Is punishing a 7-year-old by putting Tapatio sauce in his mouth torture? How about forcing him, sobbing and screaming, into a cold shower?
What does it mean to do these things to a child, at least in part, for the sake of publicity?
An Anchorage jury is looking at these questions this week in the case of Jessica Beagley, an Anchorage mother charged with misdemeanor child abuse after a video of her angry hot sauce and cold shower punishment session appeared on the "Dr. Phil" show.
To be considered abuse, the jury must decide if the punishment was cruel, torturous and disproportionate to what the boy did. (According to testimony, the boy, one of a set of twins recently adopted from Russia, got into minor trouble at school for sword-fighting with pencils and then denied it when his mother asked about it.)
To me, the hot sauce and the shower are beside the point. It doesn't matter whether a jury says Beagley is officially an abuser. The boy is a victim of his mother's anger and narcissism, and also of exploitation by the "Dr. Phil" show, which promised a woman with problems fame and help in exchange for video of her losing control. No matter how things go, she's being held accountable right now. Dr. Phil, who cashed in on her situation, isn't.
Beagley first contacted "Dr. Phil" in 2009, responding to a segment called "Angry Moms." Beagley was an angry mom. She is a mother of six, something that can't be easy for anyone. In the courtroom on Thursday, the prosecution played a video of her getting her children ready for school. The dynamics, though not criminal and probably not terribly uncommon, are the stuff of therapy sessions.
The video begins with Beagley sitting at a table, a bitter expression on her face. She's yelling her children to eat faster, feeding oatmeal to one, and helping another study for a spelling test, mainly by providing impatient corrections. The videographer is an older elementary-aged child. Just listening to Beagley's shrill voice for 10 minutes made my stress level rise.
This video was not what the "Dr. Phil" show was looking for. They asked for video of her disciplining her child to be part of a segment called "Mommy Confessions," according to the prosecution. She said she wasn't going to punish her children for no reason, according to testimony. The show responded that she should keep a camera around. You know, just in case something happened. (Wink. Wink.)
It's hard to say what exactly motivated Beagley. The defense said that her son had serious behavioral problems and that she was desperate for help. But Thursday teachers from Turnagain Elementary's Russian immersion program testified that the boy didn't act out at school much more than any other child his age. Beagley never asked any of the teachers for help, they said.
Sometime after the day her son got into some minor trouble for messing around with pencils, Beagley teared up as she came to talk to one of his teachers about it, according to testimony. Then she told the teacher she was going on "Dr. Phil." Friends said she was an angry mom, the teacher testified she said. Email records presented in court showed that "Dr. Phil" booked her just a few days after the day her son got in trouble.
Beagley was very involved in the classroom, teachers said. She didn't usually get emotional over her children's discipline problems, they said. Were those tears from desperation? Or was it guilt for losing it on her kid to get on TV?
Going on TV didn't go well. The audience reacted in horror to her video.
"You have crippled this child mentally, emotionally and socially," Phil McGraw told her.
She asked for advice. McGraw didn't have much to offer. He asked her husband to step in. He suggested whispering in the boy's ear. The orphanage might be at the root of the boy's problems, he said.
And that was about it. Then she got charged with child abuse.
The Office of Children's Services visited the home. They didn't remove the boy. In court, teachers said that the boy knew that his family had been on TV. Students talked about it. It made him "anxious and teary," one teacher said.
The "Dr. Phil" show has repeatedly declined media requests for interviews. The show posted an "uncensored" video of McGraw online, explaining that stories like Beagley's may be extreme and sensational, but they need to be told.
"I hope it makes all of us stop and grade our papers about how we're doing as parents," he said.
Elsewhere on the site, under a trailer for "Mommy Confessions," the show is still soliciting parents who feel out of control.
"Are you a mom on the verge of a meltdown?" the site says. "Tell us your story!"
Dr. Phil has advice, it says.
Good luck with that.
In an era dominated by reality television, a lot of people think opening up their lives to the world will lead to real changes. Fat people go on "Biggest Loser" with hopes of being thin. Extreme Home Makeover blows up and replaces derelict houses. Overwhelmed parents turn to Dr. Phil. In so many cases, though, lives don't really change when the cameras go away. Instead, regular people get put on display for the judgment of strangers. The shows cash the big checks. The problems remain.
In this case, a little boy, raised part of his life in an orphanage, got screamed at, hot sauced, put in a cold shower and embarrassed at school. His mother, who was out of control and needed help, got shamed instead. And now she's on the news from Russia to Canada for facing criminal charges.
Dr. Phil says he's here to help. But in this case, he didn't help anyone.