When Human Interest Stories Break Bad
Last year a human interest story powerfully captured an eternally fickle public’s imagination. A drug-addicted homeless man named Johnny Bobbitt gave his final twenty dollars to Kate McClure, a woman whose car had broken down. It was supposed to be an act of Christ-like selflessness from a man who had almost nothing and every reason in the world to be angry yet was somehow capable of such a staggering act of compassion.
This scraggly exemplar of human decency ostensibly did something so kind and out of the ordinary that it quickly went viral and became national news. In return for the man’s help the couple who were the unlikely recipient of the man’s generosity were going to do something exceedingly kind in return. They weren’t just going to give him some money to get some food or a hotel room for a few nights. No, they were going to harness the public’s fascination with their story to give this man a whole new life. They would lift this shaggy do-gooder out of poverty, out of homelessness, out of drug addiction, out of despair. They would provide him with the base components of the American dream: a place to live, some walking around money and an opportunity to get sober, to treat the addictions that contributed to his homelessness.
The story resonated with the general public to the point where nearly a half million dollars pored into a Gofundme page set up for Bobbitt benefit. It was the kind of story that the public adores, a human interest story, a tear-jerking yarn, a heartwarming tale of a man with almost nothing who gave away what little he had to people with so much more.
It’s a story that exploded because it went against what we know about both human nature and the way capitalism and consumerism socialize us to be selfish and relentlessly self-interested, unhealthily competitive and indifferent to the suffering of others. In a grim world it was a touching reminder of mankind’s capacity for transcending ruthless self-interest for the sake of serving humanity.
Things started to go awry very quickly, however. Mo’ money created mo problems when it came out that the couple was refusing to give the homeless man the money on the grounds that he was still an addict and that money the public had earmarked for a good, struggling man’s redemption was instead in danger of becoming a fund to procure potentially lethal hard drugs.
By keeping the man’s money away from him on the basis that he was incapable of handling the money earmarked specifically for him they were metaphorically castrating him, emasculating him, and you do NOT want to castrate a dude, symbolically or otherwise, named Bobbitt. They tend to take that shit VERY personally.
It went beyond that. While the middle-class couple controlling the Gofundme loot were very reluctant to give the homeless man any of the GoFundMe money they were not shy or subtle about spending that money on themselves.
The seemingly simple, heartwarming, upbeat story of a homeless man who gave all and was repaid by an impressed and admiring public a thousandfold morphed into a messier and more common story of conflicting interests, competing stories and good intentions gone hopelessly awry.
This poignant tale of uncommon generosity morphed slowly but surely into a kind of story the public loves even more than heartwarming tales of triumphs over adversity. When it was revealed that the whole situation was a scam that all three participants were in on the human interest story that riveted a wary public turned unmistakably into a true crime yarn, the kind we listen to obsessively on Serial or watch on The Jinx and Making a Murderer.
Finally, this shadowy threesome’s actions began to make sense. They weren’t motivated by rare, difficult to understand motives like altruism, kindness and concern for their fellow man. No, these assholes were even more directly motivated by greed and self-interest than the rest of us. They weren’t secular saints with hearts of gold. No, they were con artists out to fleece the public and line their pockets using newfangled tools like social media and crowd-funding.
Instead of serving as a touching, inspirational illustration of mankind’s goodness this story will endure as a bracing cautionary warning of the dangers of giving money to strangers whose stories might seem too good to be true because they are, in fact, bogus. Instead of encouraging people to follow in the footsteps of the homeless man and be generous to an almost masochistic, self-defeating degree these three creeps have given a wary public ample reason to think twice before giving money to strangers or taking heartstring-tugging stories at face value.
On one level that’s probably healthy. People should do their research before giving their hard earned money to people who might be con artists, liars and thieves. But it sucks that these grifters have given people one more reason not to trust people, their words or their motives.
There’s a great podcast to be made from the situation as well as a movie, or perhaps a pair of movies, one a sentimental Lifetime movie version chronicling the initial iteration of this story, as a heartwarming tale of kindness and self-sacrifice, and the other a gritty, Gillian Flynn-written and David Fincher-directed neo-noir about a trio of desperate criminals whose cynical scheme to get rich was undone by the participants’ inability to put aside their differences for the sake of their shared interest in getting rich and avoiding legal consequences for their actions.
We want to believe the best about people. Yet we’re never particularly surprised to discover the worst about humanity, particularly when large amounts of money and similarly large amounts of ego and attention are involved.
I make my living through crowd-funding, and am not a grifter (honest!) so if you would be kind enough to consider pledging even a dollar a month over at https://patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace it’d be