The Jukses, the Reeses: good journalism, bad sociology?

Dateline: Tue 23 Sep 2008

Staff writer Francesca Jaroz did a sensatonal job in reporting on the troubled Reese family in Sunday's Star.

The front-page story, about the relentlessly criminal, badass lives of Paul Reese Sr., 66, his wife Barbara Reese, 66, and at least five of their six children, was compelling reading. The headline alone was a grabber: "1 family, 50 convictions." Stark cop shop mug shots of the parents and five siblings completed the package: it was somewhat shamefully fascinating to study each face, looking for physical similarities in this corrupt clan. Or perhaps that telling cranial slant of the head? Those close-set eyes?

The news hook of course was Brian Reese, 36, who is charged in the murder of an older Eastside man (as is the patriarch, Reese Sr.) and the attempted murder of Indianapolis police officer Jason Fishburn (Reese's mother faces charges for trying to whisk her bad boy to safety after he shot Fishburn in the head).

But reading the narrative was like reading the public divorce papers of Mitch and Cheri Daniels --- like peeking at someone's soiled underwear. True, it's all a matter of record, but one has to ask -- what is the point? (In fairness, the paper never wrote in detail about the Daniels' divorce. I guess the gov and his wife passed the sniff test, or something).

God knows, I am not defending the Reeses, nor do I feel as if they are victims here. Yet that's kinda/sorta how the Star tried to present the piece; there were pompous quotes from criminal justice types about the criminal subculture and familial validation for that lifestyle. There was an effort to at least flesh out the mother, who gave a porch interview to the reporter. Mother Reese was portrayed as a Catholic with saints' medals hanging from her neck who scrubbed toilets at the local church and tried hard to raise her kids right, but somehow she just failed (the punishing drugs took over).

God knows, there are glimpses of truth in all of these observations, and the Star's editorial today ("Crime's a family matter and everyone's affair") attempted to advance the age-old argument that the family perhaps could have been better-served "by the community, its laws and programs, its personal representatives." Ultimately, however, the Star concludes that society "cannot impose a solution," that the issue is finally a personal choice (I suspect Catholic Dan Carpenter penned the editorial).

OK, so here's my beef. What was advanced by running this story? Prurient interest to be sure was served, and God knows, I read and re-read every word.

But ultimately I was reminded me of the famous "sociological" studies done in the 1870s and again revived in the second decade of the 1900s about the Jukes family. The point then was to study deviant criminal behavior and trace it back to a ma and a pa; later on, the point was to use the original research to promote eugenics.

That was bad science and scary stuff -- in fact, there was no single "Jukes" family, but a compilation of 42 New York families (including one named the Bushes, ho ho). Those studies have been repudiated by contemporary social science, which still is left scratching its head to come to terms with the root causes of crime and the evils of the human heart.

The Star's story was an ambitious attempt. While it was no doubt well-read, I think it failed simply because it was not nuanced enough, as most journalism is not. Perhaps the Reese family could make an excellent documentary, with much more information and interviews with each person. (Why did loyal Catholic Barbara Reese stick with her no-count husband, even after she divorced him when she was in prison? And why did she embezzle all that money herself from a bank? And did the children indeed feel like outcasts as kids, as a fellow student recalled?)

Or maybe the real truth is more elusive. Therapist Bill Sherwood told me once that he learned nothing at all from all the sociology texts he read in graduate school for social work. 'Twas all gobbly-gook, he said (as is much social science, frankly).

But if you wanted to undrstand alcoholism, Sherwood said, and family dynamics and dysfunction, read "Look Homeward Angel" by Thomas Wolfe, a writer who himself experienced those conditions. My personal favorite is Eugene O'Neill, whose "Long Day's Journey Into Night" tells you more about addiction and family madness and cruelty than anything I've ever read or experienced. Sartre, too, got at the cancer that is the human emotional condition in his plays -- "No Exit."

My advice? Newspapers should either take the risk and go all-out with such a narrative, or they should stick with what they do best. Tell the facts.

Still, I have to admrie the effort. Francesca Jarosz no doubt did the best she could with the space/time she was allotted. But maybe there's a book in the surface she barely scratched.

Of course, there is. And today, that book should not be another failed Jukses account, but something of depth and meaning. As "bad" as the Reeses are, that's what they -- and the rest of us -- deserve.

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