Heroic Lies: Ashley Smith’s Story
America needs heroes. They help us combat cynicism and remind us that there are still individuals who act courageously, unselfishly, and for virtuous principles and objectives. The American media also need heroes, because their inspiring stories sell papers, get ratings, and create best-selling books. But when, in the rush to introduce their audiences and readers to the heroes they hunger for, the media aid and abet the misrepresentation and exaggeration of the actions that convey heroic status, they increase cynicism and remind us that those who court our admiration in this country are often less than they appear to be.
It now appears that when Ashley Smith recounted the harrowing tale of her seven hours of being held as hostage by courtroom shooter Brian Nichols, she left out one critical detail. On numerous television appearances and in multiple interviews Smith described how she had connected emotionally with her murderous captor, and persuaded him to release her and surrender by talking about her family tragedies and struggles with drug addiction, by reading him passages from Rick Warren’s spiritual guide book A Purpose Driven Life, and by invoking God and prayer. It was an inspiring story, and Smith understandably didn’t want to dilute its impact by revealing that she also calmed Nichols by giving him crystal meth, the illegal drug that she was addicted to at the time.
But sometimes basic ethical obligations require doing what one doesn’t want to do, and this was one of those times. Absent this information, Smith’s story amounted to a fraud, an intentional deception that completely mischaracterized the incident she quickly rode to lucrative celebrity. While one can be forgiving regarding Smith’s initial reluctance to be completely candid about the role illegal drugs played in her escape, this cannot extend to a month’s worth of interviews and a book deal which, interestingly enough, has produced a volume entitled Unlikely Angel that is using the crystal meth element of her escape as part of its promotion: the “untold story.”
What a scam! By willfully withholding the least flattering and perhaps most crucial element of her escape and thus representing it as a triumph of spirituality (rather than banned pharmaceuticals) over violence, Ashley Smith turned what would have otherwise been a one-day story into a virtual career. Her deception also turned one book, A Purpose Driven Life, into a best-seller (The Scoreboard hates to be cynical, but strongly suspects that Rick Warren’s publishers have a deal with Smith) on false pretenses. It’s possible that her reading the book to her captor saved her life; it’s more likely, we have discovered thousands of sales of the book later, that it may have been the drug, or some combination of the two. Unless Warren’s publishers are going to now sell A Purpose Driven Life with complimentary packages of crystal meth, its best seller status is the result of consumer fraud. And to cap it all off, Smith tells the whole story in her own book that she never would have been able to sell if she told the truth in the first place!
Who says bad ethics doesn’t pay?
We’re glad Ashley Smith survived her ordeal; happy that she kicked her drug addiction and thrilled that what could have been fatally bad luck ended up giving her life new purpose and direction. But the wattage of her celebrity was based on a lie, and anyone who buys her book or continues to watch her interviews is simply validating a media-assisted public deception. Nobody’s going to arrest Smith and few will even condemn her actions, given America’s love affair with rationalizations for misconduct. Oh, I can write the e-mails myself: “How can you fault her for holding back? She was embarrassed; she was afraid!” Save your fingers: here’s my answer:
If she wasn’t willing to tell the true story, she shouldn’t have told a phony one. If the only way to demonstrate the power of spirituality is by making up stories, then spirituality’s power is greatly over-rated. And once Smith accepted the benefits of her lie, monetary or otherwise, she forfeited any basis for sympathy. The truth of Ashley Smith’s abduction and escape would have been sufficient to earn her respect and some measure of heroic status, but she opted instead for media stardom and lucrative contracts by promoting a falsehood.
America doesn’t need this kind of hero.