Responsibility for Hannah Graham
I didn’t know Hannah Graham. I do not know Jesse Matthew. I do not know what happened after he caught up with her that night. I live in Charlottesville. I do know the downtown mall and the businesses and houses along Hannah’s route from the area around the University of Virginia towards her final stop that night. One persistent, troubling question has nagged me since her disappearance. Why did no one take responsibility for her that night? Why no responsibility taken for the actions of Jesse Matthew, described by many downtown restaurant employees as a nighttime fixture, known for his aggression towards young women? Why was his threatening behavior, “always hitting on the drunkest girl at the bar,” tolerated? Here’s what I mean by “responsibility.” When talking about the concept of responsibility with children, I look at the root of the word: response. I explain that pieces of the world call my name and ask me to answer. Responsibilities come from living in the world—dues I pay as a member of the planet. I give them examples from my life, and they share plenty of their own. We’re not invisible. We are interrelated. It’s up to each of us whether we respond to situations and how. Assuming responsibility gives us opportunities to play our parts. We can also choose not to answer.
Omission, not doing anything, constitutes a decision—it is a response and sometimes it is a wise one. But, in the case of these two individuals, how much regret about inaction, suffered by how many, bruises their hearts now? From the moment Hannah left for dinner with friends, she was with or around people. Until the very end, she was seen by employees of a bar where Matthew had been drinking and where he bought drinks for them. Though the hour was late, people still stroll the mall, look out windows, and sit at outdoor tables. Police patrol the mall. Phones dial 911. Forces can rally.
She was in obvious trouble. Collectively, we looked the other way at clear distress. He was trouble. Collectively, we looked the other way, for a long time. I do not know what happened at Liberty University or Christopher Newport University where Matthew was accused of sexual assaults. The charges were dropped—he left school. Having taught college students for a long time, however, I do know that institutional support can fail a woman bringing charges, whether on campus or in the judicial process. Hopefully these accusers received justice.
“Response to Graham Shows Area’s Compassion” is the title of the editorial in today’s (October 19, 2014) Charlottesville “Daily Progress.” The editorial concludes “The involvement is inspiring. The compassion is genuine. And the unity is real.” Yes, those who searched so unflaggingly hard for Graham rendered enormous service. Yes, the parents of Morgan Harrington with their “Help Save the Next Girl Campaign” call us to hope again and action henceforth.
But we also honor Hannah’s memory by questioning how this could have happened. What about Care? What about Responsibility? The unadulterated, searing sorrow of Hannah’s parents deserves our individual looks within.
Marietta McCarty is a philosopher and author based in Charlottesville, Va. For more information on McCarty, visit www.MariettaMcCarty.com
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