It’s the type of news story that haunts, the kind I dread reading, the kind that prompts me to mute when it pops on the screen. And yet … yet, I can’t look away either. Appalled, repulsed, without words to describe my dismay, I tune in to the latest installment of a modern horror story for which we all must accept some blame.
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Surely you’ve read about the 13 Southern California siblings rescued by police after one of them, an emaciated 17-year-old, managed to escape the family’s suburban home to call 911 on a cellphone left lying around the house. When officers from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department arrived at the four-bedroom house, they discovered a gruesome scene. Children shackled to their beds with chains and padlocks. Children so malnourished they appeared to be much younger than their chronological age. A house so filthy that it reeked.
The parents, David and Louise Turpin, pleaded not guilty when charged with 12 counts of torture, 12 counts of false imprisonment, seven counts of abuse of a dependent adult and six counts of child abuse. The father also faces charges of lewd conduct on a child by force or fear. And while I know, and wholeheartedly believe, in the basic premise of our justice system, of innocence until proven guilty, the images from this dreadful place have done nothing to elicit an iota of pity or doubt from me. Try as I might, I can’t imagine any extenuating circumstances that would explain the cruelty these parents visited on their children.
Everyone interviewed by the media — aunts, neighbors, a grandmother — expressed surprise, a surprise underscored by regret and, perhaps, a healthy amount of guilt. And, well, of course. The dreadful signs were hidden in plain sight, but no one connected the dots, no one called the police, no one got involved even as the family’s isolation (and odd behavior) was visible to all.
Former neighbors told the media the family was like a cult. “They would march back and forth on the second story at night. The light would be on the whole time, and they would be marching the kids back and forth.” Another neighbor, from when the family lived in Murrieta, California, revealed the family spoke “robotically, in a monotone and at the same time.” But they didn’t call the police about the children either because they didn’t see anything that looked so incriminating. Their conclusion: The parents were very odd.
This apparently was the conclusion of many, including Louise Turpin’s sisters, who said the children had little or no contact with extended family, which apparently didn’t raise any red flags at the time. One aunt, Teresa Robinette, told the “Today” show, that the kids weren’t allowed to watch TV or have friends over. Another aunt, Elizabeth Jane Flores, said Louise Turpin shut her and the rest of the family out. No one, however, thought such inaccessibility was worrisome, at least not enough to merit the interference of authorities.
I wish this reaction were unusual, but it’s not. Cocooned in our homes, entertained by TV’s endless choices, overwhelmed by the day to day, most of us live our lives in well-secured silos, our connection to neighbors kept to a minimum, our exchanges a perfunctory wave across the yard or a curt hello in the elevator. Still, I’m always baffled (and flabbergasted) to hear people say they know little about the person or family who lives next door. Baffled because a couple of my dearest friends began as neighbors; flabbergasted because it’s hard for me to imagine sharing a hedge or a wall with a person who remains a stranger.
But it’s more than lack of interest that separates. Fear of getting involved, of being singled out as a busybody can stop us from questioning an unusual situation. But the Turpin case is proof that keeping our collective noses out of others’ business has its limits and that silence can and does injure. Sometimes questioning an unusual situation, acting on our doubts, sticking our necks out, and speaking up is the perfect remedy to right an awful situation.