I suspect most of you will remember the first news story I’m going to tell, but I wonder if you have even heard of the second. I didn’t until I stumbled on the story this week in a new book. All of this leads me to wonder why we tend to focus on some tales while ignoring others. What might we be doing to ourselves by looking only to a narrow subset of narratives to tell, retell, celebrate and memorialize in movies and TV?
Here’s the first story: In 2001, 25-year-old Chante Mallard drove home after a night of partying in Fort Worth, Texas, and hit a pedestrian. The man crashed head first through her windshield. His upper body slammed into her passenger-side floorboard, while his legs were trapped in the glass. Bleeding and still conscious, Gregory Biggs, 37, begged Mallard to help him as she drove home, parked her car in the garage and shut the door. She walked into her house and left Biggs to bleed to death.
The next night two friends helped Mallard dump the body in a park. A witness claimed Mallard later joked about what had happened. The medical examiner determined that Biggs would have lived if he had been taken to a hospital. She was eventually arrested, convicted of murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Utterly, completely horrifying.
Human indifference at its worst.
Nearly a decade later, I still remember all the publicity this story received. I remember talking about it with friends and wondering what was wrong with the human race.
Here’s the second story: At Mallard’s sentencing hearing, the victim’s son Brandon spoke. He didn’t plead for a long sentence. He didn’t talk about revenge. Instead, he told the court and Mallard’s family, “There’s no winners in a case like this. Just as we all lost Greg, you all will be losing your daughter.” He later said, “I still want to extend my forgiveness to Chante Mallard.”
The narrative of Mallard’s crime was turned into episodes of CSI and Law and Order and mentioned on Comedy Central’s animated Drawn Together series. The tale has been turned into at least two movies (Stuck and Accident on Hill Road), according to Wikipedia.
On the other hand, Brandon Biggs’ journey to forgiveness only rated a few media mentions, including a newspaper story and a Christian Broadcasting Network interview where Brandon may have been highlighted because he was a conservative Christian. Prisoners on death row got together and raised $10,000 for a scholarship for him.
I haven’t found any references to TV shows or movies being made about the son’s compassionate act. I only discovered it when I stumbled on Michael McCullough’s essay “The Forgiveness Instinct” in the 2010 book The Compassionate Instinct, a collection of works from Greater Good magazine.
The fact that one story was immortalized and the other sank into obscurity worries me. We figure out who we are by the stories we tell ourselves. Narrative teaches us about what’s right and what’s wrong, how we should and should not live, and even about what is and isn’t possible. What happens to a culture that feeds itself a constant stream of revenge and violence, while either forgetting or downplaying stories of forgiveness? Today 15 movies are playing in Lawrence, Kan., where I live. Eight of those feature violence. From what I can tell from plot summaries, most of those movies turn on an individual or a group seeking revenge.
The climax of action movies is most often the successful completion of an act of retribution. That’s the catharsis, the cleansing, that resolves all. I’ve sat in those movies. I’ve cheered the Mad Maxes as they’ve stabbed, shot, blown up, roasted, or — if it’s a more intellectual “nice” movie — arrested the bad guy, and then of course, been forced to kill this evil individual as the villain suddenly frees himself and provides an excuse to have his guts splattered across the screen.
Researchers like McCullough, a University of Miami psychology professor, theorize that evolution has given us two instincts: One for revenge and one for forgiveness. Why do we celebrate the worst in ourselves and ignore the best? What happens to us if we don’t claim our stories of forgiveness, our tales of compassion? How will we even know how to travel through our understandable feelings of hate and fury, if we never talk about others who have completed this hero’s journey? Where’s the good in that?