Monday, January 21, 2008

Book Review: Tears of Rage by John Walsh

Don’t ask me why, but John Walsh has always rubbed me the wrong way. That’s the main reason I read this book, because if I’m going to have an opinion on somebody, I’d rather it be an informed one. And that’s really the only difference this book has had on my opinion: it has informed it.

John Walsh isn’t a bad guy, and it is undeniable that both his political movements and his television shows have helped people and changed awareness and legal procedures for the better. But despite all he has done, it’s hard to actually like him.

The first fifty pages or so of the book deal with his personal background and personal history spanning from his childhood through the early years of Adam’s, and it is this completely self-indulgent section that really displays Walsh’s personality. By his own account, he is street-smart, a tough and skilled fighter, a great athlete as well as extremely bright, has never known fear or a lack of confidence, has saved lives without even thinking twice about it, and has never failed in any endeavor that he has pursued. Basically, he’s perfect. But what bleeds through this is the reality that he suffers from an oversized ego that motivates his self-centered world view. This self-centered (bordering on selfish) attitude is apparent in stories related by him in such away that you must assume that he doesn’t see it himself. When Adam is born, for example, he is told by the hospital where his sick father is that he can not bring the child into the cancer ward, at the risk of infecting the floor full of patients with little or no immunity left. Knowing only that he wants his father to his grandson before he dies (which he would have anyway, as later they all go to Disneyworld together), he sneaks the newborn into the hospital via fire escape, regardless of the risk he puts the others in the cancer ward. Also, it is impossible that anything done by him or his wife could be wrong or ill-informed. When mentioning Adam’s natural birth without the aid of Lamaze, he makes a point of saying “I don’t even think there were those classes back then.” Being 1974, Lamaze was already a string movement, especially on the east coast where they were. Later, for their second child, he states that she started Lamaze classes then, but only in her eight month, when the fifth or sixth is when you usually begin. Nothing out of the ordinary there, right?

This self-centered egotism extends immediately to his son, whom he declares was the perfect one in the hospital. “All the other little babies, some were splotchy, others a little misshapen. Adam was the perfect little baby everyone was looking at.” Granted, every parent feels that his or her child is special, but by John Walsh’s factual depiction, it is quite possible the Adam, had he lived, would have been revealed as the Second Coming. Apparently, Adam did not share a single negative trait with the other dirty, filthy, and ill-mannered children that wander the planet. And everybody loved him and wished he were theirs, and all of their adult friends felt more comfortable talking to him than to other adults, because he was that well-mannered and mature and responsible and perfect. Blech. Some of his praise towards Adam also reveals a sort of class elitism, as he takes great pride that “Adam had sharp clothes. On the playground all of the other kids looked kind of scruffy compared to him.” It seemed important to Walsh that his son wore “not sneakers, but Top-Siders. And small Izod shirts instead of regular tee’s.” And let’s not forget about the Captain’s Hat, “…an expensive one with a black braid and a visor.” In the course of Reve Walsh’s description of the day that Adam disappeared, she makes mention of the hat at least three times, pointing out at each instance that it was “a nice one, not a cheap knock off version” like the other children wear. She even goes as far as to complain that this detail (among others) should have been used when the store attempted paging Adam.

The actual disappearance of Adam at Sears is, of course, the reason for anything, and it is also the main reason that I lose respect for John Walsh, as the one the fact that he and Reve refuse to admit, to themselves or anybody else, is that they (or, more directly, she) are just as much at fault as anybody else. The simple fact is that Adam’s mother leaves him alone in the store for a period of time that, while she is unclear about (“I was gone a few minutes. Five. Maybe ten altogether.”), can logically be clocked at a good ten or fifteen minutes by examining the list of things that she claims happened while he was from view. Also, during this time, she points out that she had made sure that he was close enough that she “could have” peeked around the corner at any time to check on him, which of course means that she didn’t. Then, when she suddenly can’t find the child she had left alone in the store, she becomes frustrated and angry when her situation isn’t immediately made top priority. This may seem a bit harsh on my behalf, but anybody who works in retail can tell you that negligent parents let their children run around stores all the time, then automatically assume that it is the store’s responsibility to play babysitter and round up their strays. And this is the same attitude that Reve, understandably yet at the same time predictably and unfairly, assumes almost immediately when her initial concerns are not met with the utmost urgency. John is quick to say that this is because his wife “She had on shorts, she was a woman, and she looked nineteen years old”, but the truth is because she was acting like your typical negligent parent. They goes out of his way to imply that the store and the police were slow and unwilling to help, yet neither of them knows who called finally called the police (which would mean that the store did, and means that they certainly didn’t), and neither do they know who first informed the media during the first few hours of the search (which would mean that the police did, and again, that they didn’t). Does this make them bad parents? No, but their refusal to admit that others did take immediate steps to help them that they did not take themselves makes them stubbornly reluctant to share in blame. When they eventually dropped the lawsuit they brought against Sears, they claimed that they did so because the Sears lawyers were going to drag their names through the mud, and so they dropped the suit to protect their family as well as Adam’s Foundation. The truth hits a bit closer to home, that Sears was no more responsible than the mother who left the child unattended for up to a quarter of an hour.

Another distasteful trait of John Walsh’s is his tendency to use his dead son to win arguments. It is very evident throughout the book that Walsh has a short temper and a lack of emotional control, and in fact seems almost boastful of it. And while I like a “man of action who doesn’t play nice” as much as the next person, I tend not to trust people who describe themselves as such. And while Walsh rightfully argues against the bureaucracies and politics that repeatedly impede him, his arguments always seem to be punctuated with phrases indicating that not he, but his innocent, brutally murdered son, demands that justice be served. Being the savvy advertising executive that he never tires of describing himself as, Walsh seemed to learn early on that while you can argue with a hot-headed activist, you can’t argue with a dead child.

Again, I’m not painting Walsh as a demon, as he has done much good. And I am also not implying that he is completely bull-headed. He is the first to admit that he wouldn’t have gotten a fraction of the media coverage he did if Adam were a lower-class minority child, and I agree with him completely for his criticisms of the psychics and religious fanatics that attempted to use the situation for their own advantage, as well as when he defends his wife against claims by the media the Reve didn’t act the way a grieving mother should act, as if there is a right and wrong way for individuals to handle emotions that very few of us ever (thankfully) have to contend with. And while he at times seems to bend over backwards to both slam the cops and FBI for their bungling his son’s murder investigation while at the same time praising both agencies for the good they do, it never appears phony or heavy handed. And, unlike Jon Benet’s parents, both John and Reve were quick to cooperate when the investigators turned their attention to them, knowing that the quickest way was to eliminate themselves as suspects. You see? I’m not out to get the guy. But when he talks about teaching his six year old son how to use a diving knife (yeah, that’s safe), and when he recalls the humorous story of when he left his six month pregnant wife alone in shark infested waters, I can’t help but feel a little contempt for him.

Oh yeah, a pretty good book, tends to cover all of the bases. Just beware that it isn’t an objective view of the Adam Walsh case, but rather one man’s crusade to tell his own story the way he sees it.

Reviewed by S. Michael Wilson

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