Almost a century ago, Theodore Dreiser turned the much-publicized details of Chester Gillette’s trial for the murder of his pregnant girlfriend into the novel An American Tragedy. The book has outlasted public memory of the original crime, less for the felicity of its prose style than for the sweep of its only-in-America themes: A bright and ambitious young man from a deeply religious background is determined to find the fame and prosperity to which he feels he is, as an American, entitled; but his efforts to network into the larger secular world lead him pinballing from farce to disaster, until his various failures of self-control lead to his conviction for murder.
They say “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce”. John linked to Digby and Glenn Greenwald discussing the Wingnut Wurlitzer’s hysterical reaction to the “Haitian Ten” American missionaries arrested for trying to remove a busload of very young not-exactly-orphans across the border to the Dominican Republic without the proper paperwork… or, it would seem, any very clear idea of what they’d do afterwards. I agree that the larger political concerns of our mutual blogospheric peanut gallery deserve debate, but it’s the personal details behind the would-be saviors of the “New Life Children’s Refuge” that fascinate me. The Idaho Stateman reports that Laura Silsby “grew up in a devoutly religious family. Her father, John Sander, was a minister in the Wesleyan Holiness Church….The lifestyle of church members is strict and old-fashioned, Hecker said: no TV, no dancing and no alcohol. Women are expected to wear dresses but not jewelry or makeup; they don’t cut their hair. “It’s about humility and modesty,” Hecker explained…. Though young women in the church weren’t encouraged to go to college or work outside their homes, Silsby knew as a child that she wanted to get an education and have her own career. “She had ideas about business early on,” Hecker said, describing her as something of a maverick.”
Silsby finished high school at 15, had her first child at 20 (during a marriage later annulled), moved through a couple of state universities to obtain a degree in business administration. She worked for Hewlett Packard for several years, amassing the skills and contacts that would lead her to found the Internet venture consecutively titled “eFunz.com Inc., which later became AvenueMe Inc. and then Personal Shopper Inc.” (In a novel, those names would be rejected as overly satirical.) But despite “an all-star team of technology folks culled from businesses across the Treasure Valley” putting in 12-hour days, Silsby’s promises of immanent investment funding (including some from Oxygen Media – Oprah’s own network!) never quite covered the bills; she has been trailed by “at least 16 claims for unpaid wages”, including one case which has been rescheduled to June as a result of her current inability to return to Idaho. Her personal life wasn’t doing any better than her company — her second marriage fell apart in 2004, she’s fighting her husband for custody of her two younger children, the house she bought in 2008 (as the foundation of the New Life Children’s Refuge) has been foreclosed, and she’s got collection agencies after her for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Silsby wasn’t about to let mere worldly concerns deter her missionary visions:
Fellow church members dropped everything on short notice to help her rescue orphans in Haiti, where the group of 10 was intercepted Jan. 29 at the Dominican Republic border and taken to jail…
[Silsby’s sister]Barton is listed as one of the three initial members of the board of directors for New Life Children’s Refuge, a nonprofit registered with the state by Silsby in November. Silsby and her nanny, Charisa Coulter, are listed as the other directors.
The charitable organization’s stated purpose is “to provide a loving Christian environment for abandoned and unwanted children.” Its listed plans included “orphanages, schools, medical clinics, and villas for adopting parents.”…
Her dogged determination — regardless of the rules laid out before her — has been clear in accounts of her Haiti rescue attempt.
A Dominican Republic official said he told her she needed the right documents to get the children out, and she persisted. A Kentucky couple told her not to try to gather their waiting adoptees, but she arrived at the orphanage anyway.
And just Saturday, Dixie Bickel, director of God’s Littlest Children orphanage in Thomasin, Haiti, told the Miami Herald that Silsby disregarded her warnings about trying to swoop in after the earthquake.
Bickel described their 10-minute phone call: “She said, ‘We came in a bus we rented in the Dominican Republic and we’re going to take 100 children back to the Dominican Republic.’ I said, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t do that without contacting (Haitian Social Services).’”
“Well, I don’t see why not?” she said Silby told her.
“I said, ‘UNICEF and (Haitian Social Services) are waiting to crucify somebody like you, taking children out of Haiti.’”
At which point, perhaps, our prospective Great American Novelist moves from Dreiser territory to that of Graham Greene, or Burdick & Lederer. People on the ground in Haiti, like Anne-Christine d’Adesky, tried and failed to warn Silsby and her companions:
These were Haitian children, and they required Haitian official permission, and paperwork that adheres to the protocol for tranferring Undocumented Refugee Children across national borders. I told them that, but they were convinced they might overcome this ‘red tape’.
At the time, I thought they were trying to be legit, but were misguided – though my suspicions were raised. We discussed Haitian concerns about trafficking, which she knew all about… Silsby informed me that her group was going to find ‘native’ orphanages – or centers – that had ‘children others wouldn’t want to adopt.’ I thought she meant perhaps ‘special needs’ children, but didn’t quite understand.
(Later, I learned that her group had targeted a community she had already visited in the past, and she had worked with a local pastor who asked parents to turn over their children for a ‘better life’ in the Dominican Republic.) She repeatedly told me her group would not be putting the children up for adoption, which is why. she inferred, some Dominican had helped her with paperwork to transfer them ‘to safety.’
She told me they were on a mission from God and if God wanted them to succeed, they would.
And that’s before we get to the ill-fated bus trip, the group’s incarceration, the flurry of American media attention, and the American-born, Dominican-raised legal advisor who may be linked to international sex trafficking of children… whose life seems to be a whole different trope of modern American tragedy.
The great novels of Dreiser’s era were cultural phenomena. Likely wouldn’t happen for a novel today, but there are people using modern media to tell powerful stories, the great example being The Wire.
Anne-Christine d’Adesky (quoted above):
Just like Sarah Palin, and the Blues Brothers…
It was made into a movie “A Place In The Sun”, right?
I’m gonna point out that while the Blues Bros. did succede, they also manned up and payed the price for their little shenanigans…
Something no one else who’s ever used that line has been willing to do.
I suppose it’s pedantry to point out Mr. Greene’s Britishness…
Brick Oven Bill
The Midwesterners from Idaho help us classify the Three Great Religions:
Feminine; tolerant of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences
Masculine; intolerant of the Seven Liberal Arts and Sciences
I’m continually struck by the fervor with which these folks head off to other countries to ‘save’ the (predominantly brown) children from their circumstances. Yet when you approach these good church folk about the possibility of starting say, a weekend ‘food backpack’ program, wherein the schools send home backpacks full of food to be sure the kids in the community where these people live and attend church have some food security when not in school, said churchers act as if you are actively picking their pocket before their very eyes.
And frankly, I wouldn’t care if every piece of paper this woman had was in proper order, what idiot (beyond those gripped by religious ‘do-gooder’ disease) thinks that right after the worst natural disaster ever is a good time to spirit a vanful of children out of the country?
if God wanted them to succeed, they would
Guess the big guy has had his say.
You’re right, AvenueMe is simply unbelievable. I hope you’ll continue to follow this angle, it’s far more interesting than the left/right pissing match.
@Skepticat: True dat. Once again, God says; “go fish.”
Especially when their putative legal counsel in Dominica turns out to be an unlicensed charlatan* wanted for suspicion of child sex trafficking in El Salvador.
(*Ambiguity clarification: Unlicensed as a lawyer; I’m pretty sure Dominica doesn’t require a license to be charlatan.)
Only because you’ve never been there — where Avenue Me lies between Avenues Re and Fa, in the Land of Rainbows, Unicorns, Christ, and Song!
I imagine that’s a foregone conclusion.
Great post. You are right-it reads like a novel. Keep us up to date.
Child sex trafficking is only a problem when it’s imaginary child sex trafficking being discussing by a fake pimp on a doctored video.
I don’t know… If you are a subversive in South Carolina, you are required to register.
@tom p, it looks like Raw Story got something confused. The law is from 1951, and recent efforts have been attempting to *repeal* it.
Thanx KC, appreciate the correction. Still I find it interesting that SC has a law on the books aimed at subversives with a specific clause saying
… (quote from the RS article)
let’s see, 1951… I wonder who they were exempting?
It is now 2010 and after several other attempts to repeal it failed, it is still on the books.
Those two linked articles have a lot of interesting side information. I was particularly struck by the assertion, by one of the experts interviewed, that this church group was particularly vulnerable to a kind of irrational, spontaneous, “act now” kind of missionizing work because of a long history of “America First” missionary work. The article says that previously the baptists had long term, in country, missions with really devoted specialists that individual churches would work through. But in the last forty years (?) the shift was made towards focusing on American conservative issues and the whipping of activism within the american context. Missionary work became a kind of missionary tourism industry with people parachuting in and out rather rapidly. This model left church members vulnerable, without real leadership, in the face of Sibley’s entrepreneurial/one off approach to god’s work.
It is, indeed, classically American–especially in its mix of hucksterism, boosterism, piety, fervor, and American exceptionalism crossed with evaneglical sentiment.
You can’t read the article and read the comments by fellow church members about how urgent and important and “act now” the call was, as relayed by Sibley, and not hear echoes of her training in aggressive marketing and also end times language.
Bad Horse's Filly
My inner heathen was on display last week as I vocally pressed for the 10 Christians to remain in jail indefinitely. Hey it worked for Paul.
@Brick Oven Bill:
So wait, you mean to say that the Arabs and Muslims were so intolerant of the liberal arts that they never read them, never invented zero or al-gebra, and never took them to Toledo for translation? Fascinating.
Cheryl from Maryland
AvenueMe is a perfect name for this woman’s ventures. It’s not about saving children, it’s about her being a savior.
It’s not idiotic, it’s logical. Doing it after a big natural disaster is a good idea for two reasons. The first is they can claim that they’re trying to take a load off the over strained support system by moving poor orphans somewhere that hasn’t had its institutions flattened. The other is that the government is really busy dealing with the disaster and is more likely to be distracted from their illegal actions.
Well, I guess God has weighed in. Problem is, they won’t take no for an answer.
Nit pick: he’s in the Dominican Republic, not Dominica. Dominica is a former French colony in the Lesser Antilles. Casually referring to the Dominican Republic as Dominica is a common mistake, but one that should still be corrected.
And there’s this odd little blip of unresolved dissonance in some necks of the underbrush. Dragging kids across borders without paperwork, including at least in theory our own, this is accepted as having good intentions. By the same groups usually howling about illegal immigration. And I’m not buying the whole this is a special emergency argument: they howled some when deportations were halted.
no, I’m not surprised. intrigued, in a sort of rubber-necking self-ashamed manner.
@Roger Moore: Can’t disagree with you there. It fits right into their version of ‘logic’, which is not reality based, and is one twisted, f**ked up logic indeed. Larceny sanctioned by ‘Doing God’s Work’ makes it not wrong/immoral in their minds.
You’re right, although it’s probably more proper to refer to it as a former British colony — it hasn’t been a French colony since 1783. Anyway, thanks for the correction!
Phyllis it is very simple, and I’m serious. It is not about the welfare of children’s bodies, it is about bringing them to Jesus, for every big hearted humanitarian missionary there is another recruiting soldiers for Armageddon.
A shattered Haiti was for these people a huge harvest field of souls to be reaped. This can best be seen by their indifference to which children actually got rescued, when their first busload got taken away they just went back and got more. These kids were not being rescued from poverty, they were being rescued from the Pope and/or the Voodoo Priest.
There has been a long history of Christian orphanages and particularly Catholic ones of being cruel, there have in recent years been huge legal settlements in Canada and Ireland over systematic cruelty that too often verged on brutality over decades, if daily beatings are what you need to turn out good Catholics well there you are.
This is also why many in the pro-life movement seem indifferent to the welfare of the children they ‘rescue’. Their job is to get the babies baptized, after that they are on their own.
I am a secularist and find this mindset freakishly immoral, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its own internal logic: 33 souls for Jesus is an end in itself.
Beg to differ. Most of them don’t believe in infant baptism. That’s for dirty Papists, like, say, 95% of the Hatian population.
@Phyllis: I’m with you, Phyllis. It boggles my mind that this sense of personal arrogance despite a life to the contrary still exists. How does one maintain such a dissonance? And, it makes me furious that people use religion to cloak all manners of ignorant bullshit. It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card. This woman believes that she has a calling (or so she tells herself), and she is going to follow it no matter how many people she hurts.
The other thing that infuriates me is that with women like this, they don’t see the children as people or individuals. They don’t particularly care for the actual children involved–it’s just the ‘saving’ that turns them on. Disgusting.
I read it – it’s called The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, who captures that missionary zeal and arrogance perfectly.
Just once I’d like to venture into a thread without hearing about the goddamn Wire. Just once.
She told me they were on a mission from God and if God wanted them to succeed, they would.
BC beat me to it, but I, too am amused (well, that’s one word) by the idea that if they really took this idea seriously, they would be feeling pretty darn chastened right now. If they took their FAITH seriously, they’d be on their knees apologizing to the Almighty.
The fact that they are still agitating for attention to their “plight” and proclaiming that they did nothing wrong is, in and of itself, a demonstration of their LACK of faith in the will of God.
No, wait. I remember how they get around this. Despite the limitless power of God, Satan was able to step in and thwart His will in this instance. That’s the only way this could have happened, because they’re SURE they were on A Righteous Mission.
What’s that murmuring back there? God’s will cannot necessarily be known? Hush your mouth!
So even in her own mind, God thought she was doing something wrong, right? Has it occurred to her yet that maybe God exists, but just doesn’t like her very much?
Plus ca change,plus c’est la meme chose! L’hypocrisie religieuse.