1 minute, ten seconds.
That’s how long I withstood a viewing of the video, posted on October 27th and now approaching two million views, of Hillary Adams, aged 16 at the time, being viciously beaten by her father, Aransas Co. family court Judge William Adams. In 2004, Hillary Adams was caught accessing content online for which she hadn’t paid, an act that enraged her father and prompted Hillary to turn on a camera she had hidden in her room to capture just such an event (apparently the beating caught on video in this incident was not without precedent).
Indeed, Judge Adams unleashes a torrent of verbal and physical abuse so profoundly violent, disturbing and out of proportion in any case, much less given the circumstances of this one as reported by his daughter, that I was unable to take any more after only 70 seconds. Hillary Adams endured the beating for seven minutes. According to published reports across the Web, the video carries on for the entirety of that beating, during which time Judge Williams threatens to hit his daughter in the face with a belt, enlists his (now ex-)wife to assist in the abuse (not atypical behavior in family abuse situations in which a tyrannical adult holds an entire family hostage) and actually leaves the room only to come back for a second round with another belt and possibly a board.
And while this tragic and sickening event may not have been without precedent in the Adams home – by all accounts, an upper-middle class, suburban arrangement in a town on Texas’s Gulf Coast – the fact that such a video a. has gone viral and b. was posted by the victim depicted within it certainly seems to be. That Hillary Adams enlisted YouTube as her distribution channel for the video has not been lost on many commentators around the Web, who have noted with sad irony that it was Adams’ use of the Internet in the first place that brought the wrath of her father upon her – not that any child can be held to blame for the violent actions of an adult. And as is abundantly clear in the brief moments I was able to stomach of this video, there is no behavior imaginable so heinous as to merit the vicious sadism of Judge Adams’ attack.
In a page seemingly taken straight from the worldwide Stieg Larsson bestseller and subsequent blockbuster movie hit The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Larsson’s protagonist catches her court-appointed guardian and rapist on video, and uses the video to subsequently blackmail him and regain her independence), although preceding it by several years, Hillary Adams set up a camera in anticipation of a further violent incident that she could then capture on video as evidence of the abusive attacks unleashed upon her by her father. His standing as a well-respected and authority-wielding judge was clearly not lost on her, and perhaps she felt that she would need such irrefutable proof to be taken seriously in a community in which her father undoubtedly had ties to law enforcement and other powerful figures.
So what does this event mean in the larger scheme of things? Has Hillary Adams brought to light an empowering new defense for victims of abuse, who may be able to capture evidence that could later be used to charge and convict those responsible for their torment? Or does this suggest a new burden to be placed on the shoulders of those abused – think “pix or it didn’t happen.” In a world where an abused person’s word is frequently not enough to free them from their abuser, could what Hillary Adams did offer a way for victims to equalize power in a decidedly imbalanced situation? Or is the risk so great that there is too much potential danger – especially in the cases of minors, to suggest to them that they must be responsible for having to document their own abuse in this way if they are to have any hope of being believed and/or being freed? And what of those young people who don’t have the access to the equipment or the knowledge of how to use it to document their torment? How many children use computers also used, and monitored, by the adults in their home? The risk indeed feels great.
Meanwhile, what is YouTube’s role in all of this? While Hillary Adams’ video, on the surface, certainly seems to be in violation of at least some of the site’s standards for content (YouTube uses the friendly-sounding “Community Guidelines” term to describe these), it still is posted as of this writing* – with an age-restriction caveat suggesting material not suitable for children. You don’t say, YouTube.
How did this video pass the YouTube screening process? Assuming it was, in fact, directly vetted (and not just missed by human or algorithmic eyes trained to catch unsuitable content), it would seem that YouTube has at least tacitly accepted an advocacy role on behalf of Hillary Adams – compelled to allow the material to stand, perhaps, based on the written narrative that Adams herself included alongside the video, explaining its context and origin.
If so, what about the moral and ethical implications of a video with this kind of content driving 2 million clicks to a commercial site? What remuneration is YouTube working out with Adams? Are YouTube the heroes for providing her the global platform to get the support she has longed for, or should they be demonized for turning that process into a commercial one? Will the public airing of her own dark, “behind-closed-doors” tragedy ultimately be Hillary Adams’ deliverance – either by money earned directly or indirectly, by her sudden fame and prominence, or the other consequences soon to unfold in the coming days? And what about all of us, the public who have seen the video itself, or read accounts of it, and feel the loss of a little bit of our collective soul for having done so? How can we respond with humanity and compassion to this situation? What do we do with the sounds and images from viewing this material that are now burned into our brains? Sleep was difficult for me to come by last night and – clearly – it will be again tonight.
I was able to endure a viewing of this video for only 1 minute and ten seconds.
Hillary Adams lived the reality of it for the eternity of a childhood.
* I have elected to offer no direct links to this video, as I do not want to be responsible for others inadvertently, or even purposely, viewing it. Nevertheless, it is now mirrored across the Web on countless sites and available for those who wish to seek it out. Be warned that it is unbearably violent, profane, graphic and disturbing.
A version of this entry is posted at http://hastac.org/blogs/sarahr/2011/11/03/110 .