Words on Trial
by Stephen Cox | Posted March 26, 2013
For me, the biggest entertainment event of this month has been the Jodi Arias murder trial.
I confess: I am not one of those happy, productive citizens who are too immersed in real life to follow the latest trashy court case. I am one of those trivial people who have nothing better to do than rush home and watch the evening replays of endlessly repetitive testimony delivered by amateur actors in an Arizona courtroom. I don’t really mind admitting this, but I feel impelled to note that silly people like me outnumber the sober, industrious folk by about 100 to 1. People who tell you that they never heard of Jodi Arias are almost undoubtedly trying to fool you.
But why do we like this stuff? The answer would be more obvious if there were some great mystery in the case. But there isn’t, unless it’s the mystery of how it could possibly have dragged on so long. On June 4, 2008, in Mesa, Arizona, Jodi Arias killed her boyfriend, Travis Alexander. Of course, she started out denying it. Her first claim was that she was nowhere near the site. Her second claim was that the crime was committed by a gang of home invaders who surprised her and her boyfriend, injuring her and killing him. Nevertheless, her current claim is that, yes, she killed him, but she did it in self-defense.
To put this in another way, Jodi Arias drove several hundred miles to have sex with Travis Alexander, did so, then took pictures of him naked in the shower, then stabbed him 29 times, cut his throat from ear to ear, shot him in the head, and went off to visit another boyfriend, leaving Travis Alexander’s body to be found, days later, by friends who were wondering what had happened to him. Jodi Arias claims that she acted in self-defense against Travis Alexander’s domestic violence; that much, she’s sure of. But most of what happened after she started acting in self-defense . . . she cannot remember. At that point, she claims, she had entered a mental “fog.”
The words of a vicious murderer, without evident sympathy or empathy for other people, turn out to be almost indistinguishable from the buzzwords and clichés of the Great Society.
But this brings us to the reason why the Arias case is so interesting. It offers the fascination of watching someone tell lies, thousands of lies, one lie after another, for days and weeks on end, without convincing, perhaps, even a single person that these lies are truths, but just going on and on telling lies.
You may say, “I can watch politicians do that, any old time; why should I turn to Headline News and watch Jodi Arias do it?” You’re right, there’s not much difference between Jodi Arias’ approach and that of our national leaders, except that our leaders’ performance is impossible to appreciate on a purely verbal level. You keep thinking, “Wait! You’re ruining the country!”, and “Wait! I can’t believe that people voted for you,” and “Good Lord! Half the people in the country actually think you’re motivated by high moral ends!”
With Jodi Arias, there are no such distractions. You can sit back and enjoy the performance — and be instructed by it, too. Jodi — it’s impossible not to be on a first-name basis with someone who is always in your home — provides an index and review of the kind of lies considered (and not without reason) most likely to succeed with 12 jurors culled at random from the ranks of American voters and possessors of a license to drive. Ridiculous, but true: the words of a vicious murderer, without evident sympathy or empathy for other people, turn out to be almost indistinguishable from the buzzwords and clichés of the Great Society.
Home invaders! Those words sell “security devices” and “security protection” contracts by the tens of millions. Remember, home invasioncan happen to anyone, at any hour of the day or night. We are all in danger. Not being a drug dealer or a gang kingpin, nor having outstanding debts to gamblers or usurers, I naively assume that gangs of armed men are unlikely to burst into my home. Apparently, however, I am one of the few people who feel this way. Jodi must have felt that she had a hell of a compelling story when she thought of home invasion.
"Impact" means nothing. That’s why people use it. It’s the end of the story: he, she, or it was impacted, all right? You can stop asking questions.
Her only problem was that the murder scene presented no actual evidence of home invasion, but it did present evidence of murder — by her. So obviously, her best bet was a claim that she was forced to defend herself from her sex partner, her abusive sex partner. Was your boyfriend ever abusive to you before? Arias was asked. Oh yes, she answered, he had been abusive, but not as abusive as he was when he suddenly flew into a rage and charged at me, lunging out of the shower like a linebacker, just before I killed him.
Travis Alexander wasn’t built like a linebacker. Travis Alexander was one of those smiley, sort of pudgy, momentarily good-looking guys who are about to become fat. But if you could get people to picture him as a linebacker, and remember how men like that have wild mood swings and are given to roid rage, then they might be able to see why the victim of his domestic abuse would have to shoot, stab, and virtually decapitate him. Just to stop him, you know.
This disinformation might have been conveyed in a hysterical tone — and at certain times Jodi has, as the media say, broken down in tears. That’s expected, even required, of people in court cases. But our society has become an intensely bureaucratic one, and Jodi often prefers the kind of language that people who sit in cubicles spend their days typing into computers. What do you mean, she was asked, by “lunging at you like a linebacker”? Well, she said, “He got down low and he impacted my torso.”
Impacted. The universal word, the word for anything. It means “smashed, slashed, hit, touched, influenced, had some kind of unspecifiable influence upon, made a difference in some way to.” “The president’s speech,” we are told, “impacted the public debate.” So what exactly was that impact? You will never know. “Her action,” someone says, “impacted my life.” Was that a good thing, or should we take you to a hospital? Either way; whatever. “John Smith is one of our firm’s most impactful executives.” Gosh, I hope the insurance company will reimburse us for the damage. Meanwhile, we’ll give him a promotion.
Impact means nothing. That’s why people use it. It’s the end of the story: he, she, or it was impacted, all right? You can stop asking questions. If you demand to know more, if you want to know what kind and degree of impact somebody thinks has occurred, you are likely to get the answer that Jodi Arias kept giving to the prosecutor’s demands for more specific information: “You’re scrambling my brain.”
Her brain was not too scrambled, however, to remember that abuse can include sexual abuse, and that accusations of sexual abuse can have a very major impact, sometimes to the extent of scrambling the brains of everyone who hears them. It was inevitable that Jodi’s testimony would eventually go there, and it did.
A brief interjection. Somewhere it needs to be said that Jodi Arias’ circus of lies could not have been staged without the assistance of a judge who was obviously prepared to admit anything and everything in evidence, and to license the prosecutor, the defense attorneys, Jodi Arias, and members of the jury — who in Arizona are allowed to put their own questions to a witness, and did put questions, hundreds of them — to use as many millions of words as they felt like using. So they have used millions of words.
Several days of the trial was consumed in the consideration of a recorded conversation, 45 minutes long, in which Jodi and Travis explored with gusto all the things that adult heterosexuals might want to do with each other’s bodies. More days, or was it years?, were consumed in discussions of their actual sex practices. Despite all this adult, triple-X fare, Jodi guessed that accusations of pedophilia — that kind of abuse, or potential abuse — might have an impact. So she claimed that one day she had surprised Travis enjoying pictures of young boys. She thus tried the same trick that the Menendez brothers tried when they suggested (1993) that they had killed their father (and, by the way, their mother too, but who’s counting?) because the father had abused one of them when he was young. No objective evidence was presented, in either case; in our society, nevertheless, it’s worth a try.
But speaking of remembering things, that was the other big prong of Jodi’s defense. She killed Travis; yes, she conceded that; she recalled that happening, sort of; but simultaneously she remembered that she suffered a crucial loss of memory, right after killing him. Of course, an expert in psychology came forward — and stayed there, for over a week — to testify that what Jodi suffered was actually (guess what?) “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” and there were “tests” to prove it.
The trial hasn’t merely exposed the thought patterns of Jodi Arias; it has exposed the correspondingly hideous flatness of the social environment in which she lived.
Question: are those the kind of teststhat doctors use to find out whether you have cancer, or are those the kind of tests that psychiatric professionals use to find a name for what you claim you suffer from? The prosecution asked that question in approximately 100,000 ways, and the answers were not impressive. Other topics of discussion, at this point, were “dissociative amnesia,” “temporally circumscribed amnesia,” and “transient global amnesia,” which, we were told, between three and eight out of 100,000 people have been shown to suffer from, at some time in their lives. You can add that to all the other things you may suffer from, at some time in your life. If one of those things doesn’t get you, some other one undoubtedly will.
The Arias trial has been a festival of lies, but unlike most such festivals, it has been a benefit to society. It has provided a satire — unintentional, of course — of the multitude of ways in which discourse is twisted and debased by the clichés that modern Americans resort to when they try to think. The trial hasn’t merely exposed the thought patterns of Jodi Arias; it has exposed the correspondingly hideous flatness of the social environment in which she lived.
It was nothing out of the ordinary; it was an environment of vaguely aspiring, vaguely enterprising 20- and 30-somethings, the environment of guys who party, and take girls to Cancún, and like doin’ things in the outdoors — “outdoors” being a place where they go to get their pictures taken, smiling broadly or mugging raffishly or flashing fake gang signs at the camera. This is a pretty laid back world, a world in which Travis Alexander (and even, briefly, Jodi Arias) could be mistaken for a devout Mormon. It’s a world in which Jodi — who is obviously one hell of a nutty woman, the kind of woman who can be locked in a police interrogation room and start doing handstands, or sit on the floor in handcuffs and burst into “O Holy Night,” or grin when her mugshots are taken, because she thinks to herself, “What would Travis do if he was in this situation?”, and concludes that “he would smile . . . he would flash that grin” — could be regarded by Travis’s friends as a bit strange. Just a little bit strange. Maybe not exactly right for Travis.
What tipped them off? Maybe it was her starey eyes. Maybe it was her way of pushing her face into any available camera (but Travis did that too). Maybe it was the rumor that she once slashed Travis’s tires. But surely it wasn’t her words. There is nothing unusual about Jodi’s mode of discourse. Even her most solemn utterances are clichés in use by millions of people, every day:
“If I’m convicted, that’s because of my own bad choices.”
“I believed that it was not OK to take someone’s life.”
“I trusted him . . . I just wondered about his agenda, I guess.”
“When [after killing Travis] I finally came out of the fog, I realized, ‘Oh crap, something bad has happened.’”
Apparently none of Travis’s friends got much farther in analyzing Jodi than she got in analyzing Travis, when (as she claims) she wrote in her diary, “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something is just off with that boy.” When asked for specifics — “What do you mean by that?” — she replied, “My kind of indirect way of referring to his issues that in my mind I couldn’t look past and accept.”
She couldn’t put her finger on it. There wereissues.
But Travis was also part of that weird, flat landscape. So who was Travis Alexander?
This is a cruel thing to say, but Travis was a motivational speaker. In today’s America, this is a respected occupation. But what does it mean?
Travis Alexander (T-Dogg to his friends), worked for something called Pre-Paid Legal Services, an outfit selling legal “insurance” by “multi-level marketing.” In other words, it has a marketing scheme in which higher-level salesmen sell the idea of selling to lower-level salesmen, who then try to sell something to you and me. Usually, the new guys don’t sell anything (in 2005, the company admitted that less than 25% of its salesmen sold more than one insurance contract during the year). Given the unattractiveness of their occupation, these people need something to keep their enthusiasm up, at least until a new crew can be cycled in. That’s how Travis Alexander made money — enough money to buy the home in which he was murdered. He appeared at the séances held for Pre-Paid Legal salesmen, told lame jokes, and puffed the company. Judging from surviving videos, the audience response was second in enthusiasm only to the characters in The Bacchae. The participants laughed continuously; they shrieked like banshees; they greeted poor Travis Alexander as the best thing since Joan Rivers, if they’d ever heard of her. In the world of American discourse, there are many Travis Alexanders, practicing their trade. Well, it was a living. But Travis’s old friends all testify to his sterling qualities: “he was a great man,” “he always wanted to help people.” It doesn’t take much to be a standout in that world.
What kind of life can you lead when you classify evil acts as bad choices, like mistakes in tennis?
All right. I apologize for being insensitive. I find nothing likable about Travis Alexander — and nothing particularly unlikable, either. But I’m sorry that he is dead. He didn’t deserve to die. And nobody deserves to die the way he did. I’m happy to think that his murderer’s lies will be rejected by the jury, as they have been rejected by everyone else who has observed the trial. The whole affair has been an encyclopedic exposition of popular thought and language, and I actually think it will do some good, if only by showing the emptiness of the words now popularly used to conceptualize moral problems.
But did I say moral problems? I should have said life problems. What kind of life can you lead when you regard all challenges and conflicts, all moral difficulties and psychological disabilities, as issues, like revisions of the copyright law or the regulation of sugary soft drinks? What kind of life can you lead when you regard your desires and plans, your passions and obsessions, as items on an agenda? What kind of life can you lead when you classify evil acts as bad choices, like mistakes in tennis?
It isn’t a wonderful life. It’s barely a human life. But you can’t detect what you’re missing until you have some real words to use when you go to look for it.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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