In light of the shooting death of 18 year old Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer, I re-post this article which I originally posted March 21, 2013, which deals with the killing of Ethan Saylor, a 26 year old man with Down's Syndrome, by three Maryland police officers. I believe many, but not all, of the thoughts expressed in this piece are pertinent to the situation playing itself out in Ferguson.
Today, March 21, is World Down Syndrome Day. In honor of this occasion let us recount the tale of Ethan Saylor, a 26 year old man with Down Syndrome who, on January 11, 2013, went to see "Zero Dark Thirty" with his caregiver in suburban Maryland. When the film ended Ethan's caregiver went to the bathroom, leaving Ethan briefly alone. Ethan then went back into the theater to sit and watch the film again. Theater employees asked Ethan to leave or to buy a ticket. He did neither. Three off-duty police officers who were working as mall security were called in and while forcibly subduing and removing Ethan from the theater, he died. The coroner has ruled the death a homicide. None of the officers involved have been charged with a crime or have even spoken to investigators. Now, you may have a few questions at this point...like...why should I care? What does empathy, fear, eunuchs and hysteria have to do with anything? And what does all this have to do with acting? All excellent questions which I hope to answer as we go along.
Let's start with a definition of empathy. According to Webster's, empathy is "The ability to understand another person's circumstances, point of view, thoughts, and feelings. When experiencing empathy, you are able to understand someone else's internal experiences." Add to that definition "and bring it to life" and there you have a pretty accurate description of the art of acting. Many people conflate empathy with sympathy, though they shouldn't. Sympathy is "feelings of pity or sorrow for someone else's misfortune." Empathy is active, it takes you out of yourself in order to understand the internal workings of another, whereas sympathy is passive and self-centered, focusing on how you feel about the other as opposed to how the other feels. Empathy is a great trait to have for an actor, sympathy is not.
Let's use the incident with Ethan at the movie theater as a case study in a lack of empathy. As stated earlier, Ethan went with his caregiver to go see "Zero Dark Thirty". After the film ended his caregiver went to the bathroom, leaving Ethan alone briefly. At this point Ethan went back into the theater and sat down to watch the movie again. Let us assume that a theater employee, an usher, saw him go back into the theater and sit. The usher would easily be able to recognize that Ethan had Down's Syndrome by his physical appearance, he had all the physical traits and characteristics of someone with Down's. At this point we have failure number one in our lack of empathy. The usher could have simply ignored the situation, or pretended to not have seen Ethan. Even if we give the usher the benefit of the doubt and presume that he did not know that Ethan had already paid for one ticket, the question must be asked, why couldn't he just let the young man watch the movie? How many of us would just turn a blind eye to the situation? What harm is there in that? Well, an answer to that could be that the usher was fearful he would lose his job. He is probably a young guy/girl and needs the money and can't risk losing the job. So, he approaches Ethan and tells him he must buy a ticket or leave. Ethan does neither.
Here we have failure number two in our quest for empathy. The usher would not, or was incapable of, feeling empathy for Ethan. He couldn't place himself in Ethan's shoes and understand that Ethan just wanted to see the movie again and had no comprehension of money or tickets or rules or anything of the sort. The usher could only focus on how Ethan's action affected him. So, the usher goes and gets the manager. Now the manager, we presume, is more experienced than the usher, may be older, may be not, but certainly is at least equipped with the authority to bypass the rules and let Ethan watch the movie where the usher may not have felt he was authorized to do that. So the manager arrives and asks Ethan to buy a ticket or leave. Ethan does neither. Instead of just letting it go, and understanding that Ethan is not, according to reports, causing a scene or disturbing other patrons, the manager now has failure number three in our search for empathy. The manager doesn't think of how or what Ethan is feeling or thinking, he only focuses on how Ethan's actions are affecting him and he doesn't like it, so the manager calls mall security.
Mall security, as was previously stated, are not the run of the milll rent-a-cop mall security. These are three off duty Maryland Sheriffs Deputies. They arrive on the scene and things take a turn for the worse. The security guards/police officers approach and get the story from the theater manager. Now instead of just pulling the manager aside and saying, "Hey, c'mon, this young man has Down's Syndrome, do we really want to make a federal case out of this?", they instead take the manager's side and tell Ethan he has to leave. That is failure number four in our journey to discover the lost trait of empathy.
At this juncture Ethan does something that is anathema to any law enforcement officer, he is 'defiant'. Defiant is an interesting word choice, because some people observing Ethan's behavior would describe him as 'stubborn', a term commonly used to describe people with Down's Syndrome when they sulk and refuse orders, the security guards/police officers though describe Ethan as 'defiant'. At this point we have failure numbers five and six in the eternal quest for empathy. First, Ethan's caregiver returns and is looking for Ethan. She discovers him in the theater and sees the commotion that is happening around him. She explains to the officers that she can talk Ethan into complying if given the chance, but the officers are beyond talking at this point. They disregard her advice, ignore her and have her removed from the area. Then they physically attempt to move Ethan out of the theater. Think about this for a moment, this is not some lone cop fighting for his life on a street corner in Baltimore with some thug but rather these are three grown men, with years of experience and training in law enforcement, and they decide the best course of action is to physically confront and remove a young man with Down's Syndrome, who has all the physical and mental limitations that come with it, from a suburban Maryland theater over a $10 movie ticket. It gets worse, the three officers grab Ethan and throw him to the floor. Standard operating procedure for law enforcement when immobilizing a suspect is to get them face down on the ground, arms spread wide with an officer on each wrist and another officer with a knee in the back of the neck to stop the suspect from getting up. This is what these three grown men, with training and experience did to Ethan Saylor because he didn't pay $10 to see the same movie over again. That is actually not an entirely true statement. Ethan was physically attacked not because he didn't have a ticket, but because he was 'defiant' towards the officers and did not submit to their authority and comply with their demands. In the attempt to force Ethan to comply, the officers killed him.
So this begs the question, what kind of men are these? What 'man' would do that to someone with Down's Syndrome. I hesitate to even call them 'men', for they only barely meet the minimum physical requirements to carry the title. I prefer to call them eunuchs because they are horribly misshapen and malformed 'men'. They are also obviously pathetic cowards completely devoid of any moral or emotional compass. These 'men' are disgusting and revolting savages.
I obviously have an opinion about these 'men' and it isn't favorable in the least, but what would I do if I were cast to portray one of these 'men' in a play or film? It does an actor no good to hate the person they are playing. How would I begin to play these 'men' with any sort of depth or complexity if I already thought so little of them?
To start, I would put their actions into the context of the world in which they live. I would say that these cowardly 'men', are the product of a culture of fear. Fear breeds cowardice and cowardice thrives on fear. So these 'men' live in a world in which we are inundated with things to be afraid of, such as terrorists, that's a big one. We used to be deathly afraid of the god-less communists, but now we are deathly afraid of the god-fanatic terrorists. It's either too much God or not enough. Other rampant fears are child molesters, drug dealers, gang bangers, earthquakes, hurricanes, tidal waves, carbon monoxide, radon gas, mad cow disease, bird flu, nuclear weapons, guns, school shooters, serial killers, grizzly bears, rabies, coyotes, sharks, people who don't look like us, people who do look like us, your neighbors, strangers, friends, family, ourselves, others, sugary cereals and satanists, to name just a few.
In a futile attempt to quell our multiple anxieties, this nation consumes more anti-anxiety medication than the rest of the world combined. Our fear, born of a self-serving, myopic narcissism, has reached the level of hysteria, with daily breathless reports in the media of the next great danger that threatens our very existence. These 'men' were born and raised into this madness, this pandemic of fear, and they absorbed that fear and hysteria and narcissism.
Fear distorts and decays our ability to reason and think rationally. A great example of this is that this week is also the ten year anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. In the lead up to the war we were told that we were in mortal peril. We heard all about mushroom clouds, anthrax attacks, suitcase nukes, clandestine meetings with terrorists, Saddam as Hitler, you name it and we were given it to fear about Iraq. It all was a bunch of bullshit, but that didn't stop the vast majority of the populace from supporting the war. There were people who said it was a bunch of bullshit from the get go, but those people were called traitors and marginalized and ignored. No one listened to those people because no one was capable of hearing them, everyone was in fever with the hysteria of fear.
The culture that created those 'men' who beat and killed Ethan is the same culture that supports and endorses torture. It is the same culture that refuses to hold accountable the government officials who ordered that torture and started an unprovoked war which killed hundreds of thousands. People in Nuremberg were hanged for far less. But this culture says we cannot prosecute our war criminals because it is thought to be too 'politically inconvenient' for anyone to do so, which is nothing less than aiding and abetting torture, a crime in and of itself.
Continuing with the illusion of law and order which bore us these 'men', if the bank forecloses on your house, do you know who comes to throw you out? The sheriffs department, that's who. The police departments are not here to 'protect and serve' the taxpayers, they are here to 'protect themselves and serve the powerful'. How many sheriffs have gone to the homes of the criminal banksters who have swindled billions from pension funds and 401k's with their fraud and theft and dragged them out of their house and into the jail? If you are a drug dealer or drug user you will go to prison for decades, but if you run a bank that launders billions in drug money, you are too big to prosecute, so you not only don't go to jail, the government will make you a deal where you get to keep all the profits and the taxpayers will cover the losses of any deal you make, legal or otherwise. This is the world from which those 'men' were spawned, where 'law and order' is that the powerful buy the 'law' so as to maintain 'order' over the lowly.
How could they not be misshapen and malformed eunuchs? Those 'men' are perfect representatives of the culture which created them. The fear that pervades our society has allowed for a virulent form of impotence to overcome us all. It started with our great fear of the drunk driver, so we got roadblocks to stop us at checkpoints (anything to protect the children!!!) and it has now devolved into no-knock raids where SWAT teams break into houses and shoot dogs in their crates and people in their beds, yet no one in this nation of eunuchs says or does anything about it. This is the new normal, where we think the police will protect us but we really need protection from the police. Everyday in this country law enforcement agents of one kind or another intimidate, assault, harass, beat and murder citizens. These 'men' were birthed into this world, learned at it's knee and brought forth into the world the lessons they had mastered. Torture, aggression and violence are all acceptable but only when they are the one's doing it. The way they treated Ethan Saylor was the way they were taught to treat us all. This is the context in which these 'men' came to be and in which they developed their understanding of the world.
So, how can I, the actor, be more specific in my internal choices when playing one these 'men'? One way would be to understand that in the confrontation with Ethan, the stakes were not just a $10 movie ticket. The stakes for these 'men' were nothing less than the survival of their entire universe. For these 'men' could not allow their authority to be undermined or ignored. Defiance cannot be permitted because if they did not impose order their psyches would implode. Their entire worldview is dependent upon their believing that they are hero's, the good guys who save the day, and everyone who opposes them is an arbiter of chaos. That is the battle here, it is not between three police officers and a man with Down's Syndrome, but rather between good versus evil, order versus chaos. These 'men' HAD to subdue Ethan and force him to submit to their authority or everything that is right and good in the universe would crumble. Chaos would upend the order and their authority would evaporate.
The key to playing these 'men' is to understand that they see themselves as the ultimate hero figures. The use of force is not only justified in this case but is demanded, for chaos cannot be permitted to exist in the face of the authority of order. The 'men' were just imposing the will of their benevolent God, who bestows his great gift of law and order upon us, when they beat Ethan. These officers HAD to impose their authority by any means necessary, regardless if it meant the killing of an innocent, because it was in the duty and service of the righteous and the good. That is the way to get into these characters psyches and portray them with a depth and complexity, giving their actions motivations that go beyond a typical portrayal of evil for evil's sake. Evil for perceived goodness sake is much more compelling, as Ethan no doubt noticed while watching "Zero Dark Thirty" before his untimely death.
In terms of playing a character like Ethan, well there have been many great actors who have played mentally disabled or Down's Syndrome characters. Sean Penn and Leonardo DiCaprio to name two. What those men brought to their roles were great detail, a childlike innocence and compassion, an awe of their surroundings and an unlimited ability to love. This sounds like an apt description of Ethan Saylor from what I have read. Ethan wasn't like the rest of us, warped by our fears and anxieties, he didn't worry about his taxes, or getting a promotion at work, or where his kids would go to college. Down's Syndrome may have limited Ethan's intellect but it didn't limit his passion for life or his ability to love and be loved. He was a young man with a great deal of heart, and an even greater deal of courage.
As an acting exercise, try and find empathy for random people throughout your day. If someone cuts you off in traffic, try and get out of your own head and thinking about how this person's actions affected you but rather think about what may be going on with them. We never know where people are in their lives, maybe that person who cut you off just lost their job, or their daughter is in the hospital or their spouse just left them, who knows. It is just an exercise, this person may in reality be just a jerk, but thinking that way won't give you a chance to exercise your imagination and your empathy muscles. A strange side effect of this exercise is that you may develop a greater capacity for compassion and the world may become a better place for it, who knows.
So in conclusion, in honor of Down's Syndrome day, let us all remember Ethan Saylor and his family and loved ones. The world is a lesser place because of his leaving it. And let us also try and remember to have empathy for those with mental disabilities and those that care for them. They don't want or need our sympathy, but they deserve our empathy and respect.