The Silence That Bred a Crime

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. The day after the guilty verdict came down in the Michael Skakel case, my sister and I, like so many others, couldn't help talking about it. The fact that Michael Skakel was married until recently to our first cousin and is the father of their child (a boy not yet 5) made the discussion a necessity. During the last few years we have had a nodding, passing acquaintance with all things Skakel, a "look-there's-another-tabloid-isn't-it-sad-let's-not-get-any-closer" kind of thing. But now that Michael Skakel is

awaiting sentencing, we can't pretend anymore that he has nothing to do with us.

There but for the grace of God went I and many others in my circle who were 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds then. Our environment as we grew up was no different from Michael Skakel's. We were "rich kids": private schools, country clubs, maids in the kitchens, station wagons in the circular gravel driveways, parents three sheets to the wind after the second martini before dinner on top of the two with lunch in the city or at the club. No one home, even when the house was full.

When I look back at how many times I woke up at age 15 on a friend's lawn, vomit all over my pink and lime-green Pappagallo shoes, grass stains soiling my Lilly shift dress, the steel wool in my head obliterating any memory of what had gone on the night before, I shudder and double my prayers of gratitude that I am a functioning and productive adult today. There were a lot of us out there. No one sitting in the chintz-covered chairs saw the pain, confusion and loneliness because all of them were so busy feeding their own demons.

How would things have been different if someone had paid enough attention to Michael Skakel to get him the proper help? What was a boy with that kind of violence in him doing running around like a normal kid on the block? And what would have happened if - presuming Michael did kill Martha Moxley - his father and, God forgive me, one of my uncles, who was the family lawyer and adviser at the time, had been told the truth about what happened and had gone to the authorities? Perhaps that 15-year-old wild child, not a man, mind you, just a boy, would have gotten the help and support that would have given him a shot at salvation. But this was not to be. So the boy stuffed his truth, feeding it drugs and alcohol, plastering it up with attempts at normalcy and maybe even love, hoping that it would go away or at least stay locked away forever.

It is a tragedy that Martha Moxley's life was brutally cut short, but to me, Michael Skakel's life is also tragic. The "for your own good" lies, the mixed messages (buy and lie your way out, take Communion on Sunday), all in the name of love and with the full intent of taking care of one's family, could have a poisonous effect, and in this case had a lethal one. Michael Skakel can never be put in the same category of victim as Martha Moxley or anyone in the Moxley family, but his life still qualifies as a horrible waste.

Annie O'Neill Stein is on the steering committee of the Violence Prevention Campaign

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