This Monday we are pleased to offer a piece on “affluenza” from L. Kerr Dunn. a writer, health humanities scholar, and editor of the collection Mysterious Medicine: The Doctor-Scientist Tales of Hawthorne and Poe. You can find her online on Facebook, Twitter, and her website.
In a 2015 Washington Post article, columnist Ruth Marcus labeled Donald Trump the “affluenza candidate,” comparing him to Ethan Couch, the teenager who killed four people in Texas while driving drunk in 2013. Couch’s defense psychologist argued that he’d been brought up with so much privilege he couldn’t understand the consequences of his actions. This defense strategy relied upon the pretense that affluenza was a legitimate medical diagnosis. It isn’t. It’s worth noting, however, that the term, a hybrid of “affluence” and “influenza,” is rooted in the idea of viral sickness. And it does seem to have “gone viral.” Twenty-first century Americans aren’t the first to conceive of bad behavior as a sickness—or to consider how affluenza sits at the intersection of politics and health. Around 100 years before the term “affluenza” was coined, Nathaniel Hawthorne handled these themes in his tale “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle.”
Set in pre-revolutionary America, “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle” is both a political allegory and a cautionary tale of disease. The title character is a British aristocrat who bears striking similarities to 21st century affluenza “sufferers.” She’s reckless and self-involved, and she treads—quite literally— on others. “When men seek to be trampled upon,” she reasons scornfully, “it were a pity to deny them a favor so easily granted—and so well deserved!” Her lack of empathy is so apparent that “right-minded” individuals have doubts about her “seriousness and sanity.” In fact, her “haughty consciousness of her hereditary and personal advantages” has made her “almost incapable of control.”
Of course, Lady Eleanore represents the British aristocrat’s attitudes toward American colonists, but doesn’t this description of her character sound familiar? Trump has been accused of being unable to hold his tongue—to the point that some have questioned his sanity. Ethan Couch’s defense team essentially argued that he didn’t have the emotional tools to be a productive—or at least not a destructive—member of society. A Ryan Lochte defender called him a “kid,” as if to suggest he should be forgiven because his crime was one of youthful carelessness and not the irresponsible action of a 32-year-old man.
Much like the judges in the case of Couch, however, a British Officer, Captain Langford, believes Lady Eleanore is above punishment because of her ancestry. Isn’t this what Couch’s lawyer was arguing with the affluenza defense? Isn’t this the implicit message sent by judges like Aaron Persky who fail to give just punishments to men like Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer convicted of sexual assault?
In the case of Lady Eleanore, a physician, Doctor Clarke, predicts that justice will ultimately be served: “See, if that nature do not assert its claim over her in some mode that shall bring her level with the lowest!” he proclaims. A cosmic justice does come in the form of epidemic disease. For Lady Eleanore has brought small-pox with her from Britain in the beautiful mantle she wears, a mantle that by her own admission represents her overweening pride. Unfortunately, when justice arrives, it affects not only Lady Eleanore but members of all social classes, indicating that Lady Eleanore’s type of sickness—both literal and figurative—has the potential to ravage entire populations.
Hawthorne’s allegorical tale demonstrates that “affluenza” and all its trappings are nothing new. The metaphor of contagion is appropriate in the 21st century when individuals from across social classes are drawn to and defend the carelessness, bigotry, and even criminal behavior of those who’ve been given every advantage to know and do better. Has affluenza become contagious? If so, how rapidly is it spreading and through what routes of transmission? By providing us a text that touches upon these questions in a broader sense, Hawthorne’s tale invites speculation about the intersections of American politics, privilege, and health. Hopefully, discussions of this tale will include conversations about the importance of empathy, compassion, and social justice, forces for good that may contribute to the affluenza “cure.”
Dooley, Sean and Alexa Valiente. “How an ‘Affluenza’ Label Was Used in DUI Manslaughter Case Involving Drunk Teen.” ABC News Website. (October 14, 2015).
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle: Legends of the Province House III.” Twice Told Tales, vol. 2. http://www.eldritchpress.org/nh/lem.html
Marcus, Ruth. “Donald Trump is the Affluenza Candidate.” The Washington Post (December 31, 2015).
Mosbergen, Dominique. “Brock Turner Juror Skewers ‘Lenient’ Judge Aaron Persky in Letter: ‘Shame On You.’” Huffington Post (June 14, 2016).