Friday, May 02, 2008

Death and the Madam

Is there anything beyond "tragic" and "needless" that I would say about this?

Deborah Jeane Palfrey, known as the "D.C. Madam," was found dead in Florida on Thursday, according to Tarpon Springs police.

Palfrey hanged herself in a storage shed on her mother's property, where she had been staying, police said. Palfrey's mother, 76-year-old Blanche Palfrey, found the body, police said.

Palfrey was convicted April 15 in connection with a high-end prostitution ring catering to Washington's elite. She had said in interviews that she would kill herself before going to prison.

Probably not. But some people want to try to say more. And this column, from the Washington Post, I think reveals the contemptibility of the mindset of inside-the-beltway media.

After a one-graph summation of the story, the journalist asks, "Why do we feel so sad?"

Maybe because a fellow human being has ended her own life in its fullness, and crippled the hearts of her family and friends. Maybe there's something called basic human compassion that is supposed to feel sad whenever that happens. And the asking why is odious, even as a rhetorical device.

But it doesn't seem the dead woman is real to the journalist. Even now. She's just an element in a story. A "who" among the 5 "Ws" that move around on the chessboard of the news cycle.

It was a sorry finish to a sordid tale. Had it been a classic literary tragedy, it couldn't have ended any other way. She was a fallen woman, all scarlet-lettered and walking shame, every archetype of female sin and suffering.

We didn't feel particularly connected to her. Aside from a few media types, not many people attended her public trial last month, where she was convicted of running a prostitution ring. Everyone had moved on; there were newer and more salacious scandals.

We? If by "we" you mean the beltway journalism claque, then yes. But I'm afraid this journalist really has conflated the producers of the news cycle with the consumers of it, and with the human race generally. Try as she might, she can't lift her head out of the swamp far enough to see beyond the tropes and clichés.

She hits the right tone finally when she makes a guess as to what makes this death, among others, so embittering:

Maybe we feel sad because of the gendered irony. The powerful men whose names surfaced in the scandal, the ones who did not appear in the courtroom, who did not have to discuss their menstrual cycles publicly, have all remained unscathed.

David Vitter is still that good-looking junior senator from Louisiana. Harlan Ullman (creator of "shock and awe") is listed as a senior associate on the Web site of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Former State Department official Randall Tobias, who previously oversaw AIDS relief, promoting abstinence and a policy requiring grant recipients to swear they opposed prostitution, slunk back to Indiana after his resignation. There, he was appointed president of the board of the Indianapolis Airport Authority. The city's mayor said that America "believed in second chances."

Uh-huh. "Maybe."

And then, too:

She would have been thinking that she provided a legitimate service — that college-educated women answered her City Paper ads of their own free will, and that men contacted her of theirs. She would have been thinking that if this was a crime at all, it was surely a victimless one between consenting adults. Perhaps she was marveling that she was convicted at all.

In a just world, as opposed to a national capital where even lawmakers consider the laws irrelevant that want to keep money and sex apart in certain cases, she would not.

But the column is written mostly in journalism cloud-land, where the only mystery is why the chessboard piece didn't perform the rest of the news cycle story that she had been pigeonholed into:

We anticipated that Palfrey would be sentenced to a few years in prison, do her time quietly and then emerge like Heidi Fleiss, like Lil' Kim, like Martha Stewart, like any number of the bad girls for whom a prison sentence functions as a cleansing ritual, a path back into society's embrace.

She wouldn't have had a permanent shunning. There would have been book deals, movies, forgiveness, VIP tickets to charity balls. People can forget almost anything these days.

Maybe, just maybe, the unreality of being part of someone else's news cycle, locked for life into a script enforced by dull minds, was a small contributing factor in the dead woman's despair.

Ultimately Palfrey's death isn't only about feminism or the justice of her sentence or the hypnotic circus of it all. It is also about one woman alone in the shed next to her 76-year-old mother's trailer, deciding that the future seemed too much to bear.

Death is where you go alone. So, yes, "it" is about the needless and untimely death of a human being. Yet the journalist has to talk herself into seeing what ought to be so patent, and does it in public with no sense of it being odd. There's another sort of death floating through this column. The death of decency in someone who has spent too many years in journalism, moving the pieces through the same chess games over and over.

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