The affluenza society in Texas: when privilege gets probation

New York Times News ServiceDecember 27, 2013 

— The case of Ethan Couch – the drunk 16-year-old who mowed down four bystanders in a Fort Worth suburb with his “super duty” F-350 pickup truck, but got off with 10 years’ probation after his defense team’s psychologist blamed “affluenza,” or a state of immense, amoral privilege, for the crime – has become something of a national outrage.

But here in North Texas, the reaction hasn’t been quite so vehement. Most of the vitriol has come from elsewhere: a somber and scandalized Anderson Cooper, excoriating the psychologist who testified for the defense; and Nancy Grace, the helmet-haired high priestess of outrage, demanding on “The View” that the juvenile judge who handed down the sentence “be thrown off the bench”; the petition to that effect on Change.org, which has garnered 20,000 signatures.

Granted, in the aftermath of the sentencing, politicians like Greg Abbott, the state attorney general, a Republican, and Wendy Davis, the Democratic state senator best known for her 11-hour filibuster against abortion restrictions, have wrung their hands. (Both are running for governor.) Local prosecutors are talking about new assault charges that might yield a three-year sentence for Couch (instead of the 20 years he faced for manslaughter), but success is unlikely.

On the ground, the sentiment is quieter, almost resigned. There’s been no rush to condemnation by civic leaders. No one is rioting on the Metroplex’s sidewalkless streets against Couch or the judge, Jean Hudson Boyd, who essentially let him go. (As part of his probation, Couch will be sent to a California treatment facility that offers equine therapy, cooking classes and martial arts lessons, and his father, a wealthy sheet-metal executive, will foot the $450,000-a-year bill.)

“None among those who say she was wrong have sat in her chair for 26 years,” The Fort Worth Star-Telegram proclaimed, in the judge’s defense. “In this case, she’s earned our trust.”


The disparity between the televised outrage over what was perhaps the cleverest legal argument since the “Twinkie defense” and the relative local indifference to the role of wealth in insulating the guilty from justice illuminates how much of North Texas itself has been constructed for the purpose of insulating wealth from any unpleasant reality. Why should criminal justice be any different?

“Affluenza,” at least as invoked by the defense psychologist, G. Dick Miller, is not a recognized disorder, a legitimate exculpatory condition akin to post-traumatic stress or even insanity itself. But if not a disorder, it is not a fiction. Few would dispute that millions of affluent – typically white – Americans choose to live in communities whose primary raison d’être is to afford their residents a pampered escape, a chance to withdraw from the barbarians at the gate and from every external reality imaginable.

The Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs are a prime example of this particular strain of “affluenza” – seclusion and, through it, exclusion is their lifeblood. After the Dallas Independent School District was initially desegregated in the 1970s, a case overseen for decades by the liberal Democratic judge Harold Barefoot Sanders Jr., white residents began to flee farther and farther to the north, establishing new settlements in mesquite brush where previously only forgotten farms had been. There, with a consumerist bravado later immortalized in Michael Elmgreen’s and Ingar Dragset’s “Prada Marfa” sculpture, islands of shopping centers were installed in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by oceans of subdivisions.


Driving north from Dallas or Fort Worth, you will eventually arrive at an outpost of the Cheesecake Factory, the only conceivable end for a rainbow that never was. There, at the crossroads of bourgeois comfort and ennui, these plastic fiefs – confederations of chain restaurants, multiplex cinemas and roadside churches – compose a ring of suburbs that are masterpieces in the art of urban control. In 2011, Money magazine recommended moving to the suburb of Keller, Texas, because, if you did, “you’d never know there had been a recession.”

Such was the milieu in which Ethan Couch was raised. His father’s heavily gated home just outside of Keller, off a thoroughfare called Confederate Park Road, is a veritable fortress of Austin stone, set on a bluff overlooking the silhouette of the Fort Worth skyline. It is removed from the street, from the neighborhood and, it would seem, from any sort of accountability that does not involve equine therapy or cooking classes.

The case of Couch is many things, but perhaps most important it is a metaphor for the dark side of suburban cosmology, for every other barricaded enclave like Keller – places that, if not entirely above the law, are somehow removed from it. Even after four deaths by the side of the road.

The New York Times

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service