I admit, I was outraged when I first read Kathleen Carpenter's story about a strange man tearing a pink headband off her toddler son's head at Walmart. It's a dramatic story that stirs up our feelings about homophobia, boundaries, protecting our children ... but was her story true? Carpenter is now being accused of fabricating the pink headband story. What we suspect -- and what turns out to be the truth -- could have implications for mothers and the stories we tell.
Once Kathleen's story showed up on Huffington Post, the responses flamed the Internet, from outrage and compassion to hate. Nothing like a controversy over homophobia to bring out our true natures, right? Kathleen claims she started receiving hate mail (11,000 emails) and harassment. She became so upset, she reportedly started having thoughts of suicide. Police sent her to a hospital for mental evaluation under Florida's Baker Act.
Meanwhile, people started sifting through Kathleen's blog for evidence that she was untrustworthy. They found a post from November 2011 in which she said, "It didn't matter what I was discussing. If I saw the chance to embellish in some way, I jumped on it, re-telling the same story again and again to different groups with different details." Her stories show a remarkable amount of drama, including multiple kidnapping attempts, narrow escapes from a plane crash and train crash, struggles with celiac disease, diabetes, ADHD, and depression ... Kathleen later said of this list:
Yes, much of that list was tongue in cheek to drag out some of my sillier stories into much bigger dramas than they were. When I wrote it more than a year ago, I drew people's attention to it as a FUNNY (though accurate) representation of some of the stuff I’ve been through in my life.
So ... is the pink headband story true? Did it really happen? Police are investigating. Apparently, Kathleen did not file a complaint with the store, though she did speak with the police. She took down the blog post, and Huffington Post removed their version as well. Police are looking for surveillance video of the incident. If they never find that evidence, though, can we still believe Kathleen's story?
This puts us in a tough place. As a mom and a blogger, I want to honor other women's stories. I want to come from a place of trust because that's what enables us all to share our stories, however painful or strange they are. We need that trust. Should I have been more skeptical? Sadly, I found it easy to believe this experience could happen. As cartoonishly bigoted as the man seems in the story, we've all encountered people enough like him that his character is believable.
So yes, I could have combed through Kathleen's blog, looking for clues that her story was bogus, that she has a tendency to exaggerate -- that is, if I didn't have six other posts to write that day. If only I had the time.
Whether or not Kathleen's story actually happened the way she tells it, or whether she exaggerated some aspects of it, or even if she fabricated it entirely, there is some kind of truth to it that resonated with people. Even if homophobia doesn't literally reach out and grab our children, we know that everyday people commit acts of cruelty, large and small, often through the Internet, under the mask of anonymity. And maybe Kathleen wanted to put a face to that cruelty, give it a flesh-and-bone body, so we could confront it.
We may never know what really happened. But I hope we'll keep telling and sharing our stories anyway. I guess underneath every tale of conflict, there's something the writer is trying to tell us. We can be skeptical of the facts, but what about the emotional truth that underlies that story? Does exaggeration or fabrication negate that emotional truth? Something for all of us to think about.
Do you think Kathleen's story is true, or do you think she made it up?
Image via Maegan Tintari/Flickr