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ONLINE ONSLAUGHT
What I'll Remember About Chris Benoit 
July 2, 2007

by Rick Scaia
Exclusive to OOWrestling.com

 

This is the column I've spent precisely 7 days not writing. Because I had no idea how to. I still don't, but hell, we're at the point where I might as well get all this crap off my chest, and just sort of hope it magically coalesces into a cogent piece of wordsmithery.
 

As it stands, I don't have the desire to craft one of my standard 6000-word Career Retrospectives. I don't have the heart to do a smear job on the sort of monster who appeared last weekend in suburban Atlanta. What I do have are a ton of jumbled feelings, and a sense that, somehow, anything I write will be only 10% about Chris Benoit, and 90% about me 

and my personal morality and temperament.

Perhaps this is not unfitting, however. In his last acts, Chris Benoit forfeited the right to be put up on a pedestal and honored. Ever. And the confounding randomness and sheer unexpectedness of those last acts accomplishes something else, at least to me: it means Chris Benoit forfeited the right to be remembered with strong emotions.

Well, other than confusion, of which there is and will always be plenty.

A truly horrible person can die, and they'll be remembered and vilified for years. The evil they wrought in their days upon this earth will continue to inspire hatred and disgust. But that isn't Chris Benoit. A truly good and decent person will die, and they'll be remembered fondly for years, too. Unfortunately, this is no longer Chris Benoit, either.
 
When I think of Chris Benoit, I can't feel any genuine anger. But there's no sadness, either. At least: not for him. For his wife and his son, yes. But not for him. After seven days, all I've got for Benoit is this weird blurry blind spot in my brain. Other than being eternally baffled by his final actions, I have, it seems, lost the ability to really care about Chris Benoit.

Which is how this all comes back around to being more about me and my feelings than it is about Benoit. This divestment of emotional interest in Benoit is what permits me to move forward without holding some kind of personal grudge against the guy, and it's the same mechanism that'll keep me from ever getting inappropriately nostalgic over a guy who turned out to be a murderer.

To recall a line I used in an update last week: Chris Benoit is not a tragic figure, not a sympathetic figure, not really a villain, and certainly no hero. It turns out, he was just broken.

How, precisely, was he broken? How come he didn't get fixed? I'm not sure we'll ever know those answers, and speaking only for myself, I'm not sure they're answers that are all that interesting or important. They won't add any layers of emotion or sympathy to our understanding of what happened. At the end of the day, three people are still dead, and the only reason why is because, somewhere on the inside, Chris Benoit had a short circuit that allowed circumstances to dictate his actions, instead of a properly functioning logic unit that would have allowed him to have the will to dictate his circumstances.

I know I'll probably get another wave of e-mail from psychologists (as I did when I bluntly used the "broken human being" label for Benoit), telling me that Mental Illness Is Real, and that I should be more understanding and that Chris Benoit really is a sympathetic figure. That Benoit was SICK, and not "broken." That you discard a broken toaster, but that you have to care for (and care about) a sick person.

My response is inelegant, selfish, and probably rude: I *do* believe in mental illness, but I also believe that a lot of psychology is about as valid as voodoo, and exists mostly to provide excuses and justification for poor behavior. Psychology will give something a name, and in so doing, make it an acceptable justification for any behavior or feelings you choose to have. Yes, CHOOSE to have. I may crack wise about wanting to catapult all Paris-Hilton-obsessed, Jeff-Foxworthy-game-show-loving dimwits into the heart of the sun, and I may do it so often that you have this image of me as a barely contained sociopath. But that's not the case. Maybe part of me really would rather live in a world without those people. I dunno. But if it's there, it's a tiny part, and the rest of me is easily capable of CHOOSING to not be a totally batshit insane arbiter of taste.

Maybe the cliche is true, and everybody is at least a little bit crazy. But to me, there's a line between true mental illness (the kind the keeps a person from being able to interface with society and which must be treated by professionals) and the sort of "crazy" that psychology claims can be cured for the low, low price of $120 per hour, twice a week. And yet, nobody ever gets cured, because psychology doesn't like losing patients. Just invent a new mental disorder, tell a patient he has it, and watch the money keep rolling in; it's lazy, disingenuous, and selfish.

But I guess that's OK, because I also think a large amount of the "crazy" out there is also a case of people just being lazy, disingenuous, and most of all, selfish. Why take a personal interest in your own mood and mindset when you can let somebody else do it for you? Why give up all your "crazy" notions, when you can keep them and have psychology explain to you how acting on those crazy impulses doesn't make you weak, it just means you're sick? Why choose to put mind over matter when you can choose to claim illness? 

Anyway, I realize that's one hell of a digression, and I'll stop myself before it gets even longer. My point is simply that, from where I sit, Chris Benoit doesn't get the benefit of the "mental illness" cop-out explanation. All signs point to Chris Benoit answering the question "So, is it acceptable, under any circumstances, to murder your wife and son?" with a definitive "No." Crazy answers that question with a "Yes" and is willing to follow through on it. Broken answers it "No" but still ends up doing it, anyway. Just as I refuse to vilify Benoit as some sort of malignantly evil man, I refuse to grant him the cheap excuse of "crazy." Roid rage, concussions, and any other weak attempt at justification fall short, too. He was sane and clear-headed enough to know what he did was wrong (the bibles by the bodies and his own suicide speak to that), but for whatever selfish/lazy reasons, was lacking the fortitude to stop himself from doing it. Chris Benoit did this. Nobody else. and noTHING else.

Of course, it doesn't help that I've long believed that suicide is pretty much one of the most selfish and lazy things a person can do. It's the ultimate act of avoidance: avoiding problems, avoiding other people, avoiding consequences. It might be a horrible thing to say, but all my confusion and soap-boxing may have been avoided, too, if only Benoit had turned himself in or been apprehended after killing his family. Benoit in custody just might have deserved our anger and disgust. It's not nearly as cathartic to get pissed off at a guy who's already dead, which leads us (well, leads ME) back to this place of not feeling much of anything, and trying to figure out why.

I've also been thinking that my lack of emotional investment would make me a good person to speak about the issue of "Separating the Art from the Artist." It's something that has come up about a billion times in the last week, with some pretty strong feelings on both sides. Some people are so upset with what Benoit did that they seemingly won't be able to ever watch one of his matches again without breaking their television sets. Others contend that what Benoit did last weekend does nothing to tarnish his remarkable achievements inside the wrestling ring, and are actually pissed at WWE for "scrubbing" Benoit from their product.

Not surprisingly, I found myself somewhere in the middle, unable to see things in nearly the duo-tone black and white that others were seeing. In a lot of cases, folks tried to use other examples of how poor human beings (artists) were considered relative to their work (the art). Everything from boorish lushes who still wrote great stories to self-serving gamblers who happen to have more hits than anybody else in baseball came into play. The problem is: every time a different case of a shitty person doing amazing work came up, I just shook my head in disbelief.

This is way more complicated than "bad person, good work." This is a sliding scale, there are shades of gray, and you're out of your gourd if you think that betting on your own baseball team is even remotely comparable to killing two people. Yes, both are against the written rules, but that's where it ends. There's a certain Calculus of  Evil, and when you work out the numbers, it turns out that what Pete Rose did on a baseball diamond still significantly outweighs the jerkface he is off it. Meantime, if Chris Benoit had a baseball card, the Calculus states that the back would be wiped clean, the stats replaced with the story of how he killed his wife and son. There is no point to talking about ECW this, Super J Cup that, Pegasus Kid the other... the numbers don't lie, and now, those aren't the things people are going to read about Benoit, and they aren't the things I'm going to write about Benoit.

Pete Rose is still, in our minds, a baseball player, and one of the best ever. But as of last Monday, it's now safe to say that Chris Benoit WAS (past tense) a pro wrestler (and one of the best ever), but IS something different. In the chyron of life, his byline now reads "murderer."

Trust me, I don't say that glibly, and I certainly don't say it lightly. In fact, I've been trying to dance around it for the past week, because I know out there are people reading who weren't just fans of Chris Benoit. What I say will probably be read by people who were Chris' friends, and there's nothing to be gained by being so blunt. Their calculus is gonna be way different, because to them, maybe Chris Benoit was not a pro wrestler, first and foremost. And maybe the man he was, the co-worker he was... maybe all that adds up so that the final byline reads something more like "Dearly Departed Friend."

I say all that in hopes of underscoring that we, as fans, need to have some perspective. All this talk of separating "art" from "artist" is well and good, but there are people out there for whom the "art" was secondary, and who are now struggling with something far more difficult: separating the Man from the Monster. Trying to reconcile the Chris Benoit they knew with the final acts he committed is something that can't be easy. And it's something that goes far beyond trying to assign the appropriate cosmic significance to ***** pro wrestling matches.

Not to once again make this be all about me, but I've even got a little first-hand experience on this: because as I struggled to get to sleep last Monday night, I realized what was bugging me the most. In my various capacities as an internet semi-star, I've had the chance to meet Chris Benoit. I've shook his hand. I've stood in a circle of his friends, I've talked with them, I've laughed with them, I've been accepted as something almost like a peer, and I counted those among my fonder memories of 10 years of doing this thing that I do. In short: I consorted with a murderer. In fact, I did it twice over the years. I enjoyed myself.

When those memories came flooding back, it was my turn to be selfish. To dwell on the sheer creepiness of that realization. My first murderer. I shook hands with the guy. I LIKED the guy. I certainly had no idea how his life would end up. Part of me felt naive and stupid and maybe even complicit for being fooled. But mostly, this was just good for about a day's worth of some serious heebie jeebies. My first murderer. Weird. And like I said: that might be a bit more than most fans have to grapple with, but it's barely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what those closest to Chris are dealing with, now.

So, the matter of Art vs. Artist? Well, I can safely say that I'll still be able to watch Benoit's matches. I won't have a knee-jerk visceral reaction to the mere sight of the man. But at the same time, I do believe some of the joy will be sucked out of the viewing. Again, me with this blasted lack of emotional investment.... I can't bring myself to hate Benoit. But will I ever really feel that same excitement that I felt watching him defy the odds and vindicate all us Internet Jackoffs by becoming a huge star and a champion? Nope. No way. 

And here's where the Art/Artist thing becomes perhaps the most apt of all. Because I think what'll happen is that I'll be more than capable of APPRECIATING all those old matches, but it'll be tougher to say that I'm ENJOYING them the same way I used to. And so many people who get wrapped up in "art" (I use this in the most general sense, to include music, movies, storytelling, whatever) tend to suck the fun out of it by appreciating, rather than enjoying. Instead of saying "I have my specific tastes, and I know whats I likes," some people get wrapped up in terminology and technique, and lose sight of the simple fact of whether or not something just flat-out rules. Like the way a sloppy-ass song by Nirvana featuring a technically-shitty guitar solo by the marginally-skilled Kurt Cobain RULES. And the way the Grateful Dead can suck it, no matter how much their addle-brained fans insist that "You at least have to admit they're great musicians, duuuuuuude."

"Appreciation" connotes a certain clinical approach, or at least an emphasis on form rather than content. "Enjoyment" comes from a far more honest, less wankery sort of place. I think it's an apt distinction when considering how I'll classify Benoit's in-ring legacy: the quality of the work is unchanged, but the joy it gives me is not.

And I do mean "joy." Real joy, real pleasure. These are things that the best pro wrestling can supply us with. The kind of joy so real that it can, when recycled, turn into sadness so intense it almost makes you shed tears. I know I was starting to well up at the end of last week's RAW, and it was because of the awesomeness of the match, the awesomeness of Benoit winning the World Title at WM20, the awesomeness of his best friend Eddie Guerrero joining him in the ring, and then the gut punch of realizing both those men were dead. This was before word spread about the murder/suicide scenario, and all I knew was that Chris Benoit was dead. I *was* capable of feeling sad at that point, and the saddest I felt was when Eddie popped up on the screen, too. Because that was one of my most joyous moments as a wrestling fan, and now, the two men most responsible for it were both dead.

Continuing the trend of this being All About Me, I even started pondering the significance of that moment. How it once made me so happy, how it was now making me so sad. I realized that, in a very real way, wrestling has sucked a lot worse and on a more consistent basis since 2004 than it ever had, previously. WM20 was the last WrestleMania that felt like a real WrestleMania, and it's possible that Benoit and Eddie's joint celebration could be reasonably labeled as some kind of high water mark. A historical bookmark, at least. Or maybe just "The Last Time Wrestling Was Good."

It was all downhill after WM20. Eddie and Benoit were quickly dethroned, by JBL (who was given the title 6 months before he developed the credibility and character necessary to pull it off) and Randy Orton (who still hasn't developed anything resembling credibility and character), respectively. Stephanie McMahon reshaped the creative team with a focus on dimwitted, fine arts school graduates who couldn't find honest work in Hollywood. Guys like Jim Ross and Pat Patterson were shoved out the door, and replaced in key front office roles by the likes of Johnny Ace. The list of talents who have either walked away from or been ostracized by WWE's incompetent new regime reads like a who's who of My Most Favorite Performers: Jericho, Trish, Tajiri, Molly, the Dudleys, Christian, Lesnar, Big Show, Angle (though that last one was probably for the best).

In short, WWE gave us one of the greatest, most compelling, most joyous moments ever in the history of the industry, and then within a few short months had completely re-invented itself and decided to go in a different direction and with different personnel. And they haven't looked back since.

It was enough to leave me feeling contemplative for a few moments immediately following the end of RAW. A moment of pure joy turned into a moment of genuine sadness because the two men responsible for it have since died. Could there be a a more perfect metaphor for my ailing wrestling fandom than this? The last time wrestling was good, the face of the industry was Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero. Now they're dead. Maybe that's why my fandom sometimes feels like it's on the brink of joining them?

But nah: as selfish and me-centered as this document has been, I'm not that much of a drama queen. I'm also an optimist. I also believe (no matter how hard those in charge at WWE try to make it look) that pro wrestling is a pretty easy genre to master. No matter how incompetent the current batch of monkeys at WWE HQ seems to be, I honestly believe we're really only 2 or 3 talented and capable people, installed at high levels and their competence trickling down to the rank and file, away from turning this ship around. And I want to be around for it. I want to be commenting on it. I want to be vindicated by it, because -- unlike so many others -- when I say something sucks, I almost always give you a way to fix it, and I want to see those sorts of fixes on my TV screen and be able to say "I told you so."

If you can't tell, I'm trying to gear up for a big, Super Duper Happy Ending following a lengthy and unstructured (even by my stream of consciousness standards) ramble. The last week has sucked badly enough already to end on a heavy note. A lot of pundits are saying that Chris Benoit's actions of last weekend will be the end of the entire pro wrestling business. That some combination of steroids, a misogynistic lockerroom culture within the business, and Vince McMahon's status as Satan Incarnate will result in the entire industry imploding and going away. 

That, my friends, is ill-informed, hyperbolic horseshit. 

What Chris Benoit did sucks. But in the grand scheme, they were the actions of a small man, a broken man. Not a man to be vilified, not a man to be celebrated. And certainly not a man capable of taking down an entire company or entire industry. He also hasn't taken down my fandom, nor my ability to appreciate his work.

Chris, Nancy, and Daniel Benoit are dead and have been mourned. But wrestling isn't. Chris' matches aren't. And our ability to sit back and enjoy this rather unique mix of sport and entertainment isn't, either.

I think I'm ready to turn a page. To consider the matter of Chris Benoit closed. And to move on with whatever the wrestling world holds for us. If you're feeling up to it, I'd love to have you all join me. We ride!


  
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E-MAIL RICK SCAIA

BROWSE THE OO ARCHIVES

Rick Scaia is a wrestling fan from Dayton, OH.  He's been doing this since 1995, but enjoyed it best when the suckers from SportsLine were actually PAYING him to be a fan.

 

 

 


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