Last February 7, something happened that shocked the little insulated world I lived in.
By now you may have heard of it – a family of five were found all dead in their suburban house in San Juan that day. The daughter, Amanda, was a former schoolmate, and when news of her death reached our family, it was met with disbelief. Surely this was a joke? And it was a sick one at that. But it was true, and with every news update that followed, we came to realize the extent and gravity of the situation.
She was found in her bedroom, while her parents and two brothers were found in the master bedroom; all had plastic bags wrapped over their heads. The police were alerted after their neighbor and the administrator of their building both received suicide notes. Evidence pointed to filicide and subsequent suicide by the parents.
The fact that this tragedy happened here so close to home was what made it so surreal. Things like these only seem to happen in distant countries like the US. Yet, the profile of the Hsieh family fit into that of so many typical Lasallian families. Their family, while not extremely wealthy, were well-off. The daughter attended Ateneo, while the two sons studied at a prestigious all-boys school. They were not some grainy photo of a drug-addicted stranger on the news channel. They were normal, well-adjusted children. They were students, blockmates, classmates, org members, friends. Suddenly, the news became uncomfortably human.
Hearing others talk about the tragedy, wondering what led the parents to do it, condemning them, judging them, it all hit too close to home. They were not a statistic, a newspaper headline to be talked about with your friends on the way to class. And yet, that’s also what they were.
What happened to the Hsieh family was very personal news to me and my family. But I realize that to the majority, that’s all they were – news. In the process of getting important news to the public, some of its humanity will inevitably be lost along the way.
I am not condemning a lack of empathy on the part of the readers. After all, can you really sum up the depth of a tragedy in a few short one-liners? I am guilty of doing the exact same thing just by writing this article. At the same time though, we often forget that a news story is still, in its very essence, a human story. Although we know on some abstract level that victims featured on the news were real people who were important to their loved ones, they often seem like characters in a story, far away and not very relevant to your day-to-day life.
The story of Amanda and her family jolted me from that comfortable way of viewing news. The buffer of impersonality was stripped away the moment the news came from my brother’s friend. I can’t help but compare the effect she had on my family to the 44 soldiers killed in Mamasapano. While the death of the 44 were a terrible national tragedy, Amanda had a more profound impact simply because we shared the same community. I do not trivialize one tragedy in favor of the other, but we just can’t help that we react more to news more closely connected to ourselves. But as they say, we are all connected in some sense.
It’s so easy keep that layer of disinterest whenever news of conflict and distress are reported. But it is important to be conscious of that, and to remember that there are real people behind the stories. Be moved by the stories. Be affected, and allow stories like Amanda and the 44 fallen become a bit more personal, because it is when we can understand their human aspect that we become more active in bringing about social change.