The Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly came under fire last week for possibly covering up the role of alcohol in a car accident which left two teenage girls, Shauna and Meghan Murphy, dead. Accused of trying to "hush up" the investigation by Governor Mitt Romney, Reilly simply claimed that he was taking "steps to make sure the (medical) information is not released to the media." He admitted advising the District Attorney against making the blood-alcohol report public -- but availed himself of the charge that he barred police from having access to it, something Northboro police Chief Mark Leahy alleged in his final report which detailed the events leading up to the crash.
What is troubling is not the charge, but the defense. Tom Reilly, a Democratic candidate for Governor of Massachusetts, sees nothing wrong with quieting some of the more disturbing details of two deaths that could have been avoided. He also saw nothing wrong with the drinking itself, as he also advised the D.A. against pressing charges against 20 year old, Nathaniel Berberian, at whose house the girls became "wasted," despite Chief Leahy's protest. The Boston Globe reports the 20 year old's mother defending her son: ''...He did not supply any alcohol," something which Nathaniel and three other witnesses echoed. Nathaniel just supplied the orange juice to the girls who had brought their own vodka in water bottles. And the mother just supplied the house, and later, a shield for her irresponsible son.
This mentality is not as unusual as one might think. My old stomping grounds of Fairfield County, Connecticut, the midpoint between New Haven and New York City, is full of venues known for their country club lifestyles and blurred class distinctions. My childhood there bore witness to the problems parents face when confronted by parenting. At the root of it is the deadly desire of parents to be their kids' friends, and further, the understanding that "teenagers will be teenagers."
WHEN I WAS a newborn in the early '80s, my family lived in Westport. That arrangement wouldn't last very long as my mother later explained: "We saw 8-10 year old kids being dropped off from sports cars on Main Street, being handed 25-40 bucks with absolutely no supervision. The parents clearly felt the kids were in the way, so they just paid them off to go somewhere else." The shocking thing was that these were little girls and boys, wandering the streets like something out of Lord of the Flies. "Sometimes these kids had more money on them than I did, and I was with both my children."
We moved to Stamford, three towns away, something my mother described as part of her covert plan to slowly get back to her native Manhattan. I went to a public elementary school, and marveled at the birthday parties and sleepovers I would be invited to. Some were modest -- a home gathering, a sleepover. But some involved expensive trips to amusement parks. Others took rented rooms at expensive restaurants. All this for someone no older than nine years old. My father, a physician practicing adolescent psychiatry, would roll his eyes, "Most of these parents are divorced. One of them winds up being the devil who forces the kids to do their homework -- the other becomes Santa Claus, and nothing is denied to the child."
A one-year hiatus to Florida showed me there were no regional differences. At the private school I attended in Pompano Beach, sixth graders were free and clear of lumbering burdens like acting their age. The kids looked at me strangely for not knowing how to surf. When I tried explaining why Times Square was a tourist trap, or how nice snow looked fresh in the morning, others would return blank stares. I started to wonder about whether I was getting the short end of the stick. My mother, clad in black, lowered her sunglasses one day after picking me up in her white Chrysler. "No, you may not start dating. You're one year out of elementary school. Are you joking?"
A FEW YEARS LATER I was attending a Catholic high school back in Stamford, with a fairly diverse student body, at least for Connecticut. Though I was not among the popular cliques, I was certainly not a pariah, and definitely not a troublemaker. The troublemakers were often born of the big families in town, who were known in some way for their material beneficence to local business and/or politics. Because these families were so interconnected and large, administrators were hesitant to severely punish those who stepped out of line -- doing so could result in a family pulling their child out of the school and sending him to the more expensive private school just down the road. Or a big donation could be cancelled. Besides, many of these kids were high-performing athletes whose achievements reflected well on a school troubled by a curriculum suffering from a lack of discipline.
Putting the old liberal adage to rest that poverty breeds crime, many of the kids had some sort of criminal record, from spray-painting a building on a dare, to driving drunk. My mother, always able to glean school gossip, was haunted by the consensus among her peers. "We know the kids are going to drink anyway"; "we would rather have them do it in the safety of the house"; "we just take their keys and have them all sleep over"; "kids will be kids"; and the most frightening, "now that she has her license, I don't have to drive her to all her activities." The Murphy sisters up in Massachusetts, were driving, of all things, a Land Rover.
It never dawned on these parents that doing all that driving provided a great opportunity to talk about the kids' day. That's information-harvesting time. That's the time you put your child through the moral weight-training needed to build up strength to saying no to bad behavior. At the time I was a member, our chapter of Students Against Drunk Driving was frequented by those most often attending "spirited" festivities the parents were proud to host. Subsequently, prom was an alcoholic coming out party, replete, one year, with the girls' senior volleyball captain vomiting on the principal (a nun, no less). She was sent home.
At graduation, a few days later, memorial awards were being given out. These often come as a result of the death of an alum who wanted to contribute to the school somehow. But on many occasions, the names are those of students who died before their time. The cause of death was often omitted, and the criteria for the award was vague, sometimes to do with sportsmanship and some academic ability. The senior volleyball captain received hers, and graduated gracefully, just like all of her peers.
HAVING GONE to high school in the late '90s, in the throes of the Clinton impeachment, I wondered how these students would fare as moral leaders, in the loosest definition of the term. Would they have a metanoia, would they look back and repudiate their behavior as being wrong? Or will they do as their parents taught them, to say "We were just kids, and you know how those are."
Unfortunately, Shauna and Meghan Murphy will have no such opportunity to make that decision, having made a different decision entirely. Their legacy is the Democratic candidate for governor of Massachusetts, who, like Nathaniel Berberian and his mother, is having some issues when it comes to accountability.
J. Peter Freire is a Journalism Fellow at The American Spectator under a grant from the Collegiate Network.