As soon as I heard the story of 16-year-old Texan driver, Ethan Crouch, I was immediately struck with the inequity of the sentence handed down by Texas Judge, Jean Boyd. In what can only be described as a drunken crime spree, Ethan Couch, with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit (actually there is a zero-tolerance for teenagers), slammed his pickup into four pedestrians, killing Brian Jennings, 43-year-old Burleson youth minister; Breanna Mitchell of Lillian, 24; Shelby Boyles, 21, and her 52-year-old mother, Hollie Boyles. Pleading guilty to four counts of Intoxication Manslaughter, Ethan was sentenced to ten years of probation and a two-year vacation at a $450,000/year long-term rehabilitation center (Newport Academy) in the super affluent community of Newport Beach, California. In Texas, each count of Intoxication Manslaughter is charged as a second-degree felony and carries a prison term of at least two but no more than 20 years; and a fine of up to $10,000. Ethan’s lawyers trotted out their expert witness, psychologist Gary Miller, and argued that the lad suffered from a condition called “affluenza” and should therefor receive leniency in sentencing.
What is “affluenza”? Trained as a paralegal, I was intrigued by this novel new legal defense. I thought I would do a little investigating. Please note, I am approaching this topic as an academic and legal research project. I am interested in finding authorities that the court would find persuasive.
Please note, you have to be really careful when typing “affluenza” into a word processor or your smart phone as it will absolutely get auto-corrected. (For those of you who like to keep your software updated, here are instructions for adding a new word to your computer spell-checker. Please note, the computer is going to tell you that the word doesn’t actually exist. You have to manually override the computer and insist that you are smarter than the linguist who created it.)
I like new words and just because you can’t find the word in Webster (it isn’t in there), doesn’t mean it isn’t a real word. We are just going to have to look in some “non-traditional” secondary sources.
The Mayo Clinic is usually a reliable source: “We’re sorry, your search for “affluenza” returned no results.”
WebMD is usually up to date: “There were no matches for affluenza. Please try your search again.”
Harvard Medical School: “No Results.”
It occurred to me that potentially this was a psychiatric disorder, so I consulted the penultimate source for mental disorders. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), used by clinicians and researchers to diagnose and classify mental disorders, is the product of more than 10 years of effort by hundreds of international experts in all aspects of mental health. The DSM-V is the most comprehensive, current, and critical resource for clinical practice. The information contained in the manual is also valuable to other physicians and health professionals, including psychologists, counselors, nurses, occupational and rehabilitation therapists, as well as social workers and forensic and legal specialists. The book is really expensive, so I downloaded the Table of Contents. Not in here either.
Perhaps we are dealing with the very bleeding edge of modern psychiatry, so I checked the American Psychiatric Association for any mention of “affluenza,” but again, I was rebuffed: “No Matching Records found for your search.”
We all know that The Principles of Medical Ethics says “A physician shall uphold the standards of professionalism, [and] be honest in all professional interactions…,” so I pressed on in my research, not wanting to believe that psychologist, Gary Miller would mislead the Court. That’s called Aggravated Perjury (Texas Penal Code, Section 37.02) and is a felony of the third degree. Perhaps there is a peer-reviewed, double-blind study reported in a scientific journal. I must admit, I am a little out of my depth when it comes to psychiatric research, but I plowed on looking for any mention of “affluenza” in the largest repository of scientific research. Elsevier is the world’s leading provider of science and health information. Elsevier serves more than 30 million scientists, students and health and information professionals worldwide. They partner with a global community of 7,000 journal editors, 70,000 editorial board members, 300,000 reviewers and 600,000 authors. They have never heard of “affluenza.”
At this point, having exhausted all the traditional, reliable and trustworthy sources, I had to resort to some tertiary source material. I am not being an academic snob when I say that Wikipedia is not considered a reliable source. When it comes to legal research, the court would not find it persuasive. However, Wikipedia comes to the rescue with the source of the term: “The Golden Ghetto”, by Jessie H. O’Neill, granddaughter of Charles Erwin Wilson, one-time president of General Motors first coined the term. A psychotherapist, O’Neill has based her professional practice on understanding and treating the problems of those who have amassed great wealth, and her book is both a description of their lives and an analysis of and prescription for the problems they’ve had to face.
The term was later popularized in a best-selling book. “Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic is a 2001 anti-consumerist book by documentary filmmaker John de Graaf , environmental scientist David Wann, and economist Thomas H. Naylor. You can find the book in the “popular culture” section of your local bookstore. In their book, “affluenza” is described as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” The authors of the book describe it as a “humorous critique of American consumerism.” I am certain this is a great book. I entirely agree with the premise. A peer reviewed, double-blind, scientific study it is not. I spoke with one of the authors of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic:
“This was a travesty of justice. In our theory, the disease of overconsumption affects everyone who is exposed to consumer culture in some ways, but I can’t imagine a poor kid getting off for stealing a pair of Nikes because of an “affluenza” defense…hell, we’ve locked up homeless people for years for stealing a blanket. This is clearly a case of money talks, and if this kid is not responsible, then his parents should serve the jail time. But in one way, the case IS a microcosm of our affluenza-infected society. In our limitless pursuit of stuff, we have acted completely irresponsibly where fairness is concerned and where the environment is concerned, and this irresponsible societal behavior is responsible for countless deaths. We are tearing down mountains, changing the climate, wasting resources, incarcerating people at uheard of rates, punishing the poor (cutting food stamps, unemployment insurance–a horror of the new budget deal) for the financial speculation of the rich and to avoid taxing them. All of these are the social irresponsibilities that come from affluenza. But even liberals don’t fully get the environmental crisis. They see growth as the answer to everything much the way conservatives do; they just suggest a different way to get it. But limitless growth is impossible on a finite planet and it simply puts off the need to redistribute wealth, which is essential in our society.” – John de Graaf
I placed my order on Amazon and made sure not to select “Drone Shipping.”
So, in review, defense attorneys presented a psychologist who testified about a clever portmanteau, a literary device which combines the two words, “influenza” and “affluence,” as an actual psychiatric condition. They attributed a constellation of symptoms more commonly known as “depression,” “entitlement,” “selfishness,” and “alcoholism,” on a metaphorical illness that only affects spoiled-rotten rich kids. Even more outrageous than the illness is the cure. Apparently, contrary to conventional wisdom, those afflicted with “affluenza” must not face the consequences of their behavior. They must be treated with daily beach trips, beautiful sunsets and a high-fiber diet in the lap of luxury. We should all be so lucky.
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