Bridget Kevane, a professor at Montana State University and resident of Bozeman, left three younger children in the charge of her twelve year old daughter and a girlfriend at the local mall. The two older girls went to try on clothing in a dressing room leaving the younger siblings, aged 3, 7, and 8, alone and unattended by a store counter. Store employees seeing the children alone called mall security, which in turn summoned the police.
The professor soon found herself charged with child endangerment, being prosecuted by a city attorney determined to teach someone like herself a lesson.
The city attorney made no secret of the fact that her own parenting choices informed her decision in backing up the police officer. She told my lawyer in their first meeting that she also had a daughter and would never have left her at the mall. She also said she believed professors are incapable of seeing the real world around them because their â€œheads are always in a book.â€ Her first letter to my lawyer ended on a similar theme: â€œI just think that even individuals with major educations can commit this offense, and they should not be treated differently because they have more money or education.â€ Despite the fact that Montana professors are among the lowest paid in the nation, and that undoubtedly the prosecutor has a law degree herself, she nevertheless categorized me as someone trying to receive special treatment.
My lawyer and I came to understand that, more than anything, the city attorney wanted me to plead guilty, to admit that I had â€œviolated a duty of care.â€ She wanted me to carry that crime with me for the rest of my life, a scarlet A that would symbolically humiliate me, teach me a lesson, and remain etched in my being.
I now realize that her pressureâ€”her near obsession with having me plead guiltyâ€”had less to do with what I had done and more to do with her perception of me as an outsider who thought she was above the law, who had money to pay her way out of a mistake, who thought she was smarter than the Bozeman attorney because of her â€œmajor education.â€ This perception took hold even though I had never spoken one word to her directly. Nor did I ever speak in court; only my lawyer did. I was visible but silent, and thus unable to shake the image that the prosecutor had created of me: a rich, reckless, highly educated outsider mother who probably left her children all the time in order to read her books.
In our contemporary media-driven culture, stereotype images of wrong-doing identified by news programs and television dramas as pandemic problems float abundantly in the national subconscious ready to be applied. The progressive ideal of public activism and aggressive ameliorism promotes doing something about these supposed “problems,” treating the impulse to do things, to act in such a context as enlightened and responsible, even heroic.
Even a basically trivial incident like the one involving Professor Kevane’s children can easily today become the pretext for an avalanching tragedy of exaggeration and paranoia. In this case, ironically, we seem to find what should be expected to be the more conservative native residents, in a man-bites-dog situation, bringing the heavy burden of statist paternalism down upon a liberal university professor, who this time finds herself on the defensive and losing in the culture wars.
Hat tip to Judith Warner.