When things go bump in the night at Yale University it becomes national news. I've never really understood why that is the case, but I have been sucked up in the maelstrom of Yale-related hype: More than a decade ago, I found myself on Good Morning America wondering why the prosecution of a young man for forging transcripts to gain admission to Yale was such a big deal.
This weekend a new whirlwind churns: A young Yale graduate student has turned up missing. Annie Le, 24, went to her laboratory to work on Tuesday at about 10 a.m. She has not been seen since. She was set to marry later in the week. But she is gone. Now it is national news. Why?
Yesterday local television stations broke into the broadcast of nationally televised college football games to report on the Le case. We learned that bloody clothing was found hidden behind ceiling tiles in the building in which she was last seen. Still later, we learned that law enforcement held a press conference. Ms. Le is still missing. Today the Internet is abuzz: The FBI is checking a Hartford landfill with scent-trained dogs. I suspect People magazine will have a big spread on the story in its next issue.
The loss of innocence is always compelling, and the Le disappearances sings of such loss. This demur young woman represents hope. She is young. She is beautiful. She was soon to be wed to her very own Prince Charming. And the young woman was brilliant, too, a doctoral candidate at one of the nation's leading universities.
But sorrow falls all trees in the forest, given enough time. Why the national angst over this beautiful young stranger?
I start evidence in a trial tomorrow in which my client is accused of murdering one young woman and shooting another young woman with the intent to kill her. They were in the man's kitchen. He claims self-defense. The kitchen was a tiny room, the two women and another woman attacked him. He shot to survive. Is this not as American a tragedy as the disappearance of Annie Le? Yet we will not fight off throngs of reporters to gain admission to the courthouse. The case may well go unreported in the press. You see, the victims and client are lower middle-class, and their dreams never carried them across the threshold of one of the nation's status palaces. They were lucky to pay each week's bills, living, as they did, off the sweat of their brows.
When ordinary people die it isn't news.
Yale's Gothic towers cast a long shadow not just over New Haven, but over the dreams and imagination of millions of Americans. We may be a land promising equality to all, but the secret desire to escape the chains of necessity common to all and to live a charmed life is given tangible shape at such places as Yale.
Is it any wonder that so many of our fairy tales involve king's castles, commoners becoming princes, and reversals of fortunes transforming commoners into virtuous nobles? Our fascination with the Le case arises not out of the quotidian details of yet another life undone. No, this time it is our dreams that have been assaulted. Ms. Le was a commoner en route to becoming a princess. Yet she's gone missing now from the king's palace, and this before she was to wed.
We are transfixed by the Le disappearance not out of genuine concern for her, but because her disappearance robs us of hope. Yale stands not so much as an institution of higher education in the minds of many Americans as it does a wondrous palace where miracles happen to ordinary people.
Only this time we are reminded that our fairy tales sometimes cannot withstand the horrific nightmares that define the lives of all too many Americans.