive speed or negligence; this appears to be just a tragic accident.”
Just a tragic accident. I think about those words all the time. Everything went wrong despite everyone trying to do what was right—the parents, the driver, the girl, the neighbors, everyone.
Accidents do happen. But we don’t want to accept that. To accept that is to accept that we don’t have control over our lives and the lives of the people and animals we love. Who wants to accept that?
In our dig-our-heels-in-no-way-in-hell-will-we-let-this-shit-stand way, the comments have been flying fast and furious. And, man alive, have some of them sent me around the bend. Like? Like:
“Four kids is too many kids to supervise.” Are people familiar with how big families work? Are we saying don’t have so many kids that you aren’t always on man-to-man defense? Also: ZOOS ARE WHAT PEOPLE WITH KIDS DO SO THEY DON’T LOSE THEIR FRIGGIN MINDS and anyone who has four kids SHOULD JUST LIVE THERE.
“That gorilla protected that kid better than the mother did.” So you’ve seen her drag her kid by the back of his shirt through a foot of shit-filled water, have you? Interesting.
“You need to watch kids every second.” Bless. Has anyone who’s ever had kids successfully managed to watch them every second of every day of every month of every year? I’d like to congratulate you but you’re probably dead now.
I don’t mean to make light of this situation—at all. Empathy is gushing out of me like a faulty sprinkler for the employees of the zoo, the people who had to make the difficult decision to kill the gorilla, the parents of the child who fell in, the child who could’ve easily died as the result of his strong-willed adventure. And, of course, with the gorilla who did not at all deserve to meet such a horrible, confusing, and violent fate. There are no winners here, just in case you were looking for one.
But as a parent in this country for the past twelve years, I’m sick and tired of the Internet’s opinions on what it is we all do. I don’t know the parents in this case, but I’m thinking that anyone who’s taking four kids to the zoo on a holiday weekend must have some good in their heart, no?
If you want to know why mothers — especially mothers in this country — are so batshit crazy, maybe it has something to do with the fact that we are blamed for every. god damn. thing. BY STRANGERS. Work full time? Why are you letting someone else raise your kid? Stay at home mom? Why aren’t you teaching them to be independent go-getters? Breastfeeding, formula feeding, fucking wilderness schools, grit, financial savvy, watching them all of the time, watching them none of the time, free range, Tiger Mom-ing ALL OF THE THINGS OH MY GOD INTERNET MAKE UP YOUR FUCKING MINDS.
I don’t know the mother involved here, I don’t know the father either (remember him?). But I do know that about 99.999999% of the people calling for this mother’s blood weren’t actual witnesses to what happened. Which also applies to things you hear about on the Internet always and forever.
I don’t know what went wrong that day. Neither do you. No, you really don’t. But is it so wrong to at least slightly entertain the possibility that sometimes accidents happen? That sometimes all of the wrong things happen, all at the same time? And sometimes no one can stop any of it? I know that makes people feel powerless, I know it certainly makes me feel that way. Even with the best of intentions, the best parenting, only organic food, and nothing but 24/7 kisses, hugs, and butterflies, horrible shit can go down.
But we can always choose how to react—whether to show an ounce of empathy and keep our minds open or we can just go right ahead and grab those pitchforks and torches. You choose.
UPDATE: Due to the completely insane level of attention this piece has received (thank you for making it #1 on Medium, people!), I haven’t been able to respond to everyone as quickly or thoroughly as I would like. Yet! I’m trying! In the meantime, to address some of the most common questions and reactions, I wrote this:
OH MY GOD INTERNET you’re killing me
A follow up to my Harambe-parenting-shaming-ARGH piece “Hey America, do accidents happen anymore? Especially when a kid…
Additional reading: This great piece about this whole situation by Cindi Andrews on cincinnati.com. And for a brilliant takedown of the empathy deficit these days, check out The End of Empathy by Stephanie Wittels Wachs.