“Girl Scouts Gone Murderous” or “Parents Gone AWOL”? 2/28/07
As darkness falls on a quiet weekday evening in Smalltown, U.S.A., a lone murderess creeps up the steps to an unsuspecting family’s front door, executing a carefully and coldheartedly premeditated plan for homicide. Her objective: to cause the slow, painful deaths of the innocent victims on the other side of the door by administering an insidious poison. The murderess: a 12-year-old Girl Scout. The poison: Girl Scout cookies. And, she’s not the only killer on the loose – she’s but one member of a brutal nationwide syndicate. They’re baaaaack, those innocent-looking schoolgirls on their annual murderous rampage across America. Be afraid – be very afraid.
Now, let’s get serious. The group National Action Against Obesity wants us all to boycott Girl Scout cookies this year, apparently to prevent the Girl Scouts from forcing the cookies down hapless Americans’ throats and causing a terminal obesity epidemic. That’s nutty (the boycott idea, not the cookies). But, charging a parent with abuse for allowing a child to become morbidly obese – that’s not nutty. News organizations worldwide have reported recently on an eight-year-old in the U.K. who weighs in at approximately 218 lbs. When I first heard that story, my anger at the boy’s aloof mother was exceeded only by my concern for his physical and emotional health as he goes through life. In addition to all of the negative long-term physical consequences (Diabetes, heart disease, etc.), there are profound short- and long-term psychological and emotional consequences of childhood obesity. If adults want to blow themselves up with food, I’m not really worried about it – don’t want to pay for it, but not worried about it – but kids are not competent to make that decision for themselves and should not be allowed to do so. Just as we don’t allow parents to harm children by under-feeding them, we shouldn’t allow parents to harm children by over-feeding them. Don’t get me wrong here – I don’t want the government second-guessing the nutritional decisions made by every parent or some kind of government-sanctioned “weigh-ins” of every kid in the U.S.A., but I would like to see mandated reporting (by teachers, school nurses, healthcare providers, etc.) to child protective services, with appropriate follow-up and intervention, when a child is morbidly obese.
The mother of the 218-lb. eight-year-old in the U.K., who apparently does the grocery shopping and food preparation for their household, blames her son’s obesity on his genetics rather than her own poor parenting. I never buy the genetic or “medical condition” excuses for childhood or adult obesity. Most of us took high school chemistry, where we learned that matter never gets created or destroyed – it just changes from one form to another. That means there’s no way for 100 lbs. of fat to end up as part of a person’s body unless 100 lbs. of excess food enter that body first. So, even if a person has a faulty gene or a “medical condition” which prevents that person from knowing when he or she has had enough to eat, weight gain still can be controlled through the regulation of food intake and physical activity (and if a physician wants to add medication to that mix, I’m fine with it). Nobody has to be fat, especially not kids.
Cameras in the bedroom? 2/27/07
Media people are often at the center of debates over cameras in courtrooms, but it seems like more and more celebrities are having problems with cameras in bedrooms — Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and most recently an American Idol contestant. I was asked about this yesterday, and the question was, “How can everyone protect themselves from future betrayals by people they now trust?”
First off, keep the cameras out of the bedroom! For various reasons, including jealousy (you put your head above the crowd, figuratively, and someone takes a swing at it) and opportunism (opportunity for revenge, profit, etc.), betrayal has been around since there have been humans. The differences now are: 1) the scale on which it can be done by virtually anyone — damaging information can literally be telegraphed to the world from the palm of someone’s hand (Kim Jong-il in North Korea probably has the Idol photos by now), and 2) more people are acting (stupidly) in ways that put them at risk for serious betrayal (50 years ago, Wally might have betrayed Doris by kissing Sally behind the malt shop, and today, Wally betrays Doris by posting pictures of her naked on the Internet, but today’s more damaging betrayal couldn’t happen if Doris never posed naked for the photos — I don’t think stuff like that was happening as often 50 years ago). So more than ever before, things that may seem fun and harmless now can come back to bite you (well, you know where) later on, and that requires you to be a long-term thinker. It’s kind of like that little monarch butterfly tatoo that the 19-year-old girl thought was so cute and that now looks like a pair of Halloween oven mits on the 39-year-old mother at the swimming pool with the three kids. With all of the cell phone cameras around us these days, you almost have to behave in public as if you’re on camera all the time, so don’t invite that into your bedroom unless you’re prepared to invite the whole world in along with it — those pictures can end up all over the Internet in seconds. And, as Nancy Grace once said to me when we were discussing former Congressman Foley on the air, “if you’ve seen C.S.I. one time, you know delete does not mean delete,” so don’t let someone record you unless you’re fine with them having those images practically forever.
Now, on the broader question of how to avoid betrayal, if you’re going to have relationships with people, there’s no way to guarantee that it won’t happen, but there are some steps you can take that can help reduce the risk in my opinion. Here are just a few:
1) Take more time to get to know people before you trust them with information that could be used to hurt you. There’s no way for me to give specific time frames that will guarantee that you have all of the important information about people in all situations, and even when you do, people may change (though not usually in fundamental ways — like from a basically-honest person to a basically-dishonest person — in my experience). I can tell you that many people screen potential employees and business partners more thoroughly than they screen potential spouses, and that’s nuts in my opinion. I’m not saying you need to do a background investigation (I’m not telling you not to do one either) — I’m saying you need to give yourself time to know the person fundamentally, and…
2) Look for signs of their character (or lack thereof), and pay attention to their behavior, not just their words. Look at how they treat others — if it’s badly, and they’re not treating you that way now, wait. Look at their social behavior — who they hang out with — because what they accept in others can indicate what they’d expect you to accept in them. For example ladies, if your boyfriend hangs out with married or seriously-committed guys who are still constantly on the prowl, that’s cause for you to be concerned in my opinion. You can laugh if you want, but even seemingly minor things can give you clues about a person’s character — for example, if they leave carts in the middle of store parking lots instead of putting them back where they belong, that suggests to me that they have a sense of entitlement and don’t care much about others, and…
3) Keep your eyes and ears open! Denial can turn what could have been a relatively minor disappointment into a major ordeal down the road. It’s not often that I’ve seen the very first betrayal in a relationship be the mother of all betrayals. More often, I’ve seen multiple lower-level betrayals be “forgiven” or ignored, only to be followed by a big one. In other words, when you see red flags or hear sirens, pay attention — it’s probably a good time to pull over and really evaluate whether you want to stay on that road.
One last thing: Don’t rely on the legal system to protect you from betrayals of the Internet picture/video-posting variety. First of all, anything you got would come after the fact, i.e. after the damage had been done. Second, it’s a very dicey area of the law when it comes to recovering anything at all. In the case of the Idol contestant, she would have had a hard enough time pursuing a case as a private citizen, and now that she’s a “public figure,” the bar is set much higher. She could file a lawsuit based on invasion of privacy, specifically “public disclosure of private facts,” and possibly the appropriation of her likeness for profit if any of the sites hosting the photos are selling ads (and if it’s not really her in some of the photos, as one of her friends has told the Associated Press, she may have a libel case too). Some celebrities like Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton have had some success pursuing such cases, but theirs were different because there were single, identifiable publishers making money off of the information/images. Just last week, a case was filed against someone who allegedly stole a topless photo of Jennifer Anniston from a movie studio, but in that case, there’s identifiable, stolen, copyright-protected property at issue. Britney Spears recently had a similar case thrown out of court because she couldn’t prove damages (which the Idol contestant also would need to do to recover any money). In the case of the Idol contestant, the pictures are on all kinds of sites by now, so she may be able to get an injunction (a court order to take the pictures down), but how’s she going to enforce that against some webmaster in China? Even if she got a judgment for money damages, the person who posted the photos originally probably doesn’t have any money. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get a lawyer if it happens to you — you should — but if you can avoid getting yourself into the situation in the first place, that’s what I recommend.
These racy-photo-publishing cases have been going on at least since Vanessa Williams had to give up her Miss America crown back in the 80’s, but many people seem to have thought that it could only happen to celebrities. So, if anything positive can come out of this current Idol case, I hope it’s that young people, particularly young female people (they seem to be more into the picture-posing thing than guys are, and they seem to be damaged more often and more severely by betrayals of this type), will identify with this young woman (who was just like them until a few weeks ago) and learn from her experience. Should we feel sorry for her? Probably not very — her following and Idol’s probably will grow because of the scandal.
“All My Fathers” 2/26/07
Custody disputes are front and center in the news this week. First up, the Anna Nicole Smith saga has (almost) all of the ingredients to become its own soap opera — sex drama, hospital drama, legal drama, addiction drama, paternity drama, a fortune hanging in the balance — all that’s missing (so far) is someone coming back from the dead. How about “All My Fathers” for a working title? Let me attempt to break the Anna Nicole issues down for you (we may be here a while):
1) Anna Nicole’s inheritance from the late J. Howard Marshall (the elderly billionaire whom she married in her twenties) — Yes, Anna Nicole earned some of her own cash from her magazine and movie appearances, her reality TV show, and from hawking products from jeans to diet pills, but the bulk of her fortune, if she has one, will likely come from her inheritance from Mr. Marshall, which has been the subject of ongoing litigation for the past 11 years, and that case isn’t over! The U.S. Supreme Court kept the case alive in 2006, but it still has to be decided by a lower court, which means Anna Nicole’s estate could end up with anything from $0 to over $400 million. I predict that that case will settle, particularly now that both Anna Nicole and her chief opponent in the case, Marshal’s son, have died. Even if Anna Nicole’s estate gets nothing from Marshal’s estate, the rights to license Anna Nicole’s image should have substantial value over time, which brings me to…
2) Anna Nicole’s will — It’s unclear whether Anna Nicole’s will is valid and sufficient to control the disbursement of her estate. Published reports indicate that her now-deceased son is her only named heir and that Howard K. Stern (not the radio personality as much as it might fit), her attorney/boyfriend/possible husband/possible father of her baby daughter, is named as her executor. If Stern was also Anna Nicole’s legal husband at the time of her death, and if they didn’t have a prenuptial agreement to the contrary, he may be able to claim a “spousal elective share” of her estate, which could be as much as half, even if he’s not named in the will. I don’t think they were married though, and I’ll explain why in a minute. The baby daughter may also have inheritance rights even if she’s not named in the will. I predict that the will is not going to control the disbursement of Anna Nicole’s estate because, even if it were valid, her son generally wouldn’t be eligible to inherit under the will as he was no longer living at the time of her death (otherwise, we’d have to figure out who the son’s heir(s) was/were, and the whole thing would become an even bigger mess, if that’s possible). If the will’s bequest to Anna Nicole’s late son is invalid, and Stern wasn’t her husband, the only clear heir then is the baby daughter. Just being executor of the estate could pay big fees to Stern, but it wouldn’t afford him the lifestyle he could have if he’s also guardian of a little girl with a piece of the Marshal estate in trust, which brings me to…
3) Paternity of the baby girl — Two men, Stern and an ex-boyfriend of Anna Nicole (yeah, I know, there’s also Zsa Zsa Gabor’s elderly husband, but his claim just seems nutty to me, not that Anna Nicole didn’t have a history with old guys), are officially claiming to be the father of the little girl. Who knows how much they truly care about the kid, but whoever ends up raising her will likely have power to spend many millions of dollars “caring” for her. One would think that a court acting in the best interests of the child would order DNA testing to resolve this issue a.s.a.p., but this case is being decided in the Bahamas. In the Bahamas, if a man’s name is listed as the father on a child’s birth certificate, the law presumes that man to be the father. Anna Nicole’s ex-boyfriend is arguing that the birth certificate was signed fraudulently, and that therefore, it should not be the determining factor of paternity. The Bahamian court will have to decide whether there’s enough evidence of fraud to overcome the presumption of Stern’s fatherhood of the little girl, and if so, what to do about it. A DNA test may show that the ex-boyfriend is the biological father, but Anna Nicole apparently wanted Stern to raise the child, so there may still be a custody battle, perhaps even involving Anna Nicole’s estranged mother, who also wants to be the child’s guardian (but that’s an unlikely outcome because there’s a general presumption that a living biological parent should have custody when possible — the father would have to be found unfit for the grandmother to have a serious shot at custody), which brings me to…
4) Anna Nicole’s body — A Florida judge (the one who cried on the bench, digressed colorfully and often from the matters at hand, and will now get his own TV show) last week appointed a lawyer legal guardian (“guardian ad litem”) for the little girl and allowed the guardian to decide, in the best interests of the child, where her mother, Anna Nicole, should be buried. This is why I don’t think Anna Nicole and Stern were legally married, at least not in the U.S. If they were, I think it would have been a slam-dunk that Stern would have gotten custody of the remains. Anna Nicole’s estranged mother also claimed the body as next-of-kin, but her claim was denied, and she’s now appealing, which is why Anna Nicole’s body is still in a Florida morgue at this hour, which brings me to…
5) The house — An American millionaire and friend of Anna Nicole is claiming ownership of the house in the Bahamas where Stern and Anna Nicole had been living before her death. Even before Anna Nicole died, the friend filed suit to evict her and Stern, claiming that they were deadbeat guests who had overstayed their welcome. Stern continues to live in the house, but he’s apparently put it up for sale. Whether Anna Nicole was an owner of the house is important because that was the basis for her status as a resident of the Bahamas, which gives the Bahamian court jurisdiction over some of these other matters. The suit over the house is now scheduled to be decided by the same Bahamian court in which the paternity case is pending, which brings me to…
6) Foul play? — Anna Nicole’s son, who apparently was her only named heir, died of a drug overdose in 2006, followed shortly thereafter by his mother’s death in what appears to be the same manner, leaving Stern as her executor, possibly widower, and presumptive father of her only surviving child, and causing some to question Stern’s involvement in providing and/or administering drugs to Anna Nicole’s son and to Anna Nicole. So far, the results of the Florida coroner’s inquest have not been made public, but no criminal charges have been filed.
Ok, so it’s all clear now, right? And I haven’t even gotten to Britney Spears’ custody battle yet! She’s next up, but I think I’ll “cut this short” on her case:
Can you imagine being the judge who has to decide between Kevin Federline and Britney Spears as the primary custodial parent of two children? Custody cases are decided based on the “best interests of the child(ren),” and often when the cases are especially contentious, experts like me are appointed by courts to perform child custody evaluations, wherein we try to determine the needs of the child(ren) and who’s in the best position to meet those needs. In this case, there’s enough money to meet all of the children’s material needs, but their physical safety and their psychological, emotional and developmental needs still will be at issue, more than ever after Britney’s recent public breakdown(s). Looks like we’re seeing the good old “off-to-rehab” damage-control strategy from Ms. Spears at the moment (and by the way, people sometimes cut off the hair on their heads — and elsewhere — to foil drug tests on the hair which can reveal drug use as far back in time as that hair has been growing). We’ll see what unfolds from here, but I don’t envy this judge, the custody evaluator (assuming there is one), and least of all, these kids. I hate cases like this — the kids always lose.
That does it for this edition of the blog, but look for me back here and on the air as these and other cases develop.
What Anna Nicole Smith and a rocket scientist have in common 2/18/07
Hey, sorry I’ve been absent from here on the breaking stories over the past couple of weeks. I’ve been busy with cases and travel (including a semi-tense emergency landing while traveling on a small plane to do interviews in a case this weekend), but I’m back now, so I’ll use this post to get caught up and tell you what Anna Nicole Smith and a rocket scientist have in common.
First, there’s the rocket scientist — the female astronaut and married mother of three who allegedly drove from Texas to Florida, wearing diapers to eliminate the need for restroom stops, to confront a fellow female astronaut about her involvement with a third, mutually-sought-after, single male astronaut. After allegedly disguising herself, stalking her romantic competitor, and assaulting her with pepper spray in a Florida airport parking lot, she was caught as she attempted to escape with a knife, rubber tubing, and large-size plastic garbage bags in her car. Now she’s out on bond, charged with attempted murder among other charges, and removed from active flight status at NASA. Many people are intrigued by this case because they think that a woman so well-educated and accomplished must have had some kind of psychotic break to have done what she did. That may or may not be true. As I’ve said many times here and on various shows, lots of prior planning indicates a mind functioning well enough to ascertain the wrongful/illegal nature of one’s actions. Some have asked whether spending time in space could alter someone’s brain in such a way as to make that person psychotic upon returning to Earth. I’ve never heard of anything like that, and we’ve had enough astronauts in space that I think it would have been observed by now if it were an issue. She’ll obviously undergo a forensic psychological examination to determine her competency to stand trial, and assuming she’s competent, what was going on in her mind at the time of her alleged offenses. Having done that kind of evaluation, I predict they’ll find some emotional problems but that she’ll be competent to stand trial (i.e. mentally able to assist in her own defense) and that her mental issues will not be found to have prevented her from knowing what she was doing or that it was wrong/illegal. Here are a couple of observations in support of those predictions: First, many people are shocked by her apparent use of diapers to cut down on her drive time. I agree that for most people, this would be very strange behavior, but astronauts actually are used to doing that on their missions, so it’s not quite as strange in her case. Second, many people are thinking that a person would have to be out of it to risk a marriage, a family, and a prestigious career as this woman did. As I explained on the air in the Foley case, highly-accomplished people are used to reaching for more, and they often develop an expectation that they can get it. Sometimes it’s only when an attempt to grab “more” of whatever (in this case romance, sex, adventure, etc.) goes bad that the person really realizes how much has been risked/lost. At that point, some may act self-destructively and lash out at themselves (i.e. attempt/commit suicide), while others may act more self-protectively and lash out at whomever they can blame for whatever went down (especially if there’s an easily-identifiable target as there apparently was in this woman’s case). Yeah, it’s a bizarre case, but maybe not as bizarre as it may seem when you first hear the story. Some have asked whether stepped-up pre-employment psychological screening would prevent someone like this woman from being accepted into the astronaut corps in the future. As someone who’s done that kind of screening, I doubt it. This was a sophisticated woman who was an astronaut for 10 years before she supposedly “snapped,” so I’d guess that no psychological test administered to her when she first came to NASA would have predicted that she’d fall apart 10 years down the road. If she did suffer an emotional breakdown recently, I’d guess that it was influenced strongly by circumstances (personal/family problems, etc.) developing well after her initial employment with NASA. So, I think it’s more likely that instituting or increasing the frequency of regular follow-up psych testing throughout people’s employment with NASA would help identify periods of time in which increased stressors elevate people’s risk of behaving erratically.
Then, there’s Anna Nicole Smith. I never met the woman, but I think it’s fair to say, based on what’s publicly known about her, that she was a troubled individual. As you know if you’ve seen me on TV, heard me on the radio, and/or read my posts, I don’t buy being troubled as an excuse for behaving irresponsibly, illegally, etc., so while I’d put the blame on Ms. Smith for creating many of her own troubles, I do think that she also was exploited by greedy others who had, shall we say, greater intellectual resources. It’s a sad case all around. We have a woman dead in what should be the prime of her life (and who may have had some assistance in getting that way), a motherless child, and money-hungry vultures circling everywhere. The saddest thing about it though, in my opinion, is that millions of teenage girls across the U.S.A., even after hearing the story, still aspire to live a life like Anna Nicole Smith (and Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, et. al) lived. Another interesting aspect of this story is who’s driving the 24/7 coverage — the media or the public? I understand Anna Nicole fatigue (just like Ramsey fatigue, Schiavo fatigue, Holloway fatigue…believe me, even some of us who are involved in the coverage have it), and I admit that sensationalism pervades even the most serious news programs at times, but I have to note that many viewers/listeners/readers who claim to hate the story also seem to know its every detail. You may not admit it personally, but we all know plenty of people who would switch channels if their favorite news program stopped covering the story. Here’s something I’ve learned from being involved with news programs: When viewers ask themselves, “Where do I want to get my news?” of course you want them to choose your show, but before they get to that question, they have to ask themselves, “What do I want to do with the next hour?” They could take a nap, excercise, eat, listen to music, watch a game, watch a sitcom, watch news…and they’re going to do whatever they think will satisfy them the most when the 60 minutes are up. So, it’s an entertainment decision first, and a news-source decision second, which is why, to a certain extent, news organizations have to cover stories that the viewers are interested in, even when there are more serious stories out there. That’s what I think is going on with the Anna Nicole Smith coverage.
Ok, that’s two new major stories in the past couple of weeks, both involving women who have achieved big things in their lives and then taken disastrous turns. So the first thing that Anna Nicole Smith and the rocket scientist have in common is a huge crowd of captivated onlookers, but what is it about their stories that makes them so popular? People of course have various reasons for watching, but I think one of them is something that psychologists call schadenfreude — a phenomenon in which people take a little bit of guilty pleasure in the misfortunes of others, especially others who have made themselves standouts. It’s not that people are sadistic (that’s taking pleasure in inflicting pain on others) — it’s that, on some level, seeing someone rise above the crowd only to fall back down can help people who’ve never really tried to rise above the crowd feel better about having not done so (having not chased an acting/singing dream, not run for office, not started a business, not trained for the Olympics or the astronaut corps, etc.). It helps people affirm that a “regular” life is just fine, which of course it is.
Ok, that’s all for this catch-up edition of the blog. I’ll let you know what I think about these and other major stories as they develop. Stay tuned.