Too noble

Faced with unthinkable loss, some families respond too humanely for society's own good.

Published October 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Dead teenagers have become such a staple of the news lately that we're running the risk of beginning to accept the killings that are dotting breaking bulletins and top stories. Two new books deal with how families come to accept these unthinkable disruptions and -- perhaps unintentionally -- the reasons not to accept them.

How do you keep any semblance of grace or dignity when dealing with the death of a child? A parent who suffers that loss -- whether by violence or accident or sickness -- experiences a violation of the natural order. Who expects to outlive a son or a daughter? And how do you keep bitterness and anger from poisoning your life when -- as in the cases of Eddie Polec and Galen Gibson, recounted in the new books "In Eddie's Name" and "Goneboy" -- the death could have been prevented?

Eddie Polec -- who, like Galen Gibson, was in his late teens -- was beaten to death with a baseball bat by a gang of kids in a church parking lot in his Philadelphia suburb. Galen Gibson was shot by a deranged classmate at the small college he attended in Massachusetts. Wayne Lo, the kid who killed Galen Gibson, and the gang of kids who murdered Eddie Polec must bear the ultimate responsibility for those deaths. But they couldn't have committed their crimes were it not for the stupidity and cowardice of others.

In the aftermath of the Polec murder, tapes of calls to Philadelphia 911 revealed that a series of callers had been warning authorities about a gang of baseball bat-wielding kids for nearly 45 minutes before Polec was attacked. Some of the 911 operators weren't familiar enough with suburban Philadelphia to recognize where the trouble was, and others simply hung up on the callers who were trying to convey the urgency of the situation. "Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute," shouted one operator to a caller who was checking to make sure he'd been heard correctly. "I have the information. You can hang up now," cutting the conversation, and Eddie Polec's chances of survival, dead.

The incompetence surrounding Galen Gibson's death is even more extreme. On the morning of the day that Wayne Lo went on the spree that left two dead and four wounded at Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington, Mass., a package had arrived at the college for him from a company called Classic Arms. The dean of the college, Bernie Rodgers, disregarded this and several other obvious signs that Lo was keeping a weapon on campus in violation of the law. When, more than three hours before the shooting, a friend of Lo's became convinced that he was about to use the gun, he called campus security (getting an answering machine) and then a residence advisor at Lo's dorm. The advisor called Rodgers and then the college provost, Ba Win. For at least 45 minutes before the shootings, Rodgers and Win knew that Lo had a gun and was in his dorm, yet neither man called the police or made any effort to quietly alert the other students. Instead, they waited for another residence director to arrive so they could question Lo together, and during that time Lo began shooting, killing two and wounding four before surrendering to the police.

It comes as no surprise that the Polec and Gibson families learned this information primarily from the media. The story told in both "In Eddie's Name" (written by journalists Bryn Freedman and William Knoedelseder, a husband-and-wife team who covered the Polec story as it unfolded) and in "Goneboy" (written by Galen's father, Gregory Gibson) is in part about people under brutal emotional circumstances who are disabused of the faith they've put in institutions like the city of Philadelphia and Simon's Rock College. It speaks well of the essential decency of both families that they did not succumb to cynicism as a result. But these books tell another story as well, though it's an unwitting one. They show that decency is no match for institutions that are determined to cover their collective asses and that sometimes being ruthless is the right thing to do.

Neither family gave in to the chief temptation of violent-crime victims: the self-righteousness that leads people to plaster themselves all over the media, plugging away for capital punishment or decrying our "lax" criminal justice system. The Fred Goldmans of the world are offensive because they imply that their grief is far more important than the basic tenets and realities of the law. Forced to face unanswerable questions about why these murders happened, feeling utterly isolated in their grief even as they watched their spouses and other children suffering, the Polecs and the Gibsons remained circumspect in their public statements, realizing that the greatest tribute to their dead sons' memories would be the quality of their own conduct.

In the case of the Polecs, this decency comes at a price. Freedman and Knoedelseder's portrait of the family as good Catholics who raised their children to respect the principles of hard work and honesty doesn't feel forced. You can see the truth of it in John Polec's response to his son's death. Analyzing the city's 911 system, Polec, a computer programmer, discovered a system set up so badly that it took, on an average weekend night, perhaps an hour for an incoming call to be relayed to a police cruiser. Digging for possible solutions, Polec helped discover that, although the city planned to upgrade to a $50 million system when it could muster the funds, it could get the same capabilities with a cell phone system, for only $3.25 million.

The authors admire the Polecs because they decide to press for an overhaul of the 911 system rather than suing the city. "We're not suing anybody," John Polec said. "We will not profit from this tragedy. I don't want Eddie's name and 'lawsuit' mentioned in the same sentence." We're meant to hear these as the words of a man with too much integrity to participate in our litigious society. In the end, the family had to threaten to exercise its option to sue in order to get the city to agree to fix the system.

The threat worked, but in exchange the city, still dragging its feet, insisted that the Polecs sign an agreement stating that they would "not file a lawsuit against the City or its officials and employees for any claim arising from the death of Eddie Polec." Had the Polecs decided to sue in the first place, they would have been in a much stronger position. Under enormous public criticism, Philadelphia would likely have settled the case, and the Polecs would have had the money that they planned to donate to the city to install a new emergency system. The family wound up signing away its legal right to sue before Philadelphia would agree to protect its citizens.

That's appalling, but it's hardly surprising. For most institutions there is no greater measure of power than money and no greater threat to power than the loss of money. To change, they must be forced to pay a price that they will understand as a diminishment of their power. (I once worked in the advertising agency of one of the country's largest investment firms. The firm had been fined by the Securities and Exchange Commission for violating the prohibition against using promissory language in advertising. But the billion-dollar company regarded the fine -- I believe it was around $25,000 -- as a drop in the bucket, an expense of doing business. The punishment was simply not adequate to put a stop to the offense.) That's why the commonly held idea that lawsuits are merely an attempt to profit from tragedy is absurd. Institutions, whether governments or corporations, know how to mollify and dissipate public outrage, and thus to continue business as usual. Lawsuits are often the only way citizens can put themselves on an equal footing.

Families who have suffered a violent loss may feel unaccountably dirty for engaging in litigation. Both the Polecs and the Gibsons (who brought a lawsuit against Simon's Rock College) understand that a courtroom is no place to look for emotional closure. They know that there's a very real possibility that a lawsuit may exacerbate their bitterness. You can't help but sympathize with their desire to get on with their lives, to purge thoughts of recrimination from their memories of their sons. I'd argue, though, that in cases like theirs, lawsuits are a moral responsibility to the dead.

The question of responsibility weighs heavily on Gregory Gibson throughout his memoir, "Goneboy." Discovering the failure of Simon's Rock College to take even the most basic safety precautions with Wayne Lo, the Gibsons didn't hesitate to sue the college. But Gibson realizes that the lawsuit won't answer the questions he has about his son's death. Setting out to talk to as many people involved in the case as possible, Gibson encounters the collector who traded in the gun Lo used to kill his son, the gun dealer who sold Lo that gun, the college officials whose failure to take action seems so inexplicable, the students and employees who tried to do something to stop Lo, friends of his dead son and of his son's killer and eventually the parents of Lo himself.

Gibson is one of those rare birds whose humanism is a result of his innate curiosity about people. He's not interested in demonizing anyone, and he readily admits how people confound his expectations. To his great credit, despite his grief, Gibson writes about everyone he meets as an irreducibly complex human being. Nowhere is this more evident than toward the end of the book when he and his wife, Annie, meet C.W. and Lin Lin Lo. Both families are in horribly awkward situations. The Los want to convey their sorrow to the Gibsons but haven't contacted them because, understandably, they aren't sure their overtures would be welcome. The Gibsons want to meet the Los, but don't want them to think they hold them responsible for their son's actions. The encounter is not without its difficulties or moments of anger. But more characteristic is the scene where Mrs. Lo asks if she and her husband can visit Galen's grave to pay their respects, and you have the sense of people big enough to reach beyond their private grief. It's a lovely moment.

Yet with Gibson's humanism comes his hesitation to assign responsibility for Galen's murder. He jokingly compares himself to Lee Marvin in "Point Blank," a man on a solitary mission of revenge. Actually, a bit more resemblance to Marvin would have helped. Gibson is well aware of how the craving for revenge could become all consuming and lead him to a state where he would never be at peace with either his son's death or with his wife and his other kids. (He briefly indulges in plans to stake out the house of a kid suspected of aiding Wayne Lo, nose around for dirty laundry on the kid, and then confront him.) But Gibson also extends his understanding to people who simply don't deserve it. As a result he loses the urgency to make the guilty pay.

In a long scene in which Gibson meets with the president of Bard College, "Goneboy" goes off the rails and never quite recovers. (Simon's Rock is a "wholly owned subsidiary" of Bard.) Gibson intends to ask one blunt question: Why does Bernie Rodgers still have a job? It's a good question, an appropriate one, one that cuts right through the crap. What Gibson doesn't anticipate is how much crap president Leon Botstein presents to be cut through:

Condensation cannot do justice to the business of speaking with a man like Leon Botstein. The sequence I am reporting was just the armature on which were hung bewildering thickets of examples, allusions, cross-references, and inspired inclusions that had nothing to do with the matter at hand but which somehow fit. We traveled from the Whitney Museum to nuclear physics to Beethoven's Vienna. His discourse honored the subtlety and complexity of reality by attempting to replicate it. It was necessarily a highly sophisticated, highly intelligent discourse. It also bordered on the incomprehensible.

Which is a nice way of saying that when it comes to spin, academics produce a fancier form of bullshit. Because, of course, Bard, in the person of Botstein, was doing exactly what the city of Philadelphia had done in stonewalling the Polecs: defending itself against a potential lawsuit. When Botstein goes on to suggest that Gibson's grief had blinded him to the bigger picture, to the possibility that Bernie Rodgers had acted out of concern for the life of Simon's Rock College, he's simply spouting a high-toned version of "It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it." The college has become divorced from the students it allegedly exists to teach. Its survival as an institution is paramount.

Gibson doesn't buy it, and he tells Botstein as much. But he's simply too good a humanist not to consider the possibility that he is bent on destroying Bernie Rodgers' career. A few weeks later, he tells us, he concluded, "Botstein had been right. There was no redemption in revenge, no peace." Revenge is an ugly word, and here it's the wrong one. Gibson was intent on punishing Rodgers, which is an entirely different thing. There's a tendency among good, humane people to shrink from the very idea of punishment as if, by definition, it were reactionary and stone-hearted. Gibson does what most people who have been wronged do not do: He attempts to understand the motives and failings of the people who wronged him. But he comes close to confusing explanation with exculpation.

There were doubtless all sorts of good, perfectly understandable human reasons why Rodgers failed to take action to stop Lo. That doesn't make him innocent of criminal negligence. When people are charged with the welfare of others and screw up in ways that plainly could have been avoided, there's nothing reactionary about insisting that they bear the consequences of their actions. That it falls on people who are already suffering to ensure that this happens is horribly unfair. It means getting involved in fights they never wanted to join. But it is also an opportunity to achieve a fitting memorial to the dead and to safeguard the living. You read these books wishing that all victims of crime could find the grace and dignity that seems to be second nature to the Polecs and the Gibsons. They took the high road. In a better world, they wouldn't have to get down in the muck to right the wrongs of their sons' murders.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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