TCS Daily

Why the Runaway Bride Matters

By Lee Harris - May 27, 2005 12:00 AM

Jennifer Wilbanks, the notorious runaway bride of Duluth, Georgia, was indicted Wednesday on two charges of lying to the police, and could face up to six years in prison. Some, no doubt, will find these indictments to be overly harsh. After all, can't a girl change her mind? Other prospective brides have been known to get cold feet before their weddings, so why should Ms. Wilbanks be so signally punished? Besides, her lying to the police was just the frantic response of a woman caught in an embarrassing pickle -- though a pickle of her own making. Who could blame her for wishing to shift the blame to someone else?

In fact, Jennifer Wilbanks' real crime is not that she lied to the police, but that she betrayed the trust of her community -- a community that had gone into a state of red alert virtually the moment they discovered that she had not returned from her afternoon jog. Instead of waiting around to see if Wilbanks showed up in a couple of days, the citizens of her small town instantly sprang into action. By the next morning scattered patrols of concerned volunteers began to make exhaustive sweeps of their hometown, looking under each azalea bush and ferreting through people's petunias in search of the slightest clue that could help solve the mystery of Jennifer Wilbanks' apparently inexplicable disappearance.

Later, when it was discovered that Wilbanks had taken a bus to Las Vegas, and that she had told whoppers to the police about being abducted and sexually abused by a Latino man and his white female accomplice in a blue van, the town of Duluth became very angry at Wilbanks. Though some of her neighbors defended her, the judgment of most was harsh and unforgiving.

Upon hearing about the unsympathetic local reaction to the saga of the runaway bride, the Los Angeles Times decided to call Duluth "a town without pity" in their byline on the story.

Okay, Los Angeles. You hear that a woman has not come back from her jog. Do you at once all begin calling each other on the phone, and arranging sweep searches in your neighborhood, or do you think, "Why should I worry? She's probably in Vegas by now."

Of course, the cynical LA response would have been right in the case of Jennifer Wilbanks. But Duluth has not yet learned the reflexive cynicism of a place like LA. In Duluth, when a woman disappears while jogging, only days before her wedding, foul play is automatically suspected -- and it is suspected because everyone thinks the same thought, "She wouldn't have disappeared without telling anyone. She wouldn't have been that utterly thoughtless and inconsiderate of those around her, either in the little circle of her family and friends, or the larger circle of her community."

That is why, instead of sitting around to see if she showed up sooner or later, the community of Duluth immediately began looking for her -- because the people there believed that Jennifer Wilbanks was not the kind of person who would just run off for no good reason. They all thought that she was like them in this respect.

In short, they trusted her, by which I mean they assumed that she would naturally follow the same rules of interpersonal thoughtfulness that they followed themselves in their own lives, one of which was that you just don't vanish into thin air without telling the people who love and care about you, and who are bound to go frantic if you don't show up when you are expected to.

It wasn't that the community of Duluth had a problem with women getting cold feet over an impending wedding; it was that they expected their neighbors to deal with this problem in a manner that wouldn't draw the attention of the entire nation and set their own lives and neighborhood in an uproar. That is why it is wrong to excuse Wilbanks by saying "We all make mistakes." Communities like Duluth can be extraordinarily compassionate to mistake-makers. If Wilbanks had just had a decent nervous breakdown, like other people, then her neighbors would have sent her flowers in the hospital and held her hand until she was feeling saner. But she didn't handle it this way, and the way she did handle it had the effect of diminishing the trustfulness of the community that had treated her like a good neighbor.

Jennifer Wilbanks committed the supreme societal sin: she has damaged the trust system of her community. By her own irresponsibility, she has made her neighbors less likely to respond the same way the next time one of them goes missing. The thought will occur to them, "Well, we don't have to start looking for her tonight. We can wait a couple of days. After all, she might turn out to be another runaway bride."

This is The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf effect: By abusing people's willingness to respond to emergencies, you make them less likely to respond to them at all. If, tomorrow, another woman failed to return from her jog, would squads of volunteers turn up the very next day, prepared to search for her? Or would they chuckle and say, "Looks like another runaway bride to me."

Naturally trustful people must never be given a good reason to become cynical, for cynicism is the enemy of every honor system. It whispers in our ear that other people break the rules with impunity -- so why can't we do the same thing. All of us are really skunks, so why be a patsy and act like a Boy Scout?

American trustfulness has eroded drastically since the nineteen fifties when no one ever locked their door in my neighborhood. We have been taught to see the worst in people, and to expect them to be motivated by the lowest possible impulses. Cases like the runaway bride do nothing to reverse this fatal tendency. And that is why the people of Duluth have every right not only to shame, but to punish Jennifer Wilbanks for so grossly violating the spirit of trustfulness that is perhaps the most precious asset of any community.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.


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