The Benoit Problem

Earlier this year, on the Virginia Tech campus, Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed thirty-two people, then turned the gun on himself. Hearing this news on a college campus was jarring to say the least. I had a few loose ties with the school and thankfully everyone I knew had stayed safe and sound. However, less than sixty days later we are left with a question of “why” or more accurately of “how.” Cho released tapes that seemed to give some explanation of his rationale: isolation, disgust with his peers, and a desire for martyrdom. These are reasons why, yet many are still troubled by the question of how this man could have committed such a heinous act. Many college students feel lonely, many feel ostracized, many have distaste for their colleagues, but how those things drove this man to murder so many innocent people remains something of a mystery. It’s simplest for us to label him as crazy; it’s comforting to think that no sane person could perform these acts, to extinguish so many lives. Yet all reports of the incident portray Cho as calm, calculated even, acting in the manner of someone who knew exactly what they were doing and what the consequences of those actions would be. Resolving these events with our idea of what a human being is capable of proves difficult. For wrestling fans, particularly those of Chris Benoit, this difficulty is multiplied ten-fold.

We are surrounded by a culture that glorifies and sensationalizes violence. As has been argued as a justification for the Vince McMahon death angle, someone is killed on CSI every week. Action movies and horror films do big business, games like Grand Theft Auto sell into the millions, and even our sports seem more intense and physical than ever. What red-blooded male did not cheer in their hearts of hearts, even just a little bit, at King Leonidas’ last stand? This is not meant to be a polemic or a fit of praise, but rather a statement of fact. Professional wrestling is the epitome of this fact – ritualized violence, performed with more flair and pageantry than the eye can handle. Each wrestler stands larger than life, each move harder and more dramatic than reality could ever allow, each true victor lionized and each coward vilified. Yet, what happens when one of our most championed champions proves himself a coward?

The only answer I can provide at the moment is, “I do not know.” This little pseudo-sport many of us devote so much of our time to begins to appear silly, strange, or even downright insulting in light of such events, in light of the fact that one of its stars, so praised for his strength and talent turned it against his family. Every Arnold movie I have ever seen, every digital kill I have ever perpetrated, every brutal match I have ever witnessed seems paltry in comparison to the news that a father killed his seven-year-old son with his own two hands.

Many people renowned for their skill and talent have been accused of terrible things. Lewis Carroll has been repeatedly accused of pedophilia, as has Michael Jackson. Despite verdicts to the contrary, many feel that stars like O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake are murderers. The abusive, drug-using rock star is so typical that the image has become a cliché. Recently, the NFL has seen a veritable epidemic of players involved in unsavory incidents. Even Vince McMahon has admitted to committing adultery. How appropriate it is to enjoy the work of these people is a question with no easy answer. Yet even so, in each of these cases we have mere accusations or incidents that we may deem terrible, but which fall well short of irrefutable evidence of murder done in such a cruel and brutal manner.

This much is for certain – we will never be able to watch a match featuring Chris Benoit the same way again. In every effort we have seen from Chris over the past twenty years, we have praised his talent, promoted his skill, and extolled his virtues in innumerable other ways. Now, there’s a very large, very dark shadow cast over each and every match. Perhaps, in time, we may even be able to enjoy those exhibitions again, but in the back of our minds will remain the fact that this man took the lives of his own wife and a little boy who he brought into the world. No matter how strenuously we try, it is impossible to wholly separate the art from the man. Chris Benoit is a murderer. Every time we cheered him, every time we celebrated the end of Wrestlemania XX, every time we cried during his tribute, we were cheering, celebrating, and crying for a man who became a murderer. It’s not surprising that so many of us are having such a difficult time resolving this fact with the image of the outstanding worker we admired for so many years.

In the movie “Se7en,” serial murderer John Doe taunts, “It’s more comfortable for you to label me as insane,” and the truth is that he’s right. It’s much easier for us to process that a man is off his rocker than to accept that the man we saw Monday Nights was the real Chris Benoit. Chris Benoit used to proclaim that he was “for real,” and in an ironic twist, that’s why we loved him. When he chopped someone, it looked like it really hurt. When he came into the ring, he looked like he really was filled with “ruthless aggression.” In a business where illusion and “faking it” are the name of the game, he stood out as someone who treated his work and his character as completely serious. Given the events that transpired, it seems clear that he may have taken these things too seriously. “It’s still real to me,” has become a punch line, but perhaps it’s also become something much more dangerous.

The life of a wrestler, even one who is established and comfortable financially, is a difficult one. On the road more than three-hundred days of the year, away from your family, putting your body through turmoil night after night, I’m far from the first person to comment on how trying such a life must be. More than one wrestler has faced troubles and turned to “demons” in response, but none quite so reprehensibly as Chris. We are again, left to wonder how any human being, let alone one whom we idolized, could do such a thing. The answer is that the problem in unsolvable. There’s no solution, no good way, to make sense of what happened this weekend. Our natural predilection is to look for explanations, and sadly there are none to be found here.

Many writing on this topic have tried to end their discussions with some sliver of hope. They try to bring out the slightest shred of optimism from these grisly events, and I must admit that I have none except this – take this incident as an opportunity to realize the shear fragility of life. Call your parents, kiss your significant other, and hug your children. Whether you believe in a god, in no gods, or in several gods, take time to appreciate the good things in your life. Events like these remind us how fleeting all such blessings, in either the literal or figurative sense, can be. Toast to your health, toast to your friends, and toast to your life. Tell your loved ones how you feel about them; you might not have another chance, and perhaps, take solace in the fact that for every such gruesome end, a new baby is born into this world every minute of every day. Use this as a wakeup call to make the world they come into better, and hope for the best. That’s all anyone can do.

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