I love a good tragedy. When it comes to Shakespeare, give me Hamlet, Macbeth or King Lear. In movies, I prefer flawed heroes and fallen angels. If I cheer at the death of the villain, then I never connected with the character and that means he could only have been two-dimensional, and we know what two-dimensional pictures of bad guys are used for: target practice.
Similarly, I’m not big on god-like figures. As a kid, I was a bit of a smart-ass (not saying that has changed) and once asked in Sunday school why we were busy trying to emulate perfection if we, as man, were doomed to imperfection. I didn’t quite articulate the whole of my thought, which was, ‘If I can see flaws in Jesus, be they moments of doubt or indecision or even waves of fear, then I can identify more easily with him and thus will be inspired to at least try to follow in his footsteps.’ I was filled with such doubt on a daily basis and I simply couldn’t identify with his confidence of mission. ‘What was that like?’ I wondered.
I have received a lot of praise for my work covering the trial of Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson. I’m grateful for every note I have either received here or that has been sent to VeloNews. Nothing could please me more than to know that my effort to be fair and unbiased in my reporting resonated with readers.
The story of this case is obviously tragic in broad strokes, but I think it is easy to miss the more human elements that make us identify with each of the people involved and feel for the ways their lives have changed.
In Christian Stoehr’s case, he endured a four and a half hour surgery to repair his shoulder. He spent the vast majority of his settlement on his physical therapy. With the little money left over he built a pizza oven. He’s guaranteed arthritis in that shoulder and will never be able to carry the bigger cameras that were once a prominent part of his professional life. Once a fixture of my training rides, I rarely see him anymore.
As easygoing as Ron Peterson is, he’s an intensely competitive guy. Prior to Thompson’s assault, Ron was racing as a Cat. 1 and had the ability to win on any course; he could drop you going up, down or in a sprint. As a coach, he had helped novice riders become good racers and some very good racers become legendary. Today, he’s on the local rides occasionally … at best. His sense of justice might get a boost someday; he has filed a civil suit against Thompson and with the help of a forensic accountant, they might find some compensation for his suffering. Nothing will really make up for the missed days on the bike either of these guys has experienced, though.
But here’s what none of us really want to think about: Subtract about three minutes from Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson’s life and chances are none of us would ever have heard his name. His given name is largely irrelevant to us judging from the names he’s been called on blogs, web sites and in e-mails.
Monster is the clear winner, with a bullet and heading up the charts fast.
Certainly the act he committed is monstrous, but does that make him a monster? I have problems with this sort of thinking for a few reasons. First, one of the great fallacies of irrational thinking is believing that if you do something bad, you are bad. Going to Catholic schools as a kid, I got that message a lot, thankyouverymuch.
Second, once we reduce a guy to a cardboard cutout, painting him as a villain, we remove him from humanity and deny that he had anything in common with us. Seeing someone as all bad is called splitting; it is a defense mechanism that gives us a chance to devalue another person. It’s convenient and neat, and saves us the onerous task of recognizing how his temper might be a first cousin to our own tempers.
I don’t know Dr. Thompson and don’t want to know him. But in working on my coverage about this “incident,” I learned a thing or two about him. He’s a musician. Present tense. Judging from a personal page that used to be on the Touch Medix web site, he’s a big wine nut; there were a few photos of him holding a glass full of what looked to be Cabernet. He lived on Mandeville Canyon; if you’ve ever been up the canyon, then you know anyone who chooses to live there has some clue about the good life. He’s an entrepreneur; Touch Medix is a company he launched with a friend to respond to a need they perceived in hospital medical records. He does, in fact, have a heart; he paid for the funeral of the daughter of an ex-girlfriend and paid for flowers to be on her grave every month.
He’s also a guy who lied to the court about his motivation for stopping in front of Ron and Christian. He lied under oath to a judge and a jury. He’s a physician who had to get through a fair amount of physics in college who claimed he wanted to get a photo of the cyclists as they passed—a ridiculous suggestion that seemingly anyone with half a brain would have understood as essentially impossible given his claimed distance ahead of them and the speed they were moving. And he expected us to believe him.
We don’t know what his sentence will be, but the loss of his medical license is virtually assured. I won’t pretend to know what the appropriate punishment is for his actions, but the loss of his medical license seems appropriate.
But is he a monster? Let me ask the question a different way. Is he a villain? Is he the black-hat-wearing, cardboard-cutout, Darth Vader of car drivers?
Hopefully, Dr. Thompson will do some soul searching and look back on the choice he made on July 4, 2008, as the low point in his judgment, though it’s possible he’ll deflect and decide his worst choice wasn’t hitting the brakes but hiring Peter Swarth to represent him. These things happen. History knows the truth: It’s unlikely Thompson will ever make a poorer choice than when he hit the brakes that morning on Mandeville Canyon. Should we sum up the whole of his identity in a single choice?
Perhaps it is fair to wonder if his identity should be different from his station in life post-verdict. Some time down the road, he’ll be out of prison and an employee of a medical records software company, a former doctor and convicted felon.
Photo: Chris Roberts