In the Blog

Perspectives on the Yale murder

September 23rd, 2009     by Cate Simpson     Comments

Even in Canada it’s been hard to miss the coverage over the last couple of weeks of the murder of Yale Grad student Annie Le.

In Slate on Thursday, Jack Shafer posted a rant about the extent of the coverage, in which he complains about the media’s obsession with crimes that take place at Harvard and Yale. The opening sentence, “If you plan to be murdered and expect decent press coverage, please have the good sense to be a Harvard or Yale student or professor” really sets the tone for what follows, which misses a lot of the other factors involved in this case.

In a blog post, Colin McEnroe takes Shafer to task for his flippancy, and gets to the heart of what it is about this murder in particular that has everyone scrabbling for the latest updates.

A comment on McEnroe’s blog reads:

“As a working woman, the fact that this horrific crime happened in the work place, during a work day, with lots of people in the building and all those cameras scares the daylights out of me … When I returned to work in Hartford on Wed I discussed this with several women at work. We all seem to feel the same. We are shocked, we are sad, and we are frightened.”

I think this is really important. What Shafer doesn’t get into even slightly, McEnroe points out, is that a lot of people are caught up not on the fact that this happened at an Ivy League university, but that it happened in a building with 75 security cameras. More significantly, it happened in circumstances in which so many women could easily imagine themselves.

What neither writers comment on is the low-level fear that many women carry around with them all the time. We learn from an incredibly young age that the rules are different for us than they are for guys, that there are things we must do and not do to keep ourselves safe: don’t walk home alone; don’t invite guys you don’t know up to your apartment, don’t get too drunk.; be watchful. The narrative is that there is always something women themselves can - and should - be doing to prevent violence.

So when somebody is attacked while apparently adhering to all of these rules, it reminds us that sometimes there is no sure way to avoid becoming a victim of violent crime. It’s not like staying safe while hiking or sailing, because there’s another person involved whose intentions you can’t control.

An article in The Globe and Mail on Friday includes this statement from Yale’s president, Richard Levin.

“This incident could have happened in any city, in any university, or in any workplace. It says more about the dark side of the human soul than it does about the extent of security measures.”

Even McEnroe dismisses this statement as one intended to divert bad press from the university, but judging by the reactions of his commenters, Levin actually might not be far from the mark.

What this suggests is that many newspaper-reading women in America identify more strongly with a grad student from Yale than they do with the thousands of lower middle-class and working-class women murdered every year. Maybe that’s because of that particularly enduring American quality: social aspiration. Everyone imagines that they too could have been Yale material, but nobody likes to imagine they could have been the woman car-jacked from the Wal-Mart parking lot.

It’s clear that class is a component in this story. Numerous articles have drawn attention to the murderer’s position as a lab technician, “cleaning floors and mouse cages” - in contrast with Le’s position as a researcher of possible cancer treatments. Are the social differences between the two partly responsible for the fear and fascination this story has inspired in the media and those who have followed it?

Tags: media savvy

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