Why I Support Rachel Canning, The New Jersey Teen Who’s Suing Her Parents For Tuition
If you’re not the type to keep track of who the Internet is hating this week — Lena Dunham? Juan Pablo? HBOGo? — then you may have missed the story behind Rachel Canning. Last week, the Interwebs unified in outrage over Canning, the New Jersey teen who sued her parents for high school and college tuition. Canning became a national punching bag straight out of the gate, with legions of commenters (ourselves included) falling over themselves to clutch their pearls over the audacity of her lawsuit, write off her accusations of parental abuse, and accuse her of being yet another spoiled Millennial driven to amoral madness by the Twitter, or something. When sites weren’t covering the many, many fake or parodic Facebook accounts that purported to be Canning having a hissyfit, they were often busy comparing her to Ethan Couch, the "affluenza victim" who killed several people in a drunk driving accident.
So, just to catch you up: filing a lawsuit against your parents is an offense roughly equivalent to casually ending several human lives.
I grew up with a wildly unstable mother, one prone to mood swings and fits of rage she later denied. Like Canning, I occasionally decamped to a friend’s house when things with my mother became too much, though I never stayed for months on end — but only because, frankly, no one ever offered ... It was bleak and disorienting to be away from home as a teen, and depressing to watch someone else get along so much better with their own family. It’s not an option I chose lightly, and I hesitate to think that Canning did, either.
Of course, on some level, I do understand the knee-jerk responses. The Canning case plays on both our own shame at how poorly we often acted towards our parents as teens, as well as our fears that despite our best efforts, our own children will grow up to become corrupted by a materialist culture. Those fears have gotten a big boost from most media coverage of the case, which has really banged the drum on how the Cannings were a “wonderful family,” blown apart by one selfish young person.
And that’s a great thought — if you want to sell clicks to people who are terrified of their kids growing up to be brats. But it’s also bullshit.
Contrary to the popular thought that Canning just up and left her family one day — perhaps deciding to sue her parents while she was bored on the drive-thru line at Taco Bell — Canning had actually been out of the family home since October. This timeline seems to suggest that, rather this lawsuit being the impulsive whim of an indulged monster, it is actually a bit of a last resort, and one Canning took on after spending the past five months scrambling to figure out how to make a deposit for college.
Maybe that line of thinking doesn’t move you. Fine. But at least consider that cases like these — when parents who have been accused of abuse are publicly depicted as loving, and their child a spoiled menace — cannot be summed up by a simple headline. Canning's parents have denied all allegations of emotional abuse, and as the Daily Mail reports, it seems Child Protective Services is on their side:
[Canning's] school called New Jersey Child Protection and Permanency last fall after abuse allegations from Rachel and what he called ‘difficult meetings between Rachel and Mr. Canning.’
Mr. Canning admits a state worker visited the home just prior to Rachel’s alleged ‘abandonment,’ but that the official found the teen simply to be ‘spoiled’ and didn’t pursue the abuse allegations.
But does that mean we should automatically assume that Canning's parents are telling the truth, or that CPS would never make assumptions about wealthy white families and their "spoiled children"? The truth is, we have no idea what happened in the Cannings' home. And we shouldn't be pointing any fingers — especially not at the person who claims to be the victim.
Just look at Rachel Sontag, whose 2008 memoir House Rules recounted a childhood filled with vile emotional abuse perpetrated by her father. Sontag’s father bought a website in order to refute every one of her accusations, point by point, and paint himself as an ideal father with a thankless child — and did so in a way that only seemed to prove every claim made in Sontag’s book. Six years after the book’s publication, Sontag’s father’s website is the primary search result one gets from googling her name. I think of Sontag’s case every time I hear about a child who alleges abuse, and a parent who tries to turn it back on the kid.
Or take another example: me.
I grew up with a wildly unstable mother, one prone to mood swings and fits of rage she later denied. Like Canning, I occasionally decamped to a friend’s house when things with my mother became too much, though I never stayed for months on end — but only because, frankly, no one ever offered. For those of you who think moving to friend’s house means moving to a no-rules party zone governed by the Amy Poehler character in Mean Girls, you’ve got it wrong: It was bleak and disorienting to be away from home as a teen, and depressing to watch someone else get along so much better with their own family. It’s not an option I chose lightly, and I hesitate to think that Canning did, either.
Though I know that popular opinion about this case is colored by people’s negative feelings about Millennials and their alleged feelings of “entitlement,” the reality is that people who detach from relationships ask for money from the people that they are leaving all the time.
Plenty of childless marriages that end in divorce involve demands for alimony, and those marriages are relationships entered into by fully functional and aware adults — not relationships that a child is born into. And we don’t automatically laugh these people out of the courtroom. So if divorced people without kids can sue each other for the money their partner would have provided for them in the marriage, why the hell can’t Rachel Canning sue her parents for the money they would have given her for college if only she’d stayed with them?
One of the horrors of emotional abuse is the fight victims face to be believed. Denial is often an element of abuse; part of a process that is often referred to as “gaslighting” the victim, aka making them believe that they’re imagining all their mistreatment. Emotional abuse leaves no bruise, so why would any emotional abuser admit to what they had done? It's a fact that's difficult to ignore when looking at Rachel Canning, a woman being publicly flogged despite the fact that none of us are privy to the details of what happened behind the Cannings' doors.
Because here is the thing: “Wonderful families” do not simply splinter into a million pieces one day because one member of this wonderful family is a petty, entitled jerk. Often, wonderful families shatter when it turns out that family wasn’t so wonderful after all.
Images: CNN; LOLsnaps, YouSign