[cross-posted to the WRESTLING BABYLON Blog, http://muchnick.net/babylon]
(Have tips for author Irvin Muchnick on the Chris Benoit story or any other aspect of pro wrestling behind the scenes? Send them to email@example.com.)
As work proceeds on my book next year about the Benoit murder-suicide, this blog will periodically share preliminary reporting on selected topics. Today’s topic: the mystery of Daniel Benoit’s Fragile X Syndrome.
In the days after Chris Benoit strangled his wife Nancy and their 7-year-old son Daniel, and hung himself, a report surfaced that Daniel had Fragile X. This is a family of genetic conditions, which include both the most common cause of inherited mental impairment and the most common known cause of autism. (Fragile X also has other, physical manifestations, which differ between males and females. For complete information, see the website of the National Fragile X Foundation, http://fragilex.org.)
The report originated at a Vancouver radio station, after which it was aggressively promoted by World Wrestling Entertainment as a global explanation of the Benoit tragedy. This seemed plausible in part because initial reports from the crime scene included the detail that Daniel had needle marks on his arm, perhaps from injections of human growth hormone. (And perhaps this was Chris’s response, rational or not, medically authorized or otherwise, to his son’s physical problems and smallish size.)
But the suggestion that Daniel had Fragile X was quickly denied by the Fayette County district attorney, by Daniel’s kindergarten teachers, and by his maternal grandparents. The British Columbia woman who was the root source of the report then clarified that her knowledge of Daniel’s condition came second-hand, from a conversation her late husband had told her he’d had with Chris Benoit.
And there things stand – like many other aspects of this story, tantalizing and without closure. There are three subsets of the Fragile X angle:
(1) Did Daniel Benoit, in fact, have the condition?
(2) What do we know about World Wrestling Entertainment’s role in spreading this story?
(3) How do conclusions about Fragile X impact the bottom line on the murder-suicide?
No. 1: Daniel Benoit Almost Certainly Had Fragile X
I spoke with Robert Miller, executive director of the National Fragile X Foundation, and Arlene Cohen of the foundation board.
The foundation had issued a statement in the midst of the June media frenzy; that no longer appears to be up at the website. Miller has written a takeout on the Benoit story for the foundation’s quarterly publication, the full text of which can be viewed at http://muchnick.net/FragileX.pdf. Here’s the money passage: “[W]e never imagined the kind of awareness that came with the recent tragedy involving wrestler Chris Benoit and his wife and son. Like it or not, though, awareness is what we got. Gobs of it. As in 30,000 visitors to our website in three days. (A number typical for an entire month!) People tripping all over each other to report on the role that fragile X syndrome played in this terrible murder-suicide. Unfortunately, in most instances, they got it wrong. Once the first wave of sensational media accounts had passed, no reporter could find any evidence that Chris Benoit killed his wife and son and then himself because his son had fragile X syndrome.”
Neither Miller nor Cohen had special insider information on the truth of the report. Cohen agreed with me that it would be wildly unlikely for Winthrope – like Cohen, a parent of a child with Fragile X and an activist for research and awareness (in Winthrope’s case, with the B.C. chapter of the Fragile X Research Foundation of Canada) – to have fabricated such a thing.
Beyond that – and beyond understandably impressionistic anecdotal observations of people like Chris Jericho and Superstar Billy Graham after the fact – there are other elements pointing toward a “yes.” These include some medical history on Nancy Benoit’s side of the family suggesting a related genetic syndrome; the general hyper-privacy of many Fragile X families; and the specific, extremely close-mouthed, nature of Chris Benoit himself.
In my opinion, we eventually will see confirmation of Daniel’s Fragile X. Even if the condition was not reported to his school by the family or noticed by his teachers (which itself seems questionable), there is multi-front litigation pending, with means of discovery not yet tapped.
No. 2: The Fragile X Story Itself Was Spontaneous, Not Planted, Though WWE Did Opportunistically Exploit It
I exchanged email with Jacquie Donaldson, program/news director of News1130 in Vancouver, and with Pam Winthrope, the source.
Though I draw no conclusions from this, Donaldson was not helpful. In response to my request for a transcript or audio copy of the station’s report, Donaldson said she could not provide one. She said she was forwarding my questions to the reporter on the story (whom she would not name), but the reporter has not returned the messages. But perhaps the News1130 people are just embarrassed by their role in this affair. Without hearing the report, let me add that I don’t think they need be, as it contributed, however confusingly, to the overall Benoit conversation.
In Winthrope’s email to me, she essentially recapitulated what she had told News1130, and added her frustration – which of course many of us can relate to – about how it got distorted through the prism of the media frenzy. Winthrope said her knowledge of Daniel’s Fragile X came from her late husband’s very brief contact with Chris about five years ago. Winthrope’s husband had heard about Daniel in the Fragile X community (Pam Winthrope did not know from whom specifically), and she and he thought that if Chris were willing to become a spokesperson he could raise consciousness for the cause, especially in Canada. According to Pam Winthrope, her husband tracked down Chris, talked to him for five minutes, and learned that Chris was not interested in a public role.
Pam disclosed a little more to me, but not much, and she has not as yet responded to my request to quote her verbatim. Nor has she responded to my request to clarify how the News1130 report came to be – whether it was she who approached the station or whether the reporter, based on independent information, approached her. That said, nothing in her words or tone supports speculation that WWE put her up to telling the world about Daniel’s condition in the aftermath of the murder-suicide. She said that to this day she is unsure if WWE knew of it or was simply using it, based on the same sketchy information everyone else had, as something to hide behind.
Thus, my conclusion that the Fragile X angle got out there on its own but that WWE exploited it shamelessly – and characteristically. Only recently did I catch up with CEO Linda McMahon’s June 28 interview on “Good Morning America” (video of which can still be accessed at the ABC News website), and I was struck by her lack of equivocation about Fragile X in her sound bites and her obviously calculated touting of it as a tidy single-bullet explanation for Chris Benoit’s rampage. That was really irresponsible.
I also confess to having been overly invested myself in the Fragile X explanation. In my June 27 appearance on Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor,” I found myself accused – as I haven’t been before or since – of being a WWE apologist when I raised the Fragile X possibility. Granted, I was up against Bill O’Reilly, an insufferable hot-air balloon berating my refusal to cooperate with his preconceived and uninformed “agenda.” But in light of Linda McMahon’s GMA shot the next day, and other evidence of WWE’s ham-handed crisis-management propaganda, I have to admit O’Reilly and other cable news observers had a point in asserting that Fragile X was classic McMahonesque diversion from the real story. (The O’Reilly clip can be viewed at http://wrestlingbabylon.com.)
No. 3: Parental Stress Over Fragile X Was, at Most, a Contributing Factor in the Crimes
All of which is to say that an argument between Chris and Nancy Benoit over their son’s care was probably part of the mix. Steroid abuse, other drug abuse, brain damage from concussion syndrome, professional stress, personal stress, Chris’s unique and tightly wound personality – all undoubtedly contributed, in measures we’ll never adequately quantify, to this sad and perfect storm.
September 28, 2007
BENOIT: Wrestling with the Horror That Destroyed a Family and Crippled a Sport (ECW Press), by Steven Johnson, Heath McCoy, Irvin Muchnick, and Greg Oliver, will be in bookstores shortly.