The Good Man Fills His Own Stomach

CHARLES DERBER

Excerpted from "The Good Man Fills His Own Stomach" in Money, Murder, and the American Dream by Charles Derber. Copyright 1992 by Charles Derber.

For review.

NOTE: Trisha Meili is the name of the woman who was attacked in Manhattan's Central Park. Meili kept her identity hidden for 14 years until the publication of her book, I Am the Central Park Jogger. Additionally, Matlas Reyes was the only assailant whose conviction was never overturned.

[3525 words, excluding footnotes]


The readings of history and anthropology ... give us no reason to believe that societies have built-in self-preservative systems.

- Margaret Mead

On April 19, 1989, in New York City, a group of teenagers ages fourteen to sixteen, went into Central Park. It was a clear night and not too cold, at least not too cold to discourage hardy joggers from getting their exercise. The teenagers dispersed into small bands and began targeting victims for some mischief. One group of six youths came upon a young woman jogging alone past a grove of sycamore trees. They cornered her in a gully and began to have some "fun."

That fun would capture headlines around the world. Using rocks, knives, and a metal pipe, they attacked her. Some pinned her down, while others beat and raped her. One defendant, Kharey Wise, aged seventeen, told police that he held the jogger's legs while a friend repeatedly cut her with a knife. They then smashed her with a rock and punched her face, Wise said, until she "stopped moving." After half an hour, she had lost three-quarters of her blood and was unconscious. The group left her for dead.[1]

What most captured public attention were the spirits of the assaulters during and after their crime. According to fifteen-year-old Kevin Richardson, one of the participants, "Everyone laughed and was leaping around." One youth was quoted by police as saying, "It was fun ... something to do." Asked if they "felt pretty good about what they had done," Richardson said "Yes." Police reported a sense of "smugness" and no remorse among the youths.[2]

From this event, a new word was born: "wilding." According to press reports, it was the term the youths themselves used to describe their behavior - and it seemed appropriate. The savagery of the crime, which left the victim brain-damaged and in a coma for weeks, evoked the image of a predatory lion in the bush mangling its helpless prey. Equally "wild" was the blasé mood of the attackers. It had been no big deal, a source perhaps of temporary gratification and amusement. They were "mindless marauders seeking a thrill," said Judge Thomas B. Galligan of Manhattan, who sentenced three of the teenagers to a maximum term of five to ten years, charging them with turning Central Park into a "torture chamber." These were youths who seemed stripped of the emotional veneer of civilized humans, creatures of a wilderness where anything goes.[3]

The story of wilding quickly became tied to the race and class of the s predators and their prey. The youths were black and from the "inner city," although from stable working families. The victim was white, with degrees from Wellesley and Yale, a wealthy twenty-eight year-old investment banker at Salomon Brothers, one of the great houses of Wall Street.

To white middle-class Americans, wilding symbolized something real and terrifying about life in the United States at the turn of the decade. Things were falling apart, at least in the heart of America's major cities. Most suburbanites did not feel their own neighborhoods had become wild, but they could not imagine walking into Central Park at night. Drugs, crime, and unemployment had made the inner city wild. The fear of wilding became fear of the Other: those locked outside of the American Dream. They had not yet invaded the world most Americans felt part of, but they menaced it. The Central Park attack made the threat real - and it unleashed fear among the general population and a backlash of rage among politicians and other public figures. Mayor Koch called for the death penalty. Donald Trump took out ads in four newspapers, writing "I want to hate these murderers ... I want them to be afraid." Trump told Newsweek that he "had gotten hundreds and hundreds of letters of support."[4]

Six months later, a second remarkably vicious crime grabbed people's attention all over the country. On October 23, 1989, Charles and Carol Stuart left a birthing class at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, walked to their car parked in the adjoining Mission Hill neighborhood, and got in. Within minutes, Carol Stuart, eight months pregnant, was dead, shot point blank in the head. Her husband, a stunned nation would learn from police accounts two months later, was her assassin. He had allegedly killed her to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in life insurance money and open a restaurant. Opening a restaurant, Americans everywhere learned, had long been Chuck Stuart's American Dream.

White middle Americans instinctively believed Stuart's story when he told police that a black gunman shot him and his wife, leaving Carol Stuart dead and Stuart himself with a severe bullet wound in the abdomen. When Stuart's brother Matthew went to the police to tell them of Chuck's involvement, and Charles Stuart subsequently apparently committed suicide by jumping off the Tobin Bridge into the river bearing his name, some of the threads connecting his crime to the horrible rape in Central Park began to emerge. Stuart had duped a whole nation by playing on the fear of the wild Other. Aware of the vivid images of gangs of black youths rampaging through dark city streets, Stuart brilliantly concocted a story that would resonate with white Americans' deepest anxieties. Dr. Alvin Poussaint, Harvard professor and advisor to Bill Cosby, said, "Stuart had all the ingredients ... he gave blacks a killer image and put himself in the role of a model, an ideal Camelot type that white people could identify with."[5]

Chuck Stuart's crime became a national obsession. A twenty-one-year-old Oklahoman visiting Boston told a Boston Globe reporter, "You wouldn't believe the attention this is getting back home. It's all anyone can talk about. I've taken more pictures of this fur shop and Stuart's house than any of the stuff you're supposed to take pictures of in Boston."[6] The quiet Stuart block in Reading had become what the Globe called a "macabre mecca," with hundreds of cars, full of the curious and the perplexed, parked or passing by. One reason may have been that white middle Americans everywhere had an uncomfortable sense that, as the decade of the nineties emerged, the Stuart case was telling them something about themselves. Stuart, after all, was living the American Dream and reaping its benefits - a tall, dark, athletic man making over one hundred thousand dollars a year selling fur coats, married to a lovely, adoring wife, and living the good life in suburban Reading complete with swimming pool - a large step upward from his roots in working-class Revere. Had the American Dream itself, by the late 1980s, become the progenitor of a kind of wilding? Was it possible that not only the inner cities of America but its comfortable suburbs were becoming wild places? Could "white wilding" be as serious a problem as the "black wilding" publicized in the mass media? Was, indeed, America at the turn of the decade becoming a "wilding" society?

To answer these questions we have to look far beyond such exceptional events as the Central Park rape or the Stuart murder. We shall see that there are many less extreme forms of wilding, including a wide range of antisocial acts that are neither criminal nor physically violent.

Wilding includes the ordinary as well as the extraordinary, may be profit-oriented or pleasure-seeking, and can infect corporations and governments as well as individuals of every race, class, and gender.

THE MOUNTAIN PEOPLE: A WILDING CULTURE

Between 1964 and 1967, anthropologist Colin Turnbull lived among the people of Uganda known as the Ik, an unfortunate people expelled by an uncaring government from their traditional hunting lands to extremely barren mountainous areas. In 1972, Turnbull published a haunting book about his experiences which left no doubt that a whole society can embrace "wilding" as a way of life.[7]

When Turnbull first came to the Ik, he met Atum, a sprightly, little old barefoot man with a sweet smile, who helped guide Turnbull to remote Ik villages. Atum warned Turnbull right away that everyone would ask for food. While many would indeed be hungry, he said, most could fend for themselves, and their pleas should not be trusted; Turnbull, Atum stressed, should on no account give them anything. But before he left that day, Atum mentioned that his own wife was severely ill and desperately needed food and medicine. On reaching his village, Atum told Turnbull his wife was too sick to come out. Later, Turnbull heard exchanges between Atum and his sick wife, and moans of her suffering. The moans were wrenching, and when Atum pleaded for help, Turnbull gave him food and some aspirin.

Some weeks later, Atum had stepped up his requests for food and medicine, saying his wife was getting sicker. Turnbull was now seriously concerned, urging Atum to get her to a hospital. Atum refused, saying "she wasn't that sick." Shortly thereafter, Alum's brother-in-law came to Turnbull and told him that Alum was selling the medicine that Turnbull had been giving him for his wife. Turnbull, not terribly surprised, said that "that was too bad for his wife." Whereupon the brother-in-law, enjoying the joke enormously, told him that Alum's wife "had been dead for weeks," and that Atum had buried her inside the compound so you wouldn't know." No wonder Atum had not wanted his wife to go to the hospital, Turnbull thought to himself: "She was worth far more to him dead than alive."[8]

Startling to Turnbull was not only the immense glee the brother-in-law seemed to take in the "joke" inflicted on his dying sister, but the utter lack of embarrassment shown by Atum when confronted with his lie. Atum shrugged it off, showing no remorse whatsoever, saying he had simply forgotten to tell Turnbull. That his little business enterprise may have led to his wife's death was the last thing on Alum's mind. This was one of the first of many events that made Turnbull wonder whether there was any limit to what an Ik would do to get food and money.

Some time later, Turnbull came across Lomeja, an Ik man he had met much earlier. Lomeja had been shot during an attack by neighboring tribesmen and was lying in a pool of his own blood, apparently dying from two bullet wounds in the stomach. Still alive and conscious, Lomeja looked up at Turnbull and asked for some tea. Shaken, Turnbull returned to his Land Rover and filled a big, new yellow enamel mug. When he returned, Lomeja's wife was bending over her husband. She was trying to "fold him up" in the dead position although he was not yet dead, and started shrieking at Turnbull to leave Lomeja alone because he was already dead. Lomeja found the strength to resist his wife's premature efforts to bury him and was trying to push her aside. Turnbull managed to get the cup of tea to Lomeja, who was still strong enough to reach out for it and sip it. Suddenly Turnbull heard a loud giggle and saw Lomeja's sister, Kimat. Attracted by all the yelling, she had "seen that lovely new, bright yellow enamel mug of hot, sweet tea, had snatched it from her brother's face and made off with it, proud and joyful. She not only had the tea, she also had the mug. She drank as she ran, laughing and delighted at herself."[9]

Turnbull came to describe the Ik as "the loveless people." Each Ik valued only his or her own survival - and regarded everyone else as a competitor for food. Ik life had become a grim process of trying to find enough food to stay alive each day. The hunt consumed all of their resources, leaving virtually no reserve for feelings of any kind, nor for any moral scruples that might interfere with filling their stomachs. As Margaret Mead wrote, the Ik had become "a people who have become monstrous beyond belief." The scientist Ashley Montagu wrote that the Ik are "a people who are dying because they have abandoned their own humanity."

Ik families elevated wilding to a high art. Turnbull met Adupa, a young girl of perhaps six, who was so malnourished that her stomach was grossly distended and her legs and arms spindly. Her parents had decided she had become a liability and threw her out of their hut. Since she was too weak now to go out on long scavenging ventures, as did the other children, she would wander as far as her strength would allow, pick up scraps of bone or half-eaten berries, and then come back to her parents' place, waiting to be brought back in. Days later, her parents, tiring of her crying, finally brought her in and promised to feed her. Adupa was happy and stopped crying. The parents went out and "closed the asak behind them, so tight that weak little Adupa could never have moved it if she had tried."[10] Adupa waited for them to come back with the food they had promised. But they did not return until a whole week had passed, when they knew Adupa would be dead. Adupa's parents took her rotting remains, Turnbull writes, and threw them out, "as one does the riper garbage, a good distance away."[11] There was no burial - and no tears.

Both morality and personality among the Ik were dedicated to the single all-consuming passion for self-preservation. There was simply not room in the life of these people," Turnbull observes dryly, "for such luxuries as family and sentiment and love." Nor for any morality beyond "marangik," the new lk concept of goodness, which means filling one's own stomach.

AMERICA AS A WILDING SOCIETY

Long before the rape in Central Park or the Stuart murder, Ashley Montagu, commenting on Turnbull's work, wrote that "the parallel with our own society is deadly." In 1972, when Turnbull published his book, wilding had not become part of the American vocabulary, nor did Americans yet face declining living standards, let alone the starvation of the Iks. Americans were obviously not killing their parents or children for money, but they dedicated themselves to self-interested pursuits with a passion not unlike that of the Ik. In America, a land of plenty, there was the luxury of a rhetoric of morality and feelings of empathy and love. But was not the American Dream a paean to individualistic enterprise, and could not such enterprise be conceived in some of the same unsentimental metaphors used by Turnbull about the Ik: The Ik community "reveals itself for what it is, a conglomeration of individuals of all ages, each going his own way in search of food and water, like a plague of locusts spread over the land."[12]

In what may be the most penetrating film on American life as the 1990s dawned, Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors hints that wilding is becoming part and parcel of the American Dream. The movie's protagonist is Judah, a doctor who has it all. A brilliant ophthalmologist, Judah is at the top of his profession and married to a beautiful and loving wife. He has a six-figure income, a gorgeous house on four acres, and is a pillar of the community, known for his philanthropic works. He is cultured as well as rich. "You can call Judah to find out which is the best restaurant in Paris or in Athens, or the best hotel in Moscow, or the best recording of a particular Mozart symphony," says a community leader toasting Judah. Judah is living the American Dream.

Judah's affair with his mistress Delores exposes the shadowy side of the modern American success story. When Delores learns that Judah is not serious about leaving his marriage, she threatens to tell his wife about the affair and to reveal to the world that Judah has dipped into his philanthropy trusts to cover his own cash-flow problems. Judah believes his life is about to go up in smoke. At his wit's end, he calls his brother, Jack, the black sheep of the family who has shady friends from the underworld. Jack assures Judah that Delores can be "handled." "We're talking about a human being," Judah haltingly protests. "She's not an insect. You can't just step on her." He says, "I can't do it. I can't think that way." But shortly thereafter, Judah calls Jack back and tells him to go ahead. Judah pays for the murder and his brother sees that it is carried out. Judah, a man who exemplifies success in the late 1980s, has become a killer.

For a while, Judah is "plagued by deep-seated guilt" and because of his religious upbringing is tortured by the notion that he "has violated God's order." But after many sleepless nights, one morning he "wakes up, the sun is shining, his family is around him," and "the guilt has lifted." Yes, "every once in a while," he has a "twinge" of conscience, but "with time it all fades." Judah accepts that in the real world, we must all "rationalize" and "deny," to live with inevitable moral compromises. The important thing now is that "he is scot free," that "he is not punished," indeed, "he prospers." He can, with a quiet conscience, put this behind him and go back to his life. The difference between Judah, who symbolizes the American Dream, and Jack, representing its dirty underside, has blurred. The viewer leaves wondering whether Judah or Jack is the greater wilder, which leads inexorably to the larger question of what has happened to the American Dream at the end of the twentieth century?

A spate of books about the Reagan era suggest a corruption of the American Dream in our time.[13] Most Americans do not become killers to make it up the ladder or hold on to what they have, but the traditional restraints on naked self-aggrandizement seem weaker - and the insatiability greater. Donald Trump is only the most visible of the American heroes defining life as "The Art of the Deal," the title of Trump's best-selling autobiography. Trump feels no moral contradiction about building the most luxurious condos in history in a city teeming with homeless. Trump writes triumphantly about the Trump Tower in Manhattan: "We positioned ourselves as the only place for a certain kind of very wealthy person to live - the hottest ticket in town. We were selling fantasy." Trump is a living advertisement for Ronald Reagan's manifesto in his inaugural address, "We are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams."

In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that in America "no natural boundary seems to be set to the efforts of man." But in the 1980s, John Taylor writes, a new version of the American Dream emerged, both more expansive and more morally perverted than its predecessors. America entered a new Gilded Age, where the celebration and "lure of wealth has overpowered conventional restraints." Laurence Shames writes that the name of the American game has become simply more."

In the 1980s, yuppies, with their "vaunting ambition and outsized expectations," came to symbolize this new chapter of the American Dream. Youthful commodity traders fresh out of business school engaged in feeding frenzies in the exchanges, pursuing quick fortunes "as if they'd invented the habit of more, when in fact they'd only inherited it the way a fetus picks up an addiction in the womb. The craving was there in the national bloodstream." Many of these young entrepreneurs would turn to inside trading - and more serious crime - when their risky ventures went bad. The notorious Billionaire Boys' Club, made famous in the movie Wall Street, would show that respectable young men consumed by the dream could become killers.

Shames notes there has always been a tenuous connection between the American Dream and civilized behavior: "Grabs at personal prosperity" can "come precisely at the expense of those civilized and civilizing privileges" that prosperity is for." The peculiar feature of the dream emerging in the 1980s was its instability, each success and gorging creating a more acute sense of starvation. Such inability to satisfy chronic gnawing hunger is fertile breeding ground for a culture of wilding.

The new outsized dream could engulf the entire personality. The horrifying combination of narcissism and sociopathy, so marked among the Ik, became the focal point of discussion among psychologists speculating about Charles Stuart. In the 1970s, culture watchers like Christopher Lasch had already identified narcissism (a distorted love of self masking inner self-contempt and emptiness) as a mushrooming psychic cancer, the most widespread personality disorder in late twentieth century America. In the Reagan-Bush era, narcissism became mixed with a deadly brew of sociopathic indifference, cloaked as a virtue in the official rhetoric of entrepreneurship, individual initiative, and self-reliance. The psychological and ideological preconditions of a wilding society were beginning to converge: tortured personalities driven by pounding needs for attention, power, and status in a holy "Money culture" embracing the unrestrained pursuit of wealth and self-aggrandizement. Me, Me, Me, hollered the relentless voices from inside; look after Number One, echoed the reassuring voices from high places. The new operational credo: Anything Goes.


Charles Derber (b. 1944), professor of sociology at Boston College, studied political science at Yale University and earned his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago. He has written widely on the subjects of political sociology, social change, and American culture. His many publications include The Pursuit of Attention (1983), Power in the Highest Degree (1990), The Nuclear Seduction (1990), and Money, Murder and the American Dream (1992), in which the present selection appears. His amazingly ugly homepage is here.


Notes

[1] "Move to Kill Victim Described by Defendant in Jogger Rape," New York Times, November 2, 1989: 1. [back]

[2] "Testimony Has Youths Joyous After Assault,"  New York Times, November 4, 1989: 1. [back]

[3] "Three Youths Jailed in Rape of Jogger," Boston Globe, September 12, 1990: 9. [back]

[4] "The Central Park Rape Sparks a War of Words," Newsweek, May 15, 1989: 40. [back]

[5] Quoted in the Boston Globe, January 11, 1990: 24. [back]

[6] Cited in article by Renee Graham, "Fur Store, Quiet Street are Now Macabre Meccas," Boston Globe, January 16, 1990: 20. [back]

[7] Colin Turnbull, The Mountain People (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987). [back]

[8] Ibid: 86. [back]

[9] Ibid: 153. [back]

[10] Ibid: 132. [back]

[11] Ibid. [back]

[12] Ibid: 137. [back]

[13] For an excellent book on the subject see: John Taylor, Circus of Ambition: The Culture of Wealth and Power in the Eighties (New York: Warner Books, 1989). [back]