I was just on my way out the door for work yesterday when my phone rang. My landline, to be specific. (Yes, I still have a landline. It suits my purposes to do so. Don’t hate.) Figuring that it was most likely one of my parents at that hour, I answered it. A voice I didn’t recognize asked, “Is this the blogger Jason Bennion?”
“Are you the Jason Bennion who writes a blog?”
A little uncertain of where this was going or whether I should answer, I finally said, “Um, yeah, I suppose I am. Who’s this?”
The man on the other end identified himself as the brother of Shane Gillette, then immediately launched into a diatribe about how wrong I’d been to make his brother out to be such a dirtbag, because it just wasn’t true. Shane was a good person, the man asserted, who’d battled demons for years, who’d been up for four days hearing voices and was convinced the cops were chasing him that horrible morning, but he’s taking his medication now and he’s just not the dirtbag I describe, he’s not. The man on the phone sounded very emotional about all of this, and was speaking very rapidly, but he finally gave me an opportunity to confess that I didn’t have the slightest idea what or who he was talking about.
“You were a friend of Julie Jorgenson, weren’t you?” he asked.
Ah. Yes. Now I understood. Julie. My coworker who was killed in a car accident a little over two years ago. This man’s brother — Shane Roy Gillette — was responsible for her death.
The man on the phone continued in the same vein as before, repeating over and over that his brother had been misrepresented by the media, that he’d been out of his head and not high on drugs the morning his pickup truck slammed into the rear of Julie’s car with such terrible force, that he hadn’t even known there was marijuana in the truck and that there’s a difference between the inactive THC found in his bloodstream and active THC (I have no idea if this is correct), and that I’d been wrong to write all those things I’d written. I let him talk, not knowing what else to do or say. The man eventually explained that Shane’s attempts to plea-bargain were being denied, and he — the brother who was talking to me — had been googling for information on the case when something from my blog popped up in his search results. (I’m guessing it was probably this entry, in which I said some very unkind things indeed about Shane Gillette.) The man hadn’t appreciated what he read… understandably so, I have to admit.
He was running out of steam now, talking slower and repeating himself more, and I felt like I had to say something to him. “Look, I wrote those things two years ago,” I began. “I was angry, and I was just going on what I’d read in the news. I hope things turn out for your brother.”
The man apparently had been ready for an argument, had expected me to be more defensive or belligerent or something, because I got the distinct impression that the wind had just fallen out of his sails. He mumbled a suggestion that I ought to take down my blog posts, or edit them, and then he said he’d just had to get all this off his chest. I thanked him for offering his perspective. Then he hung up.
I’ve been thinking about the incident ever since. I’m more than a little shaken that he tracked me down at my home. I’ve never made any effort to conceal my real-world identity or location during my online activities, but I also haven’t put my phone number here on my blog and invited disgruntled readers to call or stop by the house. If I were the paranoid type, I’d be locking my doors, hunkering down behind the couch, and jumping at every shadow that flashes across the window shades. Thankfully, this guy didn’t seem to be threatening me or suggesting he wanted to do violence to me. He was just upset that I’d ripped on his brother. As I said, I understand. If I had a brother and stumbled across some smart-ass blogger calling him dirty names, I’d be upset too. However, the caller also expressed a lot of sympathy for Julie’s family, which helped allay some of my worries that he might be waiting behind a bush somewhere. He’s not lacking in empathy.
And neither am I. So I find myself troubled by how easily I’d overlooked the possibility that Shane Roy Gillette might have a family and people who are hurting for him as much as the people who knew Julie are hurting. That Shane himself might not be a monster, but just a guy with problems who had an accident and now has to live with the consequences. I like to think of myself as such a fair-minded person, a genuine liberal all-people-are-essentially-good bleeding heart… but in Gillette’s case, my sense of empathy totally deserted me.
I don’t mean to trivialize this situation in any way, but I keep thinking of the Star Trek episode “Arena.” If you don’t know it, briefly, it begins with an alien lizard race called the Gorn attacking a Federation outpost for no apparent reason. The Enterprise pursues the Gorn ship, intent on destroying it. But when the two ships pass through an unexplored star system, a third race — the mysterious, god-like Metrons — stops them dead in their tracks and sends Kirk and the Gorn captain to a barren desert environment to fight one-on-one… to the death. Naturally, Kirk eventually gets the best of the Gorn and prepares to do him in, but when he has his knife at the creature’s throat, he has a change of heart. He refuses to kill the alien, conceding that maybe the Gorn had had their reasons for attacking the outpost, that perhaps they’d thought they were defending themselves against intruders. The lesson, of course, is that there are two (or more) sides to every story. It’s all a matter of perspective. And we should be willing to exercise a little mercy in light of that fact. By realizing this before he took the Gorn’s life, Kirk passed a test being conducted by the Metrons to determine just how advanced these two combatant species really were. But of course he passed… he’s the hero. I fear that I failed essentially the same test two years ago.
I’m not going to retract or apologize for anything I said about Shane Gillette in the past. Blogs are essentially a stream of consciousness, and I wrote what I wrote at the time I wrote it. I was angry then, and I see my expression of that anger as an act of honesty. I’m still angry about what happened to Julie. Whether Gillette was high or delusional really makes no difference in the big picture — he shouldn’t have been behind the wheel of that truck, and a beautiful young woman died because he was. But I do regret that in my anger, I caused more hurt to people who already had a boatload of it to deal with. I shall try not to make that mistake in the future.
If nothing else, that phone call was a valuable reminder that words have power, and the online world is not so insulated from the real world as we all like to believe.