Peter Behrens Revisits his Family in his novel, The O’Briens

In a very telling moment, during a book tour through the northeast , Peter Behrens wasn’t sure if he wanted to display photos of members of his family, the same people he had fictionalized in his 2011 novel, The O’Briens. While at a small library in New Jersey, with many friends in the audience, he wasn’t able to get the projector set up to turn the photos in a sequence. “I don’t want to lock you up in a room with my relatives,” he joked, but you might say, he just might not have known how much of these people he wanted to expose to strangers. The patriarch, Joseph is described as if he was a tree. Strong, sturdy, not a tall man, but with the strength of someone with many roots to anchor him but unfortunately some that gave him dark moods. During the beginning of the 20th century he had to take the reins of his family, his father ran off to the Boer War and died, his mother unable and -sick of body and mind. His two brothers and sisters were dependent on him, he himself barely a teen. A good business head and strength of character allowed him to start a log cutting business in his native Canada and place the children in situations that stretched into their adult futures. Behrens wrote an earlier novel, The Law of Dreams, about earlier relatives who escaped to Canada from Ireland during the potato famine. That novel is driven by hunger and the endurance to live in an environment that refuses to feed your body or your soul. It is a different novel then his later saga because he had more distance from the characters, never having met them, grown up with them or loved them. Although The O’Briens is thoughtfully written and enjoyable to read, he can not distance himself enough to imagine them as fully bodied as he might have with strangers. These are well loved characters but what might they have done if Behrens had never met them?  He follows them from the early part of the century deep into the heart of World War II and then gives us a glimpse of the survivors in the year 1960. Clearly a worthwhile novel that might make us think of the strengths, weaknesses, inner longings and tragedy of our own families tossed about by war and bad choices.

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Was Justice Served at the Dharun Ravi Webcam Spy Trial?

In August of 2010 two 18-year-old freshman were brought to the Piscataway campus of Rutgers to begin their adult lives. The journey of both families took them to Davidson Hall C, a small nondescript dorm room, no different from the millions of other American freshman starting college .

Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi spent only three weeks there before one took their own life and the other was charged on 15 counts, facing deportation and up to 10 years in jail. Along with joining the college Ultimate Frisbee Team he used his webcam to briefly film his roommate kissing a 30-year-old man while he watched in his friend Molly’s room across the hall. After a few seconds he turned it off and Tweeted to others about what he saw. His roommate, a talented violin player who was accepted into the Rutgers adult  orchestra invited his guest, who he met on a gay internet site, to his room on two more occasions the same week. Ravi, acting self-centered and oblivious to the feelings of others, again tweeted to friends about his roommates plans.

A few days later, Tyler leaves campus and travels to the George Washington  Bridge, jumps off and kills himself. The prosecution never releases the suicide note found in his back pack. They charge Ravi with 15 counts including invasion of privacy, tampering with evidence and most seriously, bias intimidation.

Both sets of parents traveled back to New Brunswick for very different reasons 18 months after what should have been the promising start of both of their son’s adult lives. This past March, for another very different three-week period they were forced to walk the gauntlet of cameramen standing like a firing squad. It’s ironic that Ravi began his infamous act behind the camera secretly filming his roommate as he met another man in their dorm room.

The frightening part of this story is that every “jerky eighteen year old,” away from home for the first time in his or her life is vulnerable to every text, email, post, or instant message they send. Will this law change the way 13 year olds use social media even within the protective walls of their parent’s homes? Will it change their behavior using any form of social media? I don’t think so.

Recently I sat in on two days of the Ravi trial and watched as two sets of parents walked the hallways with friends and relatives and well wishers and I was reminded of hospital hallways where patients are sick. The court is very much a hospital where some you just know will not make it.

As more than 100 journalists, watched, typed on their laptops and filmed every movement of Ravi, his family and the Clementi family, as well as their friends and neighbors who crowded into the court pews.  Yes the courtroom somehow resembles a church too. Anyone who watched the trial knew that Ravi wasn’t going to make it. When his defense team decided to use the prosecutors tape of his being interrogated by police, that was the last straw. As one spectator commented,”They just threw in the towel.” This just might be a text-book case for future law students to counsel their clients to take the plea. Clementi’s death hung over the trial like a thick fog. No one made it out of this case very happy, but the prosecutors were successful at using a bias law meant for hate groups, not a “jerky college freshman” with a webcam, his attorney’s defense. Not only was Ravi found guilty for five seconds of tape, we criticized him for smiling, getting sleepy and not looking scared enough at his own trial.

In the end, we turned the camera on Ravi, watching his every move. In fact, Ravi, the two days I observed the court always looked serious and respectful. He showed no emotion, but neither did he look whimsical, clownish or happy as some reporters have suggested. If he smiled occasionaly at a parent friend or attorney who were giving him hopeful words, does that show cockiness? If someone filmed you over a 13 day period, 8 hours a day, is it conceivable that you would smile even if you were on trial for your life and reputation? And as Ravi said rather cavalierly at an earlier time, pre college pre trial said in a text, “My life is f____d!”

A very sad foreshadowing for him and Tyler Clementi.But what will it mean for all of the other students dropped off at college with their computers, webcams, Facebook and Twitter accounts for years to come?  What have we taught young people with this trial? What a travesty.

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According To Val

I invite you to read about my excursions through the back alleys of the cultural scene in New York and New Jersey. More accurately, I will be writng about my jaunts to plays, auhor talks, and concerts in my extended neighborhood which includes the streets, restaurants, and cafes of Battery Park, Pellman Parkway, Broadway, New Dorp, Asbury Park, Red Band, Princeton, and where ever I may find myself catching up with friends and family. I will also include book reviews, events at my library, and whatever current situation moves me to write. Welcome to my world!

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