Friday, December 10, 2010

Oprah's Connecticut Visit to Dr. William Petit

Oprah Winfrey came to Connecticut for Thursday's show, for what she called "the exclusive first interview" with Dr. William Petit about the assault and murder of his wife and two daughters in 2007.

What was exclusive about to her it may have been that she was the first big celebrity interviewer who dropped in to get his comments. But the mourning doctor's voice has certainly not gone unheard in the incessant coverage locally of the crime, trial and sentencing.

Sitting in his parents' house (rather than, say, Harpo studios in Chicago before an audience) Dr. Petit answered her questions in a muted voice as she bore down on him like a psychiatrist -- a psychiatrist bent on knowing what exactly he was feeling at every point.

Her first question: "Tell us of the moment you were conscious of the fact that you had lost your entire family."

When he doesn't immediately answer, she sets the scene like a police investigator: "You're in the hospital, your family walks in... can you tell us what that was like?"

"I think I was still dazed and confused," he began.

Later, she said, a little callously, "Describe for us what this meant for you to lose your entire family?"

What is this insistence of TV interviewers to know how somebody felt at every moment? Is this the key piece of information, the holy grail, every TV interviewer must have? Can't we simply imagine what a man who has lost his family has felt? Are interviewers, in constantly asking these questions, merely poking at raw nerves in hopes of seeing some emotional response?

As quietly as she speaks and even handed Winfrey's tone, there is still a notion of exploitation in the whole exercise. Especially as exuberant commercials keep interrupting every five minutes and the host keeps teasing the next segment -- usually with one of her blunt questions.

There has been no shortage of Dr. Petit's statements made public over the years, in his remembrance at their funerals and in his impact at the sentencing. But since he didn't speak these personal things to Oprah, maybe they haven't counted.

So she persisted in what would seem outrageous questioning. In between the tense piano music, she had a query right out of Camus: "Why did you make the decision not to kill yourself?"

He didn't want to risk not seeing his family in the afterlife, he said.

Petit himself laughed when she asked: "Where are you with God now?"

But he tried to answer: "God and I had a little bit of a standoff. I've believed in God for a long time, but I was pretty angry with Him for a long time - or Her," he added, perhaps in acknowledment of her role among a female audience.

Winfrey said later in the interview she was hesitant to even bring up the word forgiveness. But it was enough of a way to bring up the topic.

"I don't think you can forgive ultimate evil," he said. "You can forgive someone who stole your car. You can forgive someone who slaps you in the face. You can forgive someone who insulted you. You can forgive someone who caused an accident. I think forgiving the essence of evil is not appropriate."

"I love that answer," she says.

Oprah tried to end on an up note, by mentioning his foundation for education programs in science and for people affected by violence.

"Does this make you feel alive again?" she asked.

"It makes me feel that there are a lot of good people in the world who reach out," he answered.

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