We know not to speak ill of the dead or to criticize people in mourning. But what about those kissed by Fate and hugged by the gods? Do we get to talk about them?
I know of no applicable rule, but it seems to me that ecstatically happy people -especially those on the receiving end of miracles -are fair game. Which brings us to the very possibly weird Smart family.
I've hesitated until now to say anything for all the right reasons -regard for people's vulnerability under duress, respect for personal space and deep concern about the inevitable e-mail backlash from the vicariously offended.
But after several days of watching Ed Smart's gratuitous emotional dervishes before television cameras, I've concluded that he has forfeited his right to privacy. Moreover, everywhere I go, Ed Smart is the talk. People comment in stage whispers about their discomfort with his melodramatic displays, then confess to feeling guilty for uttering a critical thought.
"Criticizing Ed Smart is like attacking Jesus," as one friend put it.
Why is that? Why do people feel like they're watching something they shouldn't -something inappropriate -then feel bad about being attentive to their instincts? That gut reaction of wanting to avert one's eyes -or reach for the shotgun -when Smart is on TV is in fact useful information.
There really (set ital) is something wrong with this picture. Unwittingly, Smart has become (set ital) not a spokesman for abducted children as he might have wished, but a human metaphor for the weirdness of our times.
First, let's be clear. I'm not talking about Smart's television appearances while his daughter was missing. More is never enough when children disappear. The more you can keep a child's name and face in the media, the better.
I'm talking about after Elizabeth was home, when any father would have been applauded for stepping up to the microphones and saying: "We're deeply grateful for everyone's prayers and support. Now we're going inside our house and ask that you leave us alone. We have a family to mend."
Instead, this guy couldn't stay away from the cameras. I kept thinking, what's he auditioning for? Phil Donahue's empty chair? A second career as a talking head supporting the Amber Alert? Next time a child is abducted, look for Ed Smart to be warming the seat opposite Larry King.
Smart may be a perfectly lovely guy under normal circumstances, but when he's in front of a camera, he becomes abnormal. Unlovely. An imitative man performing as he imagines a man should act under such circumstances. How else to explain his tearless whimpering impression of a man grateful for a miracle?
His worst performance may have been his recounting of Elizabeth's first harp recital upon returning home. Yes, it is reasonable to wonder what kind of family asks their daughter to perform the day she gets home from nine months of captivity with a bizarre man who abducted her at knifepoint and declared her his prophesied bride.
Was the recital an attempt to recapture normalcy, or was it an illustration of the degree of denial that keeps psychotherapists in vacation homes and prophets rich in willing disciples? Maybe Smart had nothing else suitable for public consumption. Maybe Smart should have stayed at home.
Instead, he found himself gripped by Judy Garland's ghost:
"Well it's been nine months!" he gushed girlishly, trying to mimic his daughter's apology for her rusty performance. Then he lapsed into another episode of dry-duct glossolalia and gratitude for the miracle that brought his daughter home. Too bad, one reluctantly infers, that the parents of all those other missing children didn't say the (set ital) right prayers.
The disease of our times summarized by Andy Warhol's prediction that everyone would experience 15 minutes of fame has become full-blown and epidemic. We are all celebrities now, actors strutting and fretting for the portable stage that materializes when we land a palatable tragedy.
In Smart's defense, he may have been trying to please his audience out of gratitude. "To give back something," as we like to say. To share. Perhaps this is what makes people feel guilty when they admit that Smart seems creepy.
On the other hand, maybe what they feel isn't guilt at all, but shame for everyone's lost dignity. And embarrassment for the single sin that goes unforgiven in our media culture: Ed Smart is a lousy actor.
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