A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the child who fell into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo. I said the mother was to blame, because she should have been watching the child at all times. The repercussions from that article were momentous: I lost some friends, including a dear one whom I miss and will likely not see again. I was asked to be on CNN, which was pretty darn amazing, because they sent a limousine and had someone do my makeup (which I expect will happen again only when I die). And I got more hate mail than I usually do, which — believe me — is saying a lot. To put it in terms you might understand, imagine I were Charles Manson and the only people with typewriters were related to Sharon Tate. Then double the number.
So I was a little reluctant to weigh in on a similar situation that occurred this week, one that was overshadowed by the horrific massacre in Orlando, Fla., at the Pulse nightclub and which had eerie echoes of what has come to be known as “Gorillagate.” A 2-year-old child from Nebraska who was vacationing with his parents was snatched by an alligator and dragged to his death. According to reports, the toddler was standing in about a foot of water within arm’s reach of his parents, who at the time were relaxing by the manmade lagoon at Walt Disney’s Grand Floridian resort.
And yet, it occurred to me that there are levels of negligence, just as there are levels of grief and levels of expectation, and they need to be addressed even if that opens you up to criticism. Because, frankly, not all situations are the same, and not all parents are equally at fault for the injuries to their children. And, frankly, losing your child forever insulates you from the type of criticism that would otherwise be justified if, hypothetically, your toddler fell into a gorilla exhibit because you weren’t looking, the gorilla had to be killed and you got your child back to hold and love forever.
I’m sorry, but as vocal as I was against the mother in the gorilla case, I can’t find it in my heart to say anything negative about the grieving mother from Nebraska. You probably will have the same reaction several Facebook acquaintances had at my refusal to attack this mother for “negligence.” One person suggested in a message that I was gun-shy from the reaction to my last piece and was “backing down.” This, ironically, was someone who attacked me for being mean to the Cincinnati mom.
Someone else pointed out that the parents from Nebraska were white, letting that comment hang there in the air like an invisible noose, the better to hang myself with because of my “racism.” You'll all remember that the Cincinnati mom was black, and there were accusations that people were critical because she wasn’t the perfect white mommy from the suburbs.
I expected that reaction, even though I wasn’t even aware of the race of the Cincinnati mom until I’d already burned my bridges and accused her of being Negligent Mother of the Century. And the race of the parents at Disney didn’t even factor into my calculations, despite what some might think. A bad mommy is a bad mommy, regardless of what she looks like. An endangered child is an endangered child, regardless of his DNA or cultural makeup.
But these are different cases.
In the first place, the mother in Cincinnati was not watching her child. Eyewitness reports established that she had turned away, and when you do that at the edge of a primate preserve where there is apparently a rather flimsy fence, you shouldn’t be surprised when your child wriggles away from you and ends up where he shouldn’t be. You especially shouldn’t be surprised if, moments before, the child has said, “Mommy, I want to swim with the gorilla.”
But when you pay a lot of money to go to a resort, and you are told you are permitted to hang out by the shores of a manmade lagoon, and the only signs of warning say “No Swimming,” it is less reasonable to assume that you or your children are in any danger. Yes, Florida is known for its alligators, but if you are from Nebraska, you wouldn’t necessarily have that sixth sense about the insidious ability of alligators to infiltrate safe spaces.
Beyond this lawyerly discourse on foreseeability, the biggest difference in the cases is that one child is alive and that child’s mother caused the death of an endangered and beloved gorilla, and another child is dead. One child will grow up, and the other suffered the type of trauma that stabs the heart and sears the brain with nightmarish imagery. One child’s adventure will be an interesting footnote in his high school yearbook, and another child will remain forever frozen in toddler snapshots.
My point is that there are tragedies, and there are tragedies, and the ridiculous commentaries from pretentious people about how the Ohio mother was being “crucified” (give me a break) made me realize that self-delusion is the last refuge of hypersensitive parents. Here, though, is a true tragedy, not a fabricated one, and we owe the Nebraska family what we absolutely did not owe the mother of the Cincinnati tot: space to grieve, and our prayers.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.