We’ve all seen a video, on TikTok or another social media platform, where someone performs a prank or dangerous stunt simply for shock value. In the real world, we’ve seen disturbing acts of staged lynchings, kidnappings, and even a suicide staged as a homicide. I know! I had to read that article a few times before I understood it, and it still doesn’t make sense. Also, we’ve heard of fake illnesses, missing children, alien abductions, exaggerated lifestyles, plagiarized content, and fake credentials all for the purpose of getting noticed or being accepted or validated.
When tragic stories go viral, on some level, all of us become emotionally invested. Initially, we may feel discouraged, outraged, or compelled to help, or we may see the incident as validation of our concerns, fears, or position; or as justification for biases. We activate by rallying, donating, volunteering, raising funds and awareness, or by demanding action, accountability, or policy change.
When a hoax is uncovered, the victim becomes a villain, our compassion turns into condemnation, and we demand accountability or punishment for the manipulation of our emotions and misuse of resources. Such is the case of Carlee Russell who recently confessed to staging her own abduction. Public reactions ranged from disappointment to disgust. Mostly, I felt relief when she returned safely. As public debate about what form of punishment she deserves continues, the question I ask is, why? I wonder what made Carlee feel like her life didn’t matter unless she became a statistic. Why would she, or anyone for that matter, go to such extremes to get attention?
I’ve read numerous articles and studies on social media use and its effect on a person’s mental wellness. As soon as you sign up for an account, you’ve officially entered a marathon - the never-ending pursuit of followers, likes, comments, and shares. Social media is a perpetual digital popularity contest that fuels the proliferation of vanity content, and everyone is judged on their looks, personality, perceived intelligence, and lifestyle. Every day, friends, fans, and followers vote for their favorite candidates by reacting to, or ignoring, content.
The presentations of perfect lifestyles, relationships, bodies, and careers can cause even the most confident and self-assured person to occasionally wonder whether they’re good enough, doing enough, or “likable”. Relatively superficial showcases and trivial talk drown out the voices of the people who need our compassion, empathy, and support the most. If Carlee’s social media posts were any indication, maybe she felt her actions needed to be louder than her words.
When we’re in crisis, we sound the alarm. If the crisis is prolonged or unresolved, the pain manifests in desperate attempts to draw attention to it. Sometimes, the alarm is audible - loud and thunderous. Other times, it’s more subtle, almost silent and shows up as the person being withdrawn, reclusive, unfriendly, or antisocial.
I know what it’s like to be in pain and not know how to process it; and you want to be heard and understood, but you don’t have the language to express what you feel. You want someone to acknowledge the pain that they don’t know you’re in. While reviewing the edits of a chapter in my book, I was reminded of a time in my childhood when I experienced multiple traumas and felt unimportant in my extended family. I responded by withdrawing and building a tough exterior. I was labeled mean, and stuck-up. I was misunderstood and otherwise unnoticed.
I took some time to consider the deeper conversations we must have with ourselves and others. Whether you believe Carlee’s behavior was criminal, sinister, or irresponsible, done for attention or due to a mental health episode, it’s clear that she was having a crisis. Am I saying that she shouldn’t be held accountable? Not at all. But, because our systems take a punitive versus rehabilitative or reconciliatory approach, many times we confuse punishment and condemnation with accountability.
I believe that something was missing from Carlee’s life long before she decided that the only way to be heard was to become invisible. A staged abduction is an obvious cry for help. Before attacking, mocking, criticizing, or ridiculing someone desperately vying for attention, ask yourself what is this really about.
I hope this incident can teach us to be more compassionate towards people and recognize that everyone matters. I hope we won’t become numb to the stories of people who are missing, hurting, or victimized, and that we will continue to respond with urgency and compassion.
I’d love to hear your story. To what lengths have you gone to say, I am here, I matter, and I have a voice and presence that needs validation?