Here’s a question to ponder: If your neighbors were up to something sinister, would you be aware of it? Are you cognizant enough of what’s happening in your community, and invested enough in the lives of your neighbors, that you’d not only know what was happening but also care enough to contact the authorities?
That’s one of the questions prompted by the story of David and Louise Turpin, who are accused of starving, torturing, and imprisoning their 13 children for years.
The Turpin’s children ranged in age from two to 29. When police arrived at their home in Perris, Calif., earlier this month, at least two of the children were chained to beds. The parents reportedly taunted their kids with food they were forbidden to eat, and allowed them to shower only once a year. Meanwhile, they doted on their two dogs, feeding them regularly and taking photos of them dressed in cute doggy clothes.
Authorities said some of the children showed signs of cognitive impairment and nerve damage as a result of extreme and prolonged physical abuse. The charges against the Turpin parents could land them in prison for the rest of their lives.
It’s a shocking story, but nearly as shocking is that the Turpin’s neighbors lived only feet away and seemingly knew nothing. The world knows of this story only because one of the children escaped and alerted authorities.
As often happens in these sorts of cases, the family’s neighbors expressed surprise at what had been happening right under their noses, even though some acknowledged they had reason to be concerned.
The Turpin children looked robotic, one former neighbor told reporters, and the kids were often seen marching in circles in their home for hours at a time.
Another neighbor said that the kids seemed “terrified” when they were approached. Another said he considered reporting the family to the authorities, but ended up not doing so. “We discussed it and we didn’t want to have the repercussions with them,” the former neighbor said.
One might conclude that the Turpins lived out in the country on some remote compound. But for the last seven years, they lived in California’s suburbs. A photo of their most recent home in Perris shows their neighbors’ houses just steps away.
This is just the most recent sign of a society that has lost its sense of community. It is common to hear people today say, usually with a note of regret, that they have lived for years in a community or apartment building and don’t know their neighbors’ names and have never had a meaningful conversation with them.
A study using data from the General Social Survey found that only about one in five Americans regularly spend time with their neighbors, and one in three never interact with them at all. That’s a significant decline from 40 years ago. Back then, according to the survey, one in three Americans regularly hung out with those who lived close to them, and only a quarter didn’t interact with them at all.
These days, we are more likely to know the intimate details of a celebrity we follow halfway across the world than we are even basic facts about people who live just a few feet away.
The reason for this lack of neighborliness and sense of community are many and varied. Technology is partly to blame. In modern America, people tend to stay in close touch with their close friends and family, often remotely via social media.
This connectivity with loved ones is a good thing, but it also means we are less connected with our neighbors. We have lost our sense of community, and with it our sense of mutual obligation to one another.
One of the Turpin’s former Texas neighbors said, “I feel really guilty we didn’t [report the strange goings on at the Turpin’s home]. Hearing about this makes me think I didn’t do my part as a person.”
In California, Mary Parks, spokesperson for the Riverside County Department of Social Services, said that of the 60,000 calls they received last year, "not one" was about the Turpins. “How sad.”
It is sad. But a silver lining to this horror story is that perhaps it will prompt people to be more attentive to those around them, to take the time to chat with their neighbors without feeling like they’re prying into their lives. Who knows—it just might stop the next horror story from unfolding.
Gary Bauer is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is president of American Values and chairman of Campaign for Working Families. He ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.
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