Monday, October 17, 2011

The Tattooed Twins and Other News

I used to have a severe Law & Order addiction. I followed the show in its classic and SVU flavors, sampled episodes of Criminal Intent, and watched reruns of classic on TBS or some other cable channel almost every day for years. Heck, I even gave Trial by Jury a chance. Not too many people can say that, since it was canceled almost immediately.

I quit cold turkey about five years ago, just before Sam Waterson's Jack McCoy finally became DA. I somehow came to the conclusion that it was a net negative in my life: too much focus on violent crap I don't need to know about, making for my own little piece of the scary world hypothesis.

All that is context for my relapse last week: I watched Law & Order SVU because T.R. Knight was the guest star/suspect. He's originally from Minnesota, and I liked him when I watched the early seasons of Grey's Anatomy, so I thought, Why not?

TR Knight as an accused rapist on Law & Order SVU, being interviewed by Richard Benjamin and Ice-T
Well, as the saying goes, that's 45 minutes of my life I'll never get back; the show has clearly gone down a steep hill. The episode was a mess of long-lost evil twin absurdities not to mention every retrograde stereotype about adoption. Knight's character is a youngish family man, working in sales, who's moved from city to city until recently landing in New York. He has a distinctive tattoo on his neck, and right off the bat we're shown a rape where the attacker has such a tattoo. Then we conveniently find out there's a serial rapist on the books from several other East Coast cities who has the same tattoo, and those cities all coincide with places the salesman has lived. And then there's a DNA match from one of the earlier rapes.

Slam dunk, right? Well, no -- the salesman insists he's completely innocent and can't believe this is happening to him. The way it's written, the audience is encouraged to believe him. So I thought, either there's a secret twin or he's got a split personality. Take your pick of two stupid TV tropes.

When it turns out the salesman has an iron-clad alibi for one of the earlier rapes, we are left with the evil twin hypothesis. And darned if we don't find out the salesman was adopted just at that point in the plot. Then all of the other obvious parts fall into place: He was adopted by a middle class family, while his twin was placed into some kind of harsh family situation, culminating in his mother killing his father, with him as a witness.

The detectives interview the twins' birth mother, who is portrayed as the scum of the earth, an unnatural mother. The deviant son had tried to reconnect with her when he was a young adult, but she ducked him, after telling him he had a twin. So, rather than connect with his brother, he for some reason turned all of his rejection against the one person who might have wanted to meet him. Supposedly out of jealousy, the deviant twin got the same tattoo as his brother and then raped women in places where his brother lived, hoping his brother would be caught. (You see what I mean about Law & Order focusing on violent crap I don't need to know about.)

Why the deviant twin thought his brother would be caught instead of him is never explained. The episode ends with a confession from the evil twin and a bunch faux sympathy about his terrible upbringing from one of the detectives.

There is one good thing about my Law & Order relapse, though: It connects well with a study I just heard about last week. According to the Los Angeles Times, genetic research has found that some people are more susceptible to bad parenting than others.

There are three varieties of the 5-HTTLPR serotonin transporter-promoter gene. "About 1 in 5 children are born with a variant that, according to past studies, makes them highly sensitive to the effects of neglectful, insensitive or abusive parents," according to the Times. The most recent research found that same 20 percent of children "when blessed with especially warm and supportive parents . . . were disproportionately likely to be very happy and well-adjusted."

So clearly, that's what the "ripped from the headlines" writers of SVU were trying to allude to in their clumsy, oversimplified way: They were creating their own one-off separated twins study.

I've just recently gotten my hands on a copy of Judith Rich Harris's book The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, which I understand makes the case that genetics is more than half of why each of us is the way we are, while the other parts of why are something other than parenting. The book is over 10 years old, so I'm not sure any of this 5-HTTLPR research was done by the time it was published, but it will still be interesting to see if Harris has anything to say about cases like Law & Order's tattooed twins.

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