Michelle Jones: Does the Academy Devalue Children?

  • Michelle Jones

    Years ago, in a four-plex owned by my mother, I heard a baby’s cries coming from a ground-floor unit. I was doing maintenance nearby, patching walls and taping baseboards in preparation for painting. When the cries became worrisome, I knocked on the door, twice. No answer, but the cries worsened. I got out my keys and entered the unit. I found the baby on the kitchen floor, facing downward. She appeared to have been walking but had fallen and wasn’t able to turn over or pull herself up. That wasn’t the worst part, however; she was alone and had been for at least half an hour. I called my mother and asked her what to do.

    She called the tenant’s mother and about 45 minutes later the woman arrived. She had a grave expression on her face and so I said very little. It was only one of many emergencies I experienced at the building.

    The street had once been middle-class, but had gone to seed after a nearby manufacturing plant and hospital were shut down. Shortly after that, the provincial government built a housing complex in the neighbourhood, one that provided subsidized housing to low-income families. 

    After it opened, we struggled to find suitable tenants. The ones we did find were too disorganized to apply for government housing, a fact that turned us into de facto social workers. We had to intervene when they senselessly antagonized one another, when neighbours complained about their anti-social behaviour, when they tried to pay their rent in five-dollar increments and, finally, when the police were called and we were asked to come to the building to provide information or survey new damage. The odd time we did get good tenants, they rarely stayed more than a few weeks because they too became overwhelmed by the social disarray. In the end, my mother sold, but years of managing those unruly tenants took its toll: any romantic tendency to “see potential in everyone” had been decisively kicked out of me, and I was no longer a naive optimist. 

    * * *

    The outrage over Harvard’s rejection of Michelle Jones’ graduate admission is curious. Jones is the ex-convict who received a prison sentence of 50 years for killing her four-year-old son, a crime that could easily have taken place in my mother’s building. That term was reduced to 20 years when she started excelling at academic work. She eventually proved herself as an accomplished historian and playwright, one who conducted video conferences from prison and, according to the New York Times, enlisted other prisoners to “produce the Indiana Historical Society’s best research project” of the year. 

    Harvard had initially accepted her into their doctoral program, as had other universities, but they reversed their decision when two American Studies professors flagged her application, believing she may have “minimized her crime to the point of misrepresentation.” The official version of her rejection, coming from university administrators, was that they were concerned about conservative news outlets focusing on Jones’ crime; they also worried about complaints coming from rejected applicants and the parents of students. In other words, the real brouhaha was over Harvard’s capitulating to external pressures, an assessment that in itself makes light of Jones’ past.

    So why the outpouring of support? There’s a love affair North Americans have with rags to riches stories. In 1910, Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne classified popular folk and fairy tales by motif. Cinderella is important because it is, arguably, the story most deeply imprinted in our psyches. It is also the template most used to narratize real life underdog stories, especially those involving women. The tale starts with the motif of a “persecuted heroine,” who with the aid of “magic help” seeks to rejoin society and, in doing so, “meets her prince.” From there she “proves her identity” with the glass slipper, “marries the prince” and therefore “proves her worth.”

    In Jones’ case, the final goal isn’t marriage with a prince, but is publicly experienced redemption and high-octane success. She’s the persecuted heroine, pregnant and beaten by her mother at 14, who, with the help of inspiring prison tutors, seeks social integration via the academic world. She proves her identity as a scholar by publishing papers, and marries her prince and shows her worth by being accepted into a Ph.D  program at an ivy league university. If this correlation sounds dubious, consider what would happen if Jones had been a man. These days, it’s not hard to imagine a sea of women with placards storming the university, shouting for his head. The brutal details of his crime would be maximized and the prominent motifs would be entirely different. He would have done his time too, but it wouldn’t save him from becoming the dragon that needs slaying for the good of the community. 

    The support for Jones, so at odds with her crime, appears to come from a deep, emotional well, and I would argue that the collective knowledge we have of the Cinderella template, especially with its theme of virtue rewarded, accounts for at least some of the water in it. The narrative is in fact so powerful that variations of it exist in every culture, with the latest count being 900 known versions. (The motifs vary: an indigenous version has a moccasin instead of a glass slipper; a Chinese version has a talking goldfish instead of a fairy godmother.) It’s a feel-good story, with sanitized western versions, starting with Charles Perrault’s in 1695, conveying the message that there is good in everyone. 

    The problem is that it’s a fairy tale meant for children, not adults. As such, the initial focus is on Cinderella’s chronic suffering, and the final focus is on the happy ending, with the active difficulties in-between becoming a distant memory as her glorious new life unfolds. Applied to Jones’ experience, it’s a narrative that is satisfying and allows her supporters to gloss over the pesky details of her crime and focus instead on the socially constructed obstacles that preceded it. That means her background as an abused child, contrasted with her adult achievements, is maximized, while the in-between action–the fact that she gave her child a severe beating and left him to die–is minimized. As much as we would like to overlook the ugly aspect of her story, Jones is a real person who killed another real person, not an imaginary princess nor a likeable character out of Orange is the New Black. Hers may indeed be a redemption story, but it’s hardly a fairy tale and should not come with accolades and privileges.

    However, the wishful thinking this represents prevails in most arts and humanities faculties, where the belief is that once we construct society appropriately, all evil will disappear. It’s a utopian vision, bolstered by feminism, that has a profound influence on university curriculums but is rarely challenged. However, domestic violence researchers in New Zealand’s Dunedin Longitudinal Study have tried. When they divided their subjects by gender, they found

    …that women hit men just as often as men hit women. The girls thought it was quite all right to hit their partner; they thought nobody would care. They thought their parents wouldn’t disapprove [and] thought the police would not come if anyone called them, and they thought they wouldn’t injure anybody. When this finding first came out it was flat rejected by feminist criminologists, so we really had difficulty getting those papers published. Even after the papers were published, we were never invited to present the findings at any conferences.

    The conclusion reached by the Dunedin researchers has been quietly replicated in other studies in other countries, among them the United States, Britain, Canada, Israel and Korea. Another revealing statistic, published by the Australian Institute of Criminology, shows the child murders in that country are second only to partner murders and that 52% of these child murders are committed by women.

    Even with countervailing evidence, our image of the violent male partner persists in the west, resulting in the widespread misallocation of resources. This prompted a politician in Sweden, one of the world’s most gender-equitable countries, to conclude that one of her own government’s reports, which focused solely on male perpetrators, was mistaken and that children’s experience differed significantly. Eve Solberg, a self-professed feminist, stated, “We must recognize the fact that domestic violence, in at least half of its occurrence, is carried out by female perpetrators. Otherwise, our efforts to protect the most vulnerable among us, the children, will never become more than just an aspiration.”

    How to explain the dissonance? Wishful thinking is the desire to distance oneself from reality. When it comes to Jones’ supporters, I would argue that it’s their desire to avoid precisely the kind of people who rented my mother’s apartments, not unless, of course, it’s a case of catching them on their way up and out of their dismal circumstances, in which case they become interesting projects. That’s an indictment of ivory tower attitudes, but it’s true nonetheless that a lack of contact with our lowest castes, especially when they aren’t repentant, can skew one’s worldview. It’s a state of affairs academics in the humanities would disavow strenuously, since most are guided by a surfeit of compassion and believe their conception of life at lower social levels is accurate. Their naïveté is manifest in their desire to relegate even the most serious of crimes to socially constructed circumstances instead of holding individuals responsible. In the past this allowed some prison authors–Austria’s Jack Unterweger and Canada’s Stephen Reid come to mind–to become darlings of their respective literary sets. They too were excused and celebrated and the results were disastrous.

    * * *

    Years after my mother sold the building, I took on a volunteer position lay-counselling women in a local drug and alcohol rehab. On my last shift, I sat across from a woman who had had her children taken away. The official story was that she had an abusive boyfriend who was hurting them. Her version was that she was being forced by Child Protective Services to leave the man she loved. I played devil’s advocate and said, “CPS doesn’t remove children unless the situation is really bad.” Her sadness evaporated instantly and I watched as her body expanded; she was puffing herself up, ready to go on the offensive. I knew in that moment that she wanted to hit me, revealing that she too was violent. I’d seen this before when I’d angered my mother’s tenants and it struck me that a collection of behaviours, not unlike fairy tale motifs, characterized men and women like her. I had those in mind as I perused several articles about Jones.

    Here’s what I found. There’s denial:  Jones was turned in to police by another person and denied she had beaten her son. A former friend contradicted her in court. There’s minimizing: according to the two professors who flagged her application, she failed to mention the beating at that time too, saying instead that she had come home and found her son dead. There’s deflecting responsibility: responding to the accusation that she had minimized her crime on her Harvard application, she said the professors “should have asked” if they wanted more information. Given that a background check would prevent Jones from teaching at an elementary or high school, the professors were right to expect a full disclosure of her crime. There’s imprecise information: Jones claims Brandon was conceived during “nonconsensual sex,” yet there are indications that the father was involved in his life. This seems inconsistent with rape.

    Then there’s selfishness: her son Brandon’s body has never been found, which disrespects him and means others cannot properly mourn. There’s narcissism: Jones started her academic career writing a history of the prison she was incarcerated in. While this wasn’t entirely her doing–a tutor suggested the topic–the focus of her work fits in with a postmodern obsession with the self, and is one step toward the final characteristic, which is attention-seeking. Jones sought prestige, and the power it would confer, when she limited her graduate school choices to top-drawer universities only.

    How is it that these aspects of her behaviour were overlooked?

    * * *

    I started this essay with an image of an unattended baby crying and lying face-down on the floor. It’s an image that should matter to the people supporting Jones, but won’t because they’ve deselected that unpleasant option in favour of enjoying a more satisfying, altruistic experience. To them, Jones is a poor woman who made a bad choice under terrible conditions. They also argue that her story is really about our capacity for mercy and our willingness to let her rejoin society. That may be true, but it’s true in the same way that fairy tales and pulp-fiction romances are true: there’s a narrative pattern that’s reassuring and predictable, but pointedly excludes disagreeable details and unpalatable facts.  

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