You Talkin' to Me?: "Pictures of You"

What is it about sifting through old photographs that's so profoundly sad? Maybe it's that there's a certain kind of melancholy already working by the time we pull out the dusty album or the box stuffed with crumpled images. Some are out of focus, faded, over-exposed, others filled with people whose names are long forgotten, a few capture an instant of actual emotion, conjuring up a genuine smile or the sting of welling tears. Perhaps it's just that tangible moments you can hold in your hand offer some sort of proof -- instead of the oblique workings of reconstructed memory that the mind tends to recall when filtering through the past.

And what must Susan Smith think when she leafs through old photos? Not just the ones of her dead children, the ones she confessed to killing one night last October, but the ones of her own childhood. Those photos must exist: snapshots chronicling her life, freezing in time a day when her father still lived, before he blew his brains out. Pictures of her step-father looking just as normal and upright as any dad are sure to be in the album, and looking at them, there's probably no hint that -- just like a lot of dads -- he was creeping into her room at night.

Most likely there are pics that show Susan being silly, wearing party hats and prom dresses, less likely that there's a snapshot of her first suicide attempt -- the one that supposedly took place when she was just 13 -- or the one a few years later. Not likely that anyone thought to bring a camera to the emergency room to capture those distinctly un-Kodak moments. Just as well, probably.

People are calling Smith "the most hated woman in America," a medusa who cried on cue, lied, and -- worst of all -- fooled a lot of people into believing her for a little while. The bits we know of her story are so fascinating and so horrible that we couldn't look away. We need be certain that she's a monster, an inhuman freak, a mutant mother that killed tiny children in cold blood. She can't, she mustn't, be like us.

But she is like us. In a high school photo, she smiles right at the camera, a pretty, sweet-faced girl voted "friendliest" by her class. There's no getting past the fact that this is the same person who rolled her burgundy Mazda Protege down a ramp with three-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alex strapped in the back seat. The same one who made up a story about a scary black man who stole her car and her kids; the same person who begged an imaginary kidnapper to have mercy and return her sweet babies unharmed.

And whether or not she watched as Michael and Alex sunk out of sight, whether or not she killed them because her boyfriend didn't want someone else's kids, whether or not she really went to the lake looking to commit suicide that night, the fact remains that she is more like us than not. She is human, and so are we. And if Smith could do this thing that speaks so profoundly of taboo and horror and a wrongness that somehow goes beyond murder, perhaps we all could. It's a scary thought, and when people are afraid, often times they get good and goddamn mad to hide it.

The parade of looky-loos at the John D. Long lake in Union, South Carolina makes good footage for the evening news. They troop past the shrine to the boys, heaped with soggy teddy bears and flowers. Many of them bring their children, which seems cruel, apt to prompt dreams of water rushing in through windows, and a mommy who stands, dry-eyed, watching. When they're interviewed for the cameras, these parents tend to clutch their kids to their breasts and say things like, "Killing's too good for her. She should be locked in a room surrounded by photos of those kids for the next 50 years." Their children nod, their eyes wide and scared.

There's a 900 number people can call to cast their vote: "Should Susan Smith receive the death penalty?" Push one for yes; two for no. The entrepreneurs behind this enterprise promise to forward the results to President Clinton. Experts are cited who claim Smith mustn't take the stand, since she'll surely testify with an aim at persuading a jury to put her to death. Her ex-husband wants her to fry. Local business people just wish that "they would resolve it quickly," since the trial is "bad for business."

And we watch, and read, unable to look away, sure that if we can only hear all the details, see all the evidence, that there will be a reason why that makes some sort of sense. If we can only see all the pictures laid out side by side in an album, arranged in careful, chronological order, we'll be able to prove that Susan Smith isn't like us, not even a little bit.

Because the alternative is just too much to bear.

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