The Cherry Sisters

Not only do many Americans have bad taste, but they seem to love nothing better than celebrating it. Here in the Homeland of Security, we have never been renowned for our refined sensibilities. Though the vaudeville circuit of the early Twentieth Century honed the talents of many fine performers, it also purveyed some terrible acts, one, in particular, that was famous — like the Dog Boy or the Human Pretzel in the carnivals of the day — simply because it was so terrible. The Cherry Sisters, five real siblings from the rural heartland, were pilloried by critics, booed by theatergoers and bombarded with rotten fruit and vegetables everywhere they toured.

The proprietors of the palaces of popular entertainment actually strung nets around the stage to catch the putrid missiles flung at the Sisters, as this was the highlight of every show in which they appeared.

The Cherrys, alas, are with us no longer. They have gone on to that great, net- festooned stage in the sky. I may occasionally wish to lob a nice, overripe tomato at the TV screen during American Idol or the Jerry Springer Show, but that most-therapeutic of responses to entertainment of crapulous quality is no longer a socially-acceptable outlet. When two of my cousins began razzing me about having “left my kid at the side of the road down in Florida,” I was puzzled — especially since I have no kids, I don’t drive and I have never even been to Florida. Then I did what they had done and Googled my name, only to see it on “Stupid Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “News of the Weird.”

I had always taken it comfortably for granted that, unlike the Sam Smiths or Jane Joneses of this world, I had a name too unique to be shared with anybody else. Little did I know! Far less that another Lori Heine would earn infamy for having left her seven-year-old son at the side of a busy road after a dispute with him over a McDonald’s Happy Meal. At least some, lowbrow segment of the American populace seems to have had big fun with it all. And at least one of the Cherry Sisters lives!

Now, let me make it quite clear that I do not at all take lightly what this other Lori Heine is said to have done; I am neither apologizing for, nor attempting to excuse, her behavior. I am no “moral relativist,” who believes that irresponsible conduct ought to be condoned. Nor do I relish the possibility of being mistaken for this very troubled human being. As a writer, the majority of whose readership is the societally-besieged gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community, I have no doubt that many of our self-proclaimed enemies would be all too willing to confuse me with her. To more than a few anti-gay zealots, the fact that a little checking would reveal us to be two different people would be even less worth the effort than it would be for a few lazy reporters.

I would like to know just what all those who got a great kick out of publicly ridiculing this woman-with-my-name might offer as their reason for piling it on her the way they have. I’m sure they’d claim some lofty moral purpose, most likely that they were expressing their high-minded outrage: that they were shocked — SHOCKED — that she did such an awful thing to her child. I, however, have to doubt the purity of their motives. And not only because one of these wags could not resist remarking that, in her place, he or she would have been tempted to do the very same.

Did even one of this pack of wolves ever pause to wonder whether all this “News of the Weird” stardom would make life better for this little boy, or whether it might only make it worse? Did anybody out there in the land of the cheap-shot media even bother to consider whether their “coverage” of this sad episode in the child’s life might expose him to even more ridicule and shame at school? They were shocked — SHOCKED, they tell us — over how this boy’s mother treated him. So shocked and so outraged, it seems, that they were all too happy to make the whole ordeal even worse for him and prolong it for as long as possible.

Even the mother herself, no matter what she’s done, is unlikely to be edified or improved by such a piranha feeding-frenzy. If she’s got a problem with substance abuse, as has been at least hinted, it’s doubtful that being laughed-at by what must seem like half the world is going to make her want to do anything but climb the rest of the way into the bottle and drown herself. But of course, even there, the piranhas would be waiting. They are, you see, only serving the public. And the public wants all the misery and destruction (at least, of anybody not themselves) that it can get.

What does all this say about the state of the American soul? And is this evidently sad state a relatively recent development, or was it already in its full, foul-smelling blossom when the Cherry Sisters first took the stage?

Would I have been so sensitive about the way this story was handled if this woman had had a different name? Probably not, though it would still have been the sort of cheap dumpster-dive that disgusts me; it disgusts me the way the Jerry Springer Show disgusts me. I’ve no greater desire to dwell upon such a pathetic story than I would a train wreck. Maybe I would have gotten one or two chuckles out of such a tale about a woman with another name — keeping in touch with my Inner thirteen-year-old — but a mere moment later, I would have felt guilty, ashamed and soiled. The fact that she and I share a name in common, however, does awaken in me a strange sense of empathy. As vastly different as each of our lives is from the other, nonetheless there, but by the grace of God, goes Lori Heine.

As a society, we very well may be getting exactly the sort of media we deserve. We don’t want a media that awakens our compassion for those who are having a harder time in life than we are. All we want to do is jeer and feel smugly superior. Of course, somebody will point out to me that some people “deserve” their own suffering — that they have “brought it all on themselves.” Though actually, human life is often like a journey along a supersonic freeway, upon which, once we’ve taken a single wrong turn, we may find it next to impossible ever to get off at an exit and head back in the right direction.

Of course this doesn’t mitigate our own responsibility for the choices we make. But the consequences of those choices, when they turn out badly, are usually bad enough all by themselves. How does it help us when others take no further interest in our lives than to reap enjoyment from our pain? And how many of the blessings we enjoy, in any of our lives, are actually rewards for our own, stellar virtue — while how many others simply fell into our laps, unearned and perhaps even (at least in the eyes of others) unmerited?

In any case, the desire in us is plainly, all to often, to kick others down instead of helping them up. The public couldn’t heap sufficient abuse on the Cherry Sisters simply by pelting them with rotten fruit. The press never missed an opportunity, besides, to proclaim their homeliness to the world.

I see no need to repeat here the fun critics had at the expense of the Sisters’ long, bony legs, frazzled hair, ill-fitting costumes and mud-fence-plain features. Suffice it to say, it isn’t hard to see why none of them ever had husbands. Many modern social critics bemoan the “looksism” of present-day American culture, as if we moderns invented it. But it seems that Americans have relished picking on people less-attractive than themselves for generations.

Our media only give us what they think we want — which is to say, what we have given them every reason to think we want. They are far more a reflection of us than we are of them. It is irresponsible to claim that the media “is making us the way we are.” There are actually a wide variety of different media, not merely the most popular voices heard. We have a choice as to what we will read, listen to and watch. And if we, as a society, began to change what we expected and accepted from the media, then either the Big Boys would change what they broadcast, post and print, or else those Big Boys would be shrunken small and have to watch the Little Guys outgrow them.

The readers of Whosoever are, however, ahead of the curve. The very fact that you take an interest in the alternative media demonstrates your disenchantment with the standard, mainstream fare. And the proliferation of webzines, blogs, podcasts, low-power radio stations, community-access TV programs and alternative publications gives encouraging testimony to the fact that many of us — like the wigged-out broadcasting big shot in the movie, Network — are “mad as hell” and “not going to take it anymore.” Give yourselves a hearty hand. You know very well that the Emperor has no clothes, and if you help to spread the word, far and wide, to the general populace, then you can offer us all some genuine hope.

Part of the reason, of course, for Mama Heine’s vilification is that she — gasp!!! — might not be the best of mothers. Fathers are allowed to fail spectacularly at parenting, but mothers, evidently, are not even permitted an occasional bad day. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich abandoned his family — serving his first wife with divorce papers while she was still in the hospital recovering from a double mastectomy — so he could go ahead and marry the woman with whom he’d been committing adultery, and he left his first wife so destitute that her church had to help her support their kids. Nobody on the “moral” Right saw anything wrong with this, but they were gleefully hopeful that the rumor, floated on hate-radio, that anti-Iraq War activist Cindy Sheehan allegedly gave up custody of her son, Casey, to her first husband after their divorce, would be enough to sink her like the Titanic.

Excuse me, but not only does this have nothing at all to do with the cause for which Cindy is speaking (when you ask the Right a question it doesn’t want to answer, of course they always change the subject), but it also brings up a very interesting question. Does it always automatically mean that a parent is a bad parent, and does not love the kids, if the ex gets custody? If it disqualifies a mother from speaking out against the war in which her son was killed because he might once have lived with his dad, then it certainly disqualified “family values candidate” Ronald Reagan from being President because Maureen and Michael were raised by Jane Wyman instead of by Nancy.

Where was the father of Lori Heine’s little boy? Are we to believe that he’s another Ward Cleaver, or does the fact that he’s made himself so invisible that, for whatever reason, he isn’t even in the picture account for why the media did not poke even the gentlest of fun at him? Had the boy no father, at least at one time, then this whole story would have been interesting for an entirely different reason. Maybe we’ll all get to hear about that in next month’s “News of the Weird.”

Let’s just go ahead and follow the implications of exactly where the Conservative Big Media is taking us with their raking-over-the-coals of women like Cindy Sheehan and the other Lori Heine. Yeah, by all means let’s go there, so they can hurry up and change the subject yet again. If it’s so all-fired much more heinous for a mother to be a lousy parent than it is for a father, then it doesn’t take “one man and one woman” to raise a child, because the mother is really the vastly more important parent. As a matter of fact, it means that she’s the only one who counts. So let’s go ahead and pay women twice as much as men get paid for the same jobs, by all means let’s make sure that divorced dads never get custody of their kids (not even on weekends!), and let’s ban marriage for anybody but lesbians.

The media are supposed to be exposing this sort of silliness, not letting it go unaccounted for, so that it can grow on and on and get really big and smelly, like the mold behind the toilet in a bathroom nobody ever cleans.

The whole reason for the existence of a free press is that it should serve, not as a mouthpiece for the rich and powerful, not as a catechist for the Church of the Status Quo, but as the voice of truth for all the people. Its primary function is not to lie or lecture the peasants into submission, but to speak truth to power — even when power doesn’t want to hear it, even when power threatens it, even when power tries to shut it up and shut it down.

In fact, the mainstream media is participating in the moral and spiritual degradation of the people. It serves the same function for the public as a drug-dealer serves for a junkie. Or a pimp for a john. Were they to sniff out a story about a mother (a poor one, anyhow) who fed her kids Twinkies and Coke instead of green vegetables and milk, they would surely broadcast her transgression on jumbo-trons of societal shame like “Stupid Crimes and Misdemeanors.” But these so-called journalists feed the public nothing but Twinkies and Coke — if not heroin and crystal meth.

If the media take anybody seriously, it is themselves, and any thing, it is their own, glorious little careers. They won’t show themselves on jumbo-tron, because they have absolutely no ability to laugh at themselves. And serious criticism is even more utterly out of the question. They’re busy doing exalted work, can’t we see that? They’re protecting children, like a certain little boy whose mother left him at the side of the road, and whose classmates now get to laugh at him every time they Google his mother’s name.

They served the public, back in vaudevillian days, not by warning them away from an excruciatingly hokey act, not by attempting to spare paying customers from having to listen to women who could do no better than screech every time they tried to sing, but by sending them into the theaters in throngs. So they could get their jollies by booing, hissing, guffawing and tossing rotten cabbages (and sometimes even potentially-dangerous projectiles like shoes and wash-boilers) at performers who, by all accounts, actually — and however incredibly — thought themselves highly talented. How did they ever come by such a loopy notion? Well, because people flocked in droves to experience the Cherry Sisters every chance they got. These were farm girls — very simple souls, bless their hearts — and when they gazed nearsightedly out past the footlights at those crowds, they never recognized the evil looking back at them.

Perhaps, in their own way, the Sisters themselves were even consciously guilty of enabling the public’s addiction to junk. “This is what they want,” they may have concluded as they counted up each evening’s take, “so it’s just what we’re gonna go right on giving ’em!” And so the public got its junk. And whenever the Cherry Sisters are mentioned, to this very day, they are the objects of ridicule and scorn. But do we ever dare to ask ourselves whether these ladies would have been so viciously treated had they not been uneducated spinsters from a farm out in the sticks? And can we possibly deny that their very unattachment to (and apparent unattractiveness to) men who might have “taken care” of them played a major part in why they had to tell themselves that their public adored them, even as they counted their money and scrubbed themselves clean of all that rotten produce?

Indeed, how does pandering to ignorant stereotypes about people (women, the poor, substance abusers, gays and lesbians or anybody else) help society in any way? Should we not demand more from our media? Can we complain that they don’t give us more when we never demand it from them?

Lori Marie Heine, of Florida, will live on on the Internet for as long as it has been since the last Cherry Sister departed this earth — while Lori Sue Heine, of Arizona, can sleep tight with relief that all we hold in common are our first and last names. What Florida Lori did was funny enough to make it into “Stupid Crimes and Misdemeanors” (A “Happy Meal!” Haw-haw!). It was as funny as a train wreck. Let’s all take one long look into the mirror. It’s as funny as we are.