I have spent the majority of my adult life working on, consulting with, and learning about truth and reconciliation commissions. These bodies are generally tasked with investigating human rights abuses or other injustices so that a community or nation can learn from the past, establish accountability for what happened in some way, and make recommendations about changes that should be made in order to prevent the problems from happening again. In that work, I have come to identify at least two different levels of truth.
The first level is around facts and answers the questions that begin with who, what, where, when and sometimes why. In all cases I can imagine, a truth-seeking body should seek to answer these questions first. That seems like an obvious statement, but it’s easier said than done when looking into events that are both emotionally charged and not necessarily covered by media in a reliable or unbiased way.
The second level lies in the meaning that we draw from those facts as well as the context within which we place the facts. Do we consider only what happened on the day of the events in question or do we go back further? If we go back further, then how far? A week? A month? A year? A hundred years? This level of truth is usually somewhat subjective and tends to answers questions like “so what?” Distinguishing between these two levels is often a significant task in the aftermath of a traumatic event or pattern of events.
On both of these levels, I believe that the Roanoke Times’ podcast “Septic” has contributed significantly to the ways we understand and have responded to Noah Thomas’s tragic death. If you haven’t listened to it, you should. But since some of you won’t, I’m going to hone in on what I think are two important segments – one that focuses on the first level of facts and the other that moves into the second level of meaning. Both of these segments involve responses from Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Fleenor about the case.
Facts vs. Rumors
If I had to choose, I’d say that the single most important sound bite from the podcast came in the first episode when Fleenor, the prosecutor, vigorously refuted the rumors that have been swirling around our community for years.
There have been a lot of rumors about the condition that [Noah] was in [when he was pulled out of the septic tank]. And quite frankly many of them are just false. There have been rumors that he was found in a bag. There are rumors that he was found tied up and bound. There are rumors that he had been beaten or that he had been stabbed… None of that is true. Not a single bit of that is true. He looked exactly as if he would have simply fallen in.
In recent conversations, I’ve shared Fleenor’s comments and people have argued with me, saying that Fleenor is wrong and that they know that the terrible rumors are true. Facebook is full of comments like this every time someone dares to suggest that Ashley White did not intentionally murder her child. As a truth commission staffer, I’ve been trained on different methods for evaluating sources. It’s pretty down-to-earth and common sense. Ideally it’s best to have multiple people corroborating a single story with video, audio and DNA evidence to back it up. But we rarely have that luxury, so we are left to evaluate our sources. One way to do this is to consider what access the source had to the information. In our scenario, Mike Fleenor was at the scene when Noah’s body was retrieved. Random people who read and respond to stuff on Facebook were not.
Another way to evaluate the legitimacy of a source is to consider what stake he or she has in the information being shared. If Ashley White’s own defense attorney or Ashley White herself had made the comments Fleenor made above, I would put much less stock in that information. They have a clear interest in dispelling these shocking rumors. But as the Commonwealth’s Attorney, Fleenor is a prosecutor and therefore has nothing to gain from dispelling these untruths. That and, frankly, all the other evidence I’ve come across, lends more legitimacy to Fleenor’s statement.
A deeper level of (un)truth
All of which takes us to that next level of truth – what meaning do we extract from this information? At the heart of this level, for me, is understanding what stake we as a community have in clinging to and repeating these unsupported rumors that Noah Thomas was brutally murdered by his parents? When untruths like this get repeated rather than fading away, it’s usually for a reason. I think Robbie Korth, Roanoke Times reporter, was trying to untangle this question in the following conversation which can be found in Septic’s sixth episode:
Korth: Do you think that this case would have shaken out the same way if Ashley didn’t have a history of drug abuse and had been higher income level? Do you think people would have perceived her the same way they did and that there would have been the same backlash?
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Justin Griffith: If a child had been found deceased in a septic tank in Heron’s Landing I do think the reaction would have been the same.
Fleenor: I think that’s true.
But true on what level? Griffith’s assertion is demonstrably false on the basic level of fact because Heron’s Landing is attached to the county’s sewer system. Like most wealthy people in relatively densely populated neighborhoods in this country, people in Heron’s Landing do not have septic tanks. Therefore, their children can not fall into septic tanks on their property.
But Korth’s original question was not asked on the basic level of truth as fact. Instead, he was inviting the attorneys to speculate about how the community might have reacted differently if Ashley had been wealthier and if she had not had a history of drug addiction. If we pan out and look at what happened from a higher level, we begin to see some of the ways that our community failed Noah in a way it never would have failed a wealthier child.
If we pan out and look at what happened from a higher level, we begin to see some of the ways that our community failed Noah in a way it never would have failed a wealthier child.
Attorneys aren’t trained to speculate; in fact, my tv-drama courtroom knowledge has taught me that law school is basically where you learn to object to speculation repeatedly while wearing an expensive suit in the courtroom. And the question was a little confusing with its double clause; was he asking the prosecutors to speculate about how the community would have reacted differently if White had been wealthy and had not had a history with drugs or were those separate speculations? With all that in mind, I will consider cutting Fleenor and Griffith some slack on their response.
I’d argue that a better variation on Korth’s question might be this: Would Noah Thomas have died so tragically if he had been born into a wealthier family?
If we only examine this question through the lens of personal responsibility, I suppose it is rational to end up in the same place the prosecutors did and conclude, yes, that Noah Thomas would have died regardless of his family’s income level if his parents had not secured the screws on that plastic septic tank lid. Screws aren’t that expensive and even though that lid was the property and responsibility of the landlord, a concerned parent should have installed his or her own screws and made certain that they were securely tightened.
But if we pan out and look at what happened from a higher level, we begin to see some of the ways that our community failed Noah in a way it never would have failed a wealthier child. A significant factor in Noah’s parents’ conviction around child neglect was the fact that Ashley drove Paul to work around 6AM that morning and left the children at home asleep. On the individual level, Ashley and Paul have admitted that was a terrible mistake and of course it was. But if they had been wealthier, they would likely have had two vehicles and Paul could have driven himself to work, allowing sleepy, sick children to stay asleep so early in the morning. On a community level, if we had a more robust public transportation system, he may not have needed his own vehicle to get to work in the first place.
Another question of individual responsibility that seems to have been a major factor in Ashley’s court case was her history of drug addiction. Ashley had passed drug tests repeatedly and often for around year before Noah’s death. Part of her prescribed, medically-supervised treatment plan that she was following closely included taking Suboxone, a drug designed to wean addicted people off of opioids safely. Since a side effect of Suboxone is sleepiness, though, depending on when Ashley took her prescribed dosage, it is possible that her nap was induced by that medication. Mike Fleenor took a harsh stance on the role this decision played in Noah’s death, claiming in episode 6: “It wasn’t like she took a prescribed medicine to help her with stress or something; it was a drug used for drug addicts I guess if you will.”
I said that I wasn’t going to dwell on speculations about how community response would have been different if circumstances were different. But, as an aside, I think Fleenor’s comment here demonstrates that his reaction would have been different had Ashley been either wealthier or not had a history of drug addiction. How is Suboxone not “a prescribed medicine to help her with stress”? Surely the anxiety produced by one’s body withdrawing from a highly addictive chemicals like opiates is stress-inducing. And the Suboxone was prescribed. I believe that the class markers here are significant. Wealthy women who withdraw from their upper-class stresses by curling up to take a quick nap after swallowing a prescribed Xanax pill or drinking a glass of wine are perceived very differently from a recovering drug addict who takes a “drug used for drug addicts” and then falls asleep while her child is watching tv in the next room of what appears to be a very small house. Joshua Wilkey, author of the blog “This Appalachian Life” addresses these class markers in a 2017 post:
While addiction reaches both the rich and the poor in Appalachia, the stark reality is that addiction thrives in these mountains in large part because of poverty. The poverty came first. The drug addiction came later, often as a desperate response. The poor are disproportionately destroyed by addiction. They have the least access to treatment options, and they are more likely to escape addiction through death than through recovery. Most remain addicted all their lives, and their lives are usually cut tragically short.
So, yeah, Ashley should have just said “no” and never taken opiates in the first place. And I suppose one could argue that she should have rearranged her Suboxone dosing schedule, though I don’t know enough to say how. But, all in all, it seems to me like she was doing almost all she could to make responsible decisions to repair those poor decisions she had made at one time.
Back to the larger context, though, let’s also acknowledge the outrageous roles that pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma (maker of OxyContin) have played in creating the opioid crisis in the first place. We now know that they intentionally misled physicians and federal officials about the addictive properties of OxyContin, created kickbacks for physicians to overprescribe the drug, dumped unprecedented amounts of money in to targeting rural areas like Pulaski County as well as lobbying our elected officials. Wilkey connected all of these dots in a post:
[W]hile payday lenders and rent-to-own retailers have plenty of money for lobbyists and political contributions, the poor often can’t even get their congressional representatives to pick up the phone. The result is that lawmakers often tailor their rhetoric to put the blame on the drug addicts themselves rather than the companies that supply the drugs…These politicians talk a whole lot about the importance of eliminating drugs from their communities, but they rarely mention the companies that created the products to begin with and spent millions of marketing dollars getting them into the hands of the people who became addicted to them.
Beyond the pharmaceutical industry, politicians and transit issues, as I’ve already pointed out, most densely populated wealthy neighborhoods in Pulaski County are connected to the County’s sewer lines. It’s easy to focus on poor choices made by Noah’s parents, but if our County’s planners had seen fit to connect the neighborhood on Highland Road to the sewer lines, Noah would still be here.
I read through comments in the “Noah Thomas our “Small Town Angel” Facebook group. Some, like this one, are sweet:
Noah, you touched hearts near and far and will never be forgotten. You were loved by so many that never got to meet you. Such a beautiful tribute to a precious little boy. Rest In Peace Little Angel💙
Others, like this one about Noah’s dad’s prison sentence, are jarring, to say the least:
Let’s just hope some kind of “justice” happens while he is in prison. I hope he becomes someone’s B*tch from day one!!!!!!!!!!!!
He better find a new place to live on july 2nd, because ALOT of people in pulaski are going to be waiting to see him in public.
Also this one about both Ashley and Paul:
Both mom n dad will have to answer to God on Judgement day. They will not pleabargin with God!!!!!!!!!! AMEN.
This Facebook group is filled with comments like these. But amidst all of this anger, I’ve never seen anyone threaten the Pulaski County Public Service Authority members for not prioritizing a low income neighborhood to get sewer service. I’ve only seen a couple people meekly blame the landlord for the septic tank lid that wasn’t screwed back on correctly. I’ve never seen anyone call for a courthouse hanging of Town or County officials who have not invested in a more robust public transit system. And I’ve definitely never seen anyone wish prison rape on Purdue Pharma or any other pharmaceutical company’s CEOs or politician as retribution for any aspect of Noah’s death.
I’m not arguing that any of these entities, on its own, is solely responsible for this local tragedy. Obviously there is plenty of blame to go around, including towards Noah’s parents who made some bad choices. But if we are really concerned with making sure we don’t lose another local child like this, shouldn’t we do more than focus on individual parents’ bad choices? All of the energy we’ve spent being angry at Ashley White and Paul Thomas has done nothing to protect other children in our community. “Septic”…allows us to reflect more clearly on the type of community we are, the type of community we want to be and how we can collectively work toward getting there.
“Septic”…allows us to reflect more clearly on the type of community we are, the type of community we want to be and how we can collectively work toward getting there.
But imagine what could happen if we all collectively directed some of that passion towards inspecting thousands of septic tank lids around the county and ensuring that they are installed safely. Or if we’d start a carpool program to help single- or no-car families to get places they need to go without having to sacrifice other things their children need, like sleep? Or, if we are itching to blame someone, learning how we can join efforts to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for the havoc wreaked on our communities by drugs like OxyContin? Funds that may eventually come back to our county from these lawsuits could support even more ambitious efforts to help our local children and their parents, but if we haven’t thought through what we could do to improve these trends, then no amount of money is going to change our problems.
Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian politician and academic, says that the best thing that can come from a truth and reconciliation commission process is that we “narrow the range of permissible lies” that we tell about ourselves as a society. I appreciate what Robbie Korth and Jacob Demmitt have done with the “Septic” podcast because it has narrowed the range of permissible lies we can tell about ourselves vis-a-vis Noah Thomas’s death. On the factual level, I don’t think anyone who listens to the podcast can continue to claim that Ashley and Paul brutally and intentionally murdered Noah. On the context level, I think most of us have, like Griffith and Fleenor, assumed that Noah’s death and our response have been class-neutral – that we would have responded the same way if it had happened to a child in Heron’s Landing. But “Septic” challenges that faulty assumption and, in so doing, allows us to reflect more clearly on the type of community we are, the type of community we want to be and how we can collectively work toward getting there.
“Septic” is a good first step on that path, but it’s up to us to go further.