Angry commenters rushed to persecute a woman whose son fell to his death at the Pittsburgh Zoo. If it’s true that horrific accidents could happen to any parent, why can’t we accept that?
Imagine it’s a crisp day in early November. The sun is shining, and you know there will be precious few Sundays left with nice weather before the cold sets in. There’s no question it’s a day to be outside.
You have a sweet little family— just you, your spouse, and your 2 year-old son. Maybe you call your parents or your siblings to see if they want to spend the day with you. In any case, you decide to go with your son and family to your city’s zoo.
You set off – it’s about a forty-minute drive from your house in a suburb just south of the city. When you arrive, your son excitedly pulls the grown-ups from exhibit to exhibit. Perhaps you’re the type of parent that holds your child’s hand constantly, never risking a moment with him out of your sight. Or else you’re one to let him wander 10 or 15 feet ahead – he’s getting bigger now and understanding more, and knows that when you yell ‘Red light!’ he’s GOT to stop. And he does, now, without fail – always turning and giving you a grin, too. Really, no matter your style, you’re no different than any of the other hundreds of families spending an otherwise average Sunday at the zoo.
On this day, though, these will be the details that will come to matter the least. To others, anyway. But to you, these moments will soon forever be known as “before.” Every day, for the rest of your life, you will wish you could rewind, relive these details, and change what is about to happen.
Your family walks up to the next exhibit. It’s a gazebo overlooking a yard with African Painted Dogs – an endangered canine species that look remarkably like German Shepherds, except uglier and more feral. Nevertheless, your son is thrilled to see them; maybe he remembers them from last time you were here. He runs up to the railing and peeks through the bars, but you quickly realize there’s not much to see at his height – the plexiglass below the railing is dirty, and the top of it is a good foot over his head. He looks up at you, lifting his arms to be held. You bend down and scoop him up, as you have thousands of times before. Holding him now, you straighten back up to standing next to the railing. And as you do, all you register is a pulling sensation, then a feeling of sheer panic. In seconds, your son has left your arms and tumbled over the rail. Before you have a chance to react, the dogs are upon him, and your baby boy is being torn apart.
On November 4th, 2012, news started to spread of what had just happened at the zoo within the hour. Not much was known at first, except a little boy had somehow fallen out of his mother’s arms and over the railing of the Painted Dog exhibit. He was attacked within seconds, and dead within minutes. People throughout Pittsburgh texted, Facebooked, and otherwise shared the news – shocked at what they’d heard, every trip to the zoo they’ve ever taken flashing through their minds. Those with children could hardly handle thinking of what happened. And many parents of toddler boys, on instinct, no doubt hugged them closely: because regardless of his charm, what little boy has never, albeit lovingly, been referred to as a wild little animal himself? Soon, we would have a name and an image to attach to the story: Maddox Derkosh, an adorable 2-year old with thick glasses and a sweet smile, had been killed at the zoo.
Faster than the facts – few though they were – could go around, though, came the rumors and vitriol, fueled primarily by thoughtless online chatter. The story went national by the next morning, international after another day. The Pittsburgh Zoo’s Facebook page had to be taken down intermittently to handle the deluge of cruel comments. Because ironically, much like the dogs followed their nature when they encountered something unfamiliar in their pen, people exhibited their own pack mentality as they descended upon Elizabeth Derkosh, Maddox’s mother. Endlessly, it seemed, they sought to reaffirm to one another that this could only have been due to her idiocy and neglect, with comments denigrating her invariably getting more support than the few attempting to call off these wild animals. Common themes emerged in their attacks.
Many mourned the loss of common sense in our society, apparently throwing proper spelling and grammar to the wind in their grief:
“People need to take responsiblility for their own actions. Common sense and responsiblility is very hard to come accross these days” lamented one. (Perhaps not surprisingly, this appeared on the Facebook page of a particularly salacious local news station, known for its reporting on any story even vaguely scandalous in the tri-state area.)
Their cognitive dissonance allowing them to believe this mother was clearly partying on a yacht somewhere now that her child was dead, some spoke of Elizabeth Derkosh as though they had read news stories to which the rest of us somehow lacked access. Despite no public statements whatsoever from Mrs. Derkosh, one man, in response to a defense of the mother, somehow still knew “she wants to blame everyone but herself.” Another common sentiment – again, one with no evidence supporting it – was that the mother failed to go into the pit after her child. Because what parent wouldn’t go into a pit where her child was being eaten alive? One clever poster found a way to not only engage in speculation, but some blatant sexism, speculating that, since Mrs. Derkosh hadn’t gone in after Maddox, “her husband [must not have been] with her, or surely he would have.”
There were certainly demonstrations of compassion, but mostly those were, as the kids say, “IRL.” Money was collected to help the parents, and after a request by the family for toy trucks to be donated to charity in Maddox’s name, donations poured in. Online, though, few voices called for decency and common sense. Some pointed out that maybe, the mother had actually been held back from going in by bystanders. Some pointed to the fallibility of all parents:
How many people do things that can hurt a child everyday. How about that speed limit you didnt obey. How about letting your child ride on stroller without a seat beat [sic]. How about the time you let your child pet a dog you didn’t know.
While expressing sympathy for the mother’s plight, even these commenters were unable to refrain from pointing out it still was her fault.
But the majority continued their shameless virtual public stoning of this mother. Lacking understanding of the lightning-quick, chaotic nature of many crises, they seized upon a police officer’s remarks in the immediate aftermath that the child had been placed on the railing by the mother prior to falling. “Almost immediately after that he lost his balance, fell down off the railing into the actual pit and was immediately attacked by 11 dogs,” this officer was quoted as saying.
Though willing to speculate, even with a notable lack of information, on everything else about the situation – including the mother’s motivation, character, and intelligence – the public latched on to this statement for dear life. No variation of this version of events would be tolerated (even, we’ll see, when the District Attorney’s findings would ultimately not appear to support this). The Twitterverse, always up for a good lynching, weighed in expressing disgust. Like the child’s game of Telephone, the officer’s statement was elaborated upon and distorted, with witnesses’ statements tossed around like confetti (“I have seen comments elsewhere that she had been placing the child on various walls and barriers throughout the day and zoo staff had already asked her to stop,” one particularly persistent poster insisted).
Never one to disappoint the public’s need to rubberneck, the media actively enabled and participated in this speculation. One overseas news outlet painted a vivid picture for the reader with an article containing the subtitle that Maddox was “. . . mauled to death by African wild dogs after [his] mother dangles him over railings.”
Indeed, ABC News, for its “Good Morning America” report on the story, went so far as to create a “virtual reenactment” of the tragedy, depicting a child balanced precariously on a railing as his digital mother passively stands by, arms hanging by her sides. When additional details eventually came to light following the district attorney’s investigation, this depiction would prove to be so inaccurate that it could be said to represent an entirely different reality. . . perhaps a reality in which a mother who, by all accounts, was caring, attentive, and loving, would ever do such a thing. By comparison, it seems a small matter that the design of the railing in this video was glaringly different from that in the actual exhibit — pictures of which were readily available online even prior to the accident, had the videos’ producers cared to at least be accurate on this front.
Of course – and perhaps most critically – this account of the fall provided a convenient way for the public to rationalize why this was, in fact, something that could never happen to them. One man bragged:
I have been to this exhibit several times with my kids and they never fell in. hell we went behind the scenes and I had my 3 kids ( 7,5 and 2) 2 feet away from a fully grown lion and yet my kids are all perfectly fine. Y? Because I am a responsible parent that has a higher than 2nd grade education.
And predictably, many posters called for the mother’s prosecution, with some going so far as to label her “a murderer” and a few comparing her to Susan Smith or Casey Anthony. When a former zoo employee came forward to tell the media that he had seen many parents hold their children on this very same railing, only to have his concerns ignored by management, he came under attack as well. Some dismissed him for looking for his “15 minutes” or having a connection to the Derkosh family, while others criticized the news reporter for calling on this man as an “expert” (when the reporter, of course, never claimed any such thing). Finally, when Maddox’s maternal grandfather spoke out about the tragedy just a few days after Thanksgiving in a tearful interview with the local news about his family’s attempts to cope and their efforts to collect trucks in Maddox’s name, multiple commenters expressed disgust at the grandfather and noted how sick they were of the family “pushing this trucks stuff.”
Nearly four weeks after the accident, Allegheny County’s District Attorney, Stephen Zappala, announced to the public the findings of his office’s investigation of Mrs. Derkosh. He explained that she would not face charges. They had concluded that it was, in fact, a freak accident – the child lunged out of his mom’s grasp as she picked him up to her height, standing at the railing, for him to see better. In Zappala’s quotes released by the media, there was no indication that the child had been stood or otherwise placed on the railing. He noted that after it happened, the mother had tried to go in after her child, only to have onlookers hold her back. The child’s poor eyesight may have contributed both to his need for his mom to help him get a better view, and, some witnesses speculated, his brain’s perhaps fooling him into thinking there was plexiglass that would keep him safe just beyond the railing.
Such an expert determination did little to please those who had already convicted the mother in the court of public opinion. Many became armchair physicists, insisting that based on photos of the railing, or having seen it in person, that there was just no way this could have happened unless the mother was exceptionally careless. And “no one could have held me back,” another woman wrote in reply. Others continued to refer to her standing Maddox on the railing, as though it simply remained a given despite no apparent support.
This is not as Zappala described it:
The mom picks up the child, has the child by the waist; in almost one motion as the child is elevated. The child moves forward with both hands and his face; mom loses control of him.
And that’s the fear, isn’t it? That as a parent, you might someday, somehow, accidentally just lose control of the little being you love most in the world.
Of course, what has been missing from this discourse is recognition of the fact that those seemingly quiet voices pleading for common sense and the understanding that this really could happen to anyone are actually, painfully right.
In his 2009 Pullitzer-Prize winning article “Fatal Distraction,” Gene Weingarten offers a critical look at the increasingly common phenomenon of children dying after being inadvertently left by their parents in overheated cars. The parallels of the tragedies discussed in this article and the public’s subsequent response to the zoo tragedy are chilling.
Weingarten makes the highly convincing case that such accidents can, and do, happen to anyone – even the most conscientious, caring, and intelligent parents. Indeed, psychologists have found that there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between the prior parenting skills, or lack thereof, exhibited by a parent and whether he or she might somehow make this tragic mistake. So answering the question he knows so many critics ask –“Who forgets a baby?” he writes:
The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.
Yet, lacking any understanding or acceptance of this, the public inevitably reacts by vilifying the parent.
Discussing one particularly heart wrenching case – if one could really be described as any more painful than the others – in which a man lost his adopted baby boy this way, he quotes typical online commenters:
“This is a case of pure evil negligence of the worse kind . . . He deserves the death sentence.”
“I wonder if this was his way of telling his wife that he didn’t really want a kid.”
“He was too busy chasing after real estate commissions [to remember the child]. This shows how morally corrupt people in real estate-related professions are.”
If it’s true that this can happen to anyone, though, why can’t most of us seem to accept that?
Because, quite simply, it’s easier not to. It’s the path of least resistance. Every day, otherwise loving parents thoughtlessly risk their child’s safety. In the case of children left in overheated cars, psychologists contribute it to primitive processes in our brains failing us as we manage the more complicated tasks of daily life.
But maybe hearing this, you still don’t think it applies to you. You could never be so thoughtless. But have you ever forgotten to lock your front door at night? Left out a bottle of household cleaner? Failed to turn the pot handle toward the back of the stove?
Yet much like the outpouring of support for the Pittsburgh Zoo, and cries of anger at any suggestion that common sense might dictate a modification of the Painted Dog exhibit, in the early 2000s, the public failed to embrace a simple keychain device that could help parents avoid accidents like those discussed in Gene Weingarten’s article. Because frankly, a device to help you not forget your kid in the car… who needs one of those?! It’s just so unsexy. So even in those situations where we could take steps to help prevent thoughtless errors with tragic potential consequences, our refusal to recognize the fallibility of human nature prevents this.
Weingarten quotes a clinical psychologist on that very point:
We are vulnerable, but we don’t want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we’ll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don’t want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. As such, they have to be monsters.
This piece is unlikely to be immune from the disdain of Mrs. Derkosh’s critics, either. And assuming it’s not, watch closely how they frame their arguments. Do they insist it’s a matter of “common sense,” despite evidence to the contrary laid out here? Note how their fear will be disguised as anger, their insecurities hidden behind an insistence that their parenting is too cautious for this to ever happen to them.
And then remember that you have a choice. You can join them, or you can stop and remind yourself “there but for the Grace of God . . .” and go forward with your life.
Photo–Flickr/Yvonne in Willowick