Monday, January 6, 2014

Affluenza and Other Epidemics

Have you heard the term "affluenza?"

It's a clever mash-up of affluence and influenza, but it isn't exactly new. In 2005, Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss published Affluenza: When Too Much Is Never Enough. The book explains that people who "aspire to the lifestyles of the rich and famous at the cost of family, friends and personal fulfilment" create for themselves stress, depression and even obesity. Two years later, Oliver James, a British psychologist, published Affluenza: How To Be Successful and Stay Sane. He talks about "selfish captalism" or "placing a high value on money, possessions, appearances (physical and social) and fame." He also sees affluenza as an important factor in the rise of mental illness. 

Last month, affluenza was used as a legal defense in a Texas case involving a drunk teenage driver. 

Young Ethan Couch was caught stealing beer on a store surveillance camera before taking seven friends for a ride in his father's truck. He was speeding with a blood alcohol level of three times the legal limit (and traces of valium in his system too). He killed four pedestrians and injured another eleven.

Open and shut case, right? Wrong.

One word: affluenza.

You see, the young man had money. The young man had clever lawyers. And, the young man, according to those clever lawyers, had never learned right from wrong because he was brought up in such a privileged family and never taught to take responsibility for his actions. Rather than incarcerate this 'poor little rich boy,' he was sentenced to ten years probation and one year in a program for troubled teenagers.

Unbelievable, right? Just wait. It gets more so.

Cited as evidence were incidents from earlier in Couch's life. He started driving, illegally, at thirteen. At fifteen, the police found him with a naked, unconscious girl in his car. Rather than look at these past events as an indictment on his character or behavior (bad seed, anyone?), they were held up as part of the defense. Since he wasn't punished for those earlier transgressions, he shouldn't be this time either.

Does this kid have issues? Maybe. Is that mighty cold comfort to the families of any of his victims? Hell, yes. And if the judge, in all his wisdom, honestly, truly (madly, deeply) believed that Couch wasn't at fault because his parents didn't do their job, shouldn't they be held responsible? As in legally?

The whole story is stunning.

Affluenza is about the Twinkiest of "Twinkie defenses" I've ever heard. It's appalling really. And, it made me wonder where we draw the line. My own teen daughter does know the difference between right and wrong, and I believe (I know) she would never do anything as stupid, as destructive or deadly as this stupid, destructive, deadly boy. But, like most upper middle-class parents, I've tried to make things smooth for her.

I wonder sometimes just how far is too far.

What about those harmless white lies we tell on their behalf? Like when we send a note to a teacher excusing an absence (or the absence of completed homework).

And how about cheating? I know many (many) well-meaning moms who have edited their children's essays well past the point of merely proofreading. Not just schoolwork either, but college application essays.

Or when we drive over the limit with our teen in the car, aren't we showing them that it's ok to speed? And even more important maybe, aren't we telling them that it's ok to break the law?

How about when they see us, y'know, "fudge the numbers" on our income tax? Or drink or get high? What about calling in sick when we're ... well ... not?

We've all heard (and probably said) "Do as I say, not as I do." But, who are we fooling? Not our teens. Do we really expect our children to live by rules we aren't following? Wake up.

Stephen Sondheim wrote brilliant lyrics about this for his show Into The Woods. The song is called "Children Will Listen."

Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say "Listen to me"
Children will listen

Any children listening to the judicial system of the state of Texas last month learned an invaluable lesson.

Money walks.

If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to order a copy of my new book Lovin' the Alien at

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