At conventions of educators, school principals often share their personal “war stories” with colleagues either to unburden themselves, to gain insight into a problem, or perhaps to find a remedy for a difficult professional situation that threatens to hurt them or their school. I remember vividly one principal’s narrative about a parent who wanted so much to remove the principal from his position that he spread a rumor that he had fired one of the beloved veteran administrators of the school. Another principal confided in me that he was falsely accused of being lax in enforcing the school’s no-tolerance drug policy. In both cases, the accusations were false; but, nevertheless, the rumors damaged the reputation of two outstanding professionals in Jewish education. I considered myself very blessed to be in Atlanta as a school principal for many years where the lay community supported the professional leadership of the school even when I occasionally made unpopular decisions. Hearing the narratives of my colleagues reminded me of the terrible harm that slander and gossip can do.
It is the power of slander that is the topic of A Cry in the Dark starring Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain. The movie is based on a true story of an Australian murder trial of a mother accused of killing her own daughter. The body is never found, but a bias against a woman who is seen as cold and unfeeling by her peers creates a mob hysteria that destroys her reputation. Our tradition tells us that every person is presumed to be an upright individual unless proven otherwise. The Torah commands us in many places not to be a talebearer, not to embarrass someone, to always give someone the benefit of the doubt. Yet this is difficult to do when the object of our comments is someone whom we dislike. The fact is, however, that this is precisely the time when we have to overcome our instincts to judge someone unfairly. This is the time when we have to withhold judgment until we have all the facts.
The destructive effects of prejudice are grippingly dramatized in a pivotal scene in which Lindy, exhausted from the trauma of losing a child and then being suspected of murdering it, gives testimony in a courtroom in a cold, dispassionate way. The jurors see her as an insensitive mother who might, indeed, have murdered her own child. As the prosecutor relentlessly cross-examines her, the interrogation is intercut with scenes of ordinary people in the street commenting on her guilt, offering interpretations of why she did it, and feeding the publicity frenzy. As one watches the montage of images, one gets a real sense of the emotional pain Lindy is suffering when giving evidence of her dead child’s death by a dingo, a wild dog, before a mistrusting audience of jurors and lay people who have come to watch the spectacle with detached amusement.
A Cry in the Dark on a literal level refers to the cry of a baby in the night. On a thematic level, it refers to the cry for compassion and understanding in a world that is often insensitive to the emotional pain of other people, where the public desire to know trumps sensitivity to other human beings. The obvious message: death and life are in the power of tongue, so we have to very careful about what we say about other people. Speech distinguishes man from animal; it is a gift that should not be abused.