AMERICAN CRIME: How I Would Help Russ Turn His Guilt Around

No matter how hard Russ (Timothy Hutton) tries or how ingratiating he is, there’s roadblock after roadblock to his attempts to make up for his mistakes. Although American Crime is in search of the person who killed Matt and injured Gwen, Russ acts like a criminal. He’s not a suspect, of course. And, even though he isn’t literally a criminal, his family treats him like one. He feels like one. Guilt can ruin a life.

For those who haven’t watched the series – Russ is Russ Skokie, father of Matt the victim of murder. Barb (Felicity Huffman) is his ex-wife who struggles with feelings of being marginalized, abandoned, and less important than anyone else. These unbearable feelings drive her to say quite racist things. It’s likely she has an early childhood history that contributes to these feelings. The more immediate factor is that Russ did abandon her and their family – leaving Barb to struggle in the Projects, raising their two boys, Matt and Mark, alone.

No one can forgive him. Let alone Russ himself. Russ was a gambler. He also was convicted of a felony 20-years ago and served time. He’s been trying for years to make it up to his boys, show them he cares, have contact with them, a relationship; but it’s “too little too late.” That’s the message he gets from Mark, his younger son.

Russ’s pretty discouraged and beaten down so he doesn’t look very sure of himself in any of his interactions. In fact, he looks downright nervous and guilty all the time. He may have been guilty of leaving his family years ago, but there’s something more going on that’s motivating his insecure behavior.

I was listening to the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC this morning and the discussion turned to the “Biking While Black” situation recently in Tampa. One panelist astutely pointed out that: “if a black man is made to feel afraid, of course he’s going to avert his eyes. That doesn’t mean he’s a criminal.”

No, it means there’s a whole history of too-many-to-count reasons to feel anything but safe or trusting. Russ is in the same boat. He can barely look anyone in the eye. He tries unsuccessfully to make amends. Deep down, Russ’s reason for averting his eyes is that he’s ashamed. Even though he tentatively reaches out or even to asks for help, he approaches everyone as if he’s begging for something he’s not entitled to get. He expects rejection.

If I had Russ on my analytic couch, I’d be looking for the ways his early history influenced his later actions.  How it led to his gambling, digging himself into a hole he can’t find his way out of. I’d expect to see some desperate insecurity in his history. No one to count on and no help to learn he can count on himself.

When someone has to gamble, he’s looking for instant success, instant gratification, mostly instant security. If he doesn’t have it, he lives in constant terror that there will never be enough. Likely, Russ didn’t have enough as a child. He must have run from Barb and his boys out of certainty he couldn’t provide them enough either. His gambling was probably meant to assure him of a confidence he sorely lacked.

It might be too late for Russ and Mark – but, then, again maybe not. As disturbing as it is that no one will hear him out, maybe the problem is that Russ hasn’t had anyone to listen to him. To help him know and work out all the complicated feelings and insecurities that led him to leave his family and to gamble. He’s one lost man.

If I helped Russ see what motivated his running and his gambling, he might be able to approach Mark with some real self-awareness. To explain something that made sense. If Russ could talk to his son about what made him do what he did with some clarity, that would be much better than an empty and desperate apology. Maybe, then, Mark could listen. It really is the only chance. It’s also the only hope for eventually being able to let go of his own guilt.

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