Balloon Boy Thought Balloons: Part I, The History of Child Hoaxes
Against my better (or really, any) judgment, I’ve been following the Balloon Boy story with a full and then trampled heart. In truth, even before the hoax angle hit the news, it seemed farfetched that there could even be a child in that XXL Jiffy Pop Bag scudding across the sky. The thing looked so flimsy. As if it had kited up from the set of an Ed Wood movie—I’m thinking a cross between Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space, where Bela Lugosi gravels out some inaudible dialogue while doing atomic experiments on an unlucky gent strapped down with a colander on his head. The enterprise reeked of smalltime fakery, minus the angora.
Still, until you could be sure, the whole spectacle was terrible, terrifying. I ached for that boy, those parents, that family. October 15th, the day the story broke, was my son’s tenth birthday, and I couldn’t help it; I thought about how I would feel if it were him up there and me down here. Unspeakable.
Now the sting has gone out of the story, and the stink has taken its place. The latest news today is that Miyumi Heene, the Balloon Boy’s mother, admitted in an affidavit that she and her husband, Richard, “devised this hoax approximately two weeks earlier…. She and Richard had instructed their three children to lie to authorities as well as the media regarding this hoax.”
There are many things to say about the Balloon Boy Incident and as a parent writing about parenting, most of them are really rather sad. Let’s just start by advising the Heenes to take a portion of any proceeds that come their way (one wag predicted the balloon would fetch $17,500 on Ebay) and start a therapy fund for their sons. Because surely Ryo, Falcon, and Bradford Heene will look back and ask, amidst much talk of mistrust, neglect, betrayal, boundaries, delusion, narcissism, you name it: What were these ridiculous grownups thinking?!
My second notion was to take the historical view. (To offer my insights on the psychology of the Heene family seemed too, well, um, let’s leave that to the professionals.) I’m a history geek, and it occurred to me to research the long line of hoaxes involving children. Perhaps they would shed light on the Balloon Boy story. I didn’t know if there would be some fun stuff, some jokey April Fools-ish morsels to savor. Yeah, no. You’d be surprised how charmless, unfunny, and distressing these hoaxes are (or maybe you wouldn’t be).
Take fake feral child scams. How these work is someone usually claims to have found a vagabond child, their origins unknown, and says they were raised by wolves or monkeys or some such. Parades them about. Courts publicity. Charges fees to sell their story. Usually these children, come to find out, were abandoned, and their behavior would now fall under the label of severely traumatized, autistic, or schizophrenic. See The Wild Boy of Burundi. The Delphos Wolf Girl. Sad? Unbearably.
But some hoaxes are less a corkscrew to the heart and more an idiot wind. (I quote Bob Dylan lyrics when I’m upset.) I’m thinking of the sick or missing kid scams like the Debbie Shwartz Charity Hoax, one of those chain-mail-ish flimflams which say there is a lost or dying child, and that money will be donated to her care/recovery every time an email is forwarded. Or the Jasmine Thomas Charity Hoax, which said the American Red Cross will donate money when the email is passed on. It’s cleansing to get pissed off about these trickeries, because no real child is involved. Kind people are preyed upon, crummy adults exploit the human urge to help those in need. But no kid is hurt.
Charities like the Red Cross and the Make-a-Wish Foundation, by the way, have to spend valuable time and money to thwart con artists, which means less time/money is given to real people suffering real tragedies. How much was spent on the Balloon Boy rescue efforts, you’re wondering? For ground crews looking for whether the boy had fallen out of the contraption, for the FBI, and NORAD, and Black Hawk helicopters deployed to chase a large, silver, runaway we-now-know-empty chef’s toque? According to the New York Post about $2 million.
Sorry, but I will coax out one more hoax before I move on (because I am going to move on, I swear). This one concerns Tom Thumb and his equally tiny wife, Lavinia Warren, who toured Europe with “their baby,” actually an orphan fetched up by their manager P.T. Barnum, who wanted to project a family image. (Lavinia couldn’t have children of her own, hence the strategy.) The hitch? The baby would grow (babies are like that) and eventually cease looking cherubic, so Barnum would replace the poor child with another, younger infant. This happened many times: old baby out, new baby in. Do the math on the abandonment issues, and you really can’t feel any hahs-hahs for P.T. Barnum. A sucker is born every minute, yes, and I’d rather be one than a heartless showman.
Now I don’t think Richard Heene, the Balloon Boy’s dad, is in P.T. Barnum’s league. He’s narcissistic, fame-seeking, desperate, and more like unintentionally cruel; that poor kid Falcon, those poor brothers, forced to keep a secret, play a part. As a parent, it’s the plate-of-crazy factor that gets me, too—really, what sensible dad or mom would trust a 6-year-old to be discreet? Their thought processes are still pretty murky at this age, you know. The big picture is missing. And there are plenty of vestiges of magical thinking. I can verify this personally: Last year, I read aloud a book on ocean creatures to my daughter’s kindergarten class. After I closed the covers, each child in turn recalled in great detail and seriousness, how, on their last visit to the beach, they’d come this close to getting bit by a shark. In several cases, a great white shark.
Falcon Heene is alive and safe, thank God, which in the triage of this sorry event is all that counts. And just so I don’t come off as completely judgmental of these parents, I will freely confess that I’ve not known where my kids are for frantic blossoms of time (in a store, in the woods, in a crowd). Still, I wasn’t trying to land a tv show or writing a theme song or costing state and federal agencies $2 million.
Etymological aside: the word “hoax” is derived from the word “hocus pocus.” And here’s what I have to say to those who harm as they hoax; instant karma’s gonna get you.
It’s hard to stay snarky, though. The truth is, I felt like crying when I watched the Heenes on tv, the boys slumped and exhausted, Meredith Viera speaking to the family with a sort of restrained pity, in careful social worker tones. Note Richard’s dissembling, Miyumi’s quietude. Then watch poor Falcon actually throw up during the interview. Twice, poor baby. A friend of mine thinks that those bouts of vomiting were the result of his parents dosing him up with Benadryl to keep him asleep so the scam had time to take hold. Or maybe it was just a case of nerves; once he uttered the fateful rejoinder, “Daddy said it was for the show,” he’d blown the family’s cover.
Hoaxes are sad. Parents misusing their children for their own needs are sad. But now let us fly backwards, west with the night, into the distant past of October 15th, when no one yet was speaking of a hoax—and “Balloon Boy” became the No. 1 search on Google within hours of his being reported missing. Back when we shared in common the true, deep, worry for the plight of a small child. Back when our heart’s muscle squeezed with every list and lean of that balloon tumbling through the sky.
Now keep flying. Fly back 60 years, 6 months, and a week, for there’s another story about a child that once made us worry and hope together—and there was no hoax involved. This particular news event lasted a 27-hour real-time news cycle when a 3-year-old girl named Kathy Fiscus fell down a well in San Marino, California, on Good Friday, 1949. You may have heard of her, or you may have seen the loose recreation of her story in Woody Allen’s Radio Days.
Like I said, I’m a history geek and the Balloon Boy story is floating me to unexpected places. In my next post, I’ll speak to a California historian who has dug deep into the Kathy Fiscus story. It’s a wrenching piece of American history, but also a moment of great gravitas, import, and some kind of redemption. In other words, the Fiscus family was as rooted to this earth as the Heenes had their heads in the clouds.
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