Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Leo Forrest, Samuel and Ruzan

I've been meaning to write about the story of Leo Forrest for a few days now.

The gist of the story ACCORDING TO THE FATHER is that his father (Samuel) got media attention based on the claim that Leo's mother (Ruzan) demanded Samuel choose between Leo and her. Leo has Down syndrome. Ruzan, according to the father, told Samuel that Leo would have to go to an institution - as is typical in Armenia - or she would divorce him. Instead, he is taking/has taken Leo to New Zealand, where Samuel is from. Ruzan served him divorce papers. Samuel has now raised about half a million dollars from Go Fund Me (no link provided. Google it if you want to).

Here's the dad's story, heartbreakingly written - Dad refuses to give up newborn son with Down syndrome!

Anne Grunsted wrote, quite quickly, a fantastic piece about the ways in which the internet loves a good "bad mother" story. If this was a father abandoning a child, she argued, it would get little media attention. I think she's right. Good mom and bad father stories are perceived as common, so they get little play. There's a fundamental misogyny at work in the viral condemnation of the mother.

Speaking of Ruzan, she disagrees. Her statement characterizes the choices in very different ways and casts Samuel as simply deciding, without consultation.

[Update - Also there's this story, which is that Samuel has ANOTHER family, four kids, one with Down syndrome. He divorced and then was excommunicated from his church and forbidden from seeing them (which is fine as a matter of church law, but I'm guessing not civil law?).]

So here's one conclusion: the internet is a thoroughly lousy place to figure out the intricacies of a relationship, especially one in crisis, from halfway around the world.

We are biased, flawed, creatures, too prone to leap to the heart-rending story and, in many cases, to lay our money down based on partial information.

Stephanie Hall Meredith, moreover, writes that our focus on fixing individual cases rather than structural norms, is a real problem. First she details all the structural work that she and others in various organizations are doing to help children with Down syndrome in Russia. Then she says:
Methodically shifting social paradigms with hard work is not as sexy as one gripping story, but it’s the most effective way to improve conditions internationally — by working collaboratively with individuals within these nations and empowering families there.
Alas, that's not really how our psyches work. We want to help just the one tangible case, we want to help Leo, and so that's where the attention flows, not to the slow fights for better understanding.

Leo's case, then, functions as "charity porn." We see a single family, we give them money, we feel better about ourselves, and we move on with life without examining the structural issues beneath the single case, whatever happened between Samuel and Ruzan.

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