Blurring the Line Between Profligate and Predatory
How "sexting" Wisconsin DA Ken Kratz tried to use the language of mental illness to convince the public he's not morally reprehensible.
In an astonishing abuse of power, Wisconsin prosecutor Ken Kratz admitted to sending sexually charged text messages to the victim of a domestic-abuse case he was prosecuting last October. According to police reports, Kratz met with the victim, Stephanie Van Groll, to interview her about charges his office was pursuing that Van Groll had been almost choked to death by her boyfriend. Minutes after the interview, Kratz began sending her texts—30 over three days—inquiring as to whether, as he put it in one message, she was "the kind of girl that likes secret contact with an older married elected DA ... the riskier the better?" Though the news first broke almost two weeks ago, only Monday, after Gov. Jim Doyle began proceedings to remove Kratz from office, did the prosecutor's attorney announce that Kratz would be stepping down, calling the removal process politically motivated and magnanimously suggesting that the people of his county needed to "move on."
Before he was essentially forced to resign, Kratz attempted to shift the language of his own transgression by painting himself as a victim just like Van Groll—a victim, that is, of his own mental illness. At first he refused requests to leave office, even hiring an attorney to protect his job. He apologized during a press conference for a "lack of judgment," referred to troubles in his marriage, and described his behavior in terms of infidelity, rather than admitting that he had tried to take advantage of a vulnerable woman he was charged with protecting. Then he said he was seeking therapy. More recently, the prosecutor has reportedly been on indefinite medical leave and in some sort of treatment center, though his attorney won't say precisely for what.
We've heard this one before. The cultural progression from morality to mental illness as a frame for bad behavior was discussed a good deal, for instance, in the wake of the Tiger Woods scandal. If, once upon a time, people thought of medical problems like epilepsy as evidence of demon spirits, the thinking goes, we may now be veering toward the opposite problem: viewing the whole spectrum of human behavior in terms of mental health. As Stephen Marche put it in Esquire earlier this summer, our culture is "extending the language of mental health into every conceivable aspect of human activity and blurring the line between what is sick and what is bad." Considering this line-blurring, when are we as a society permitted to say that someone is actually an amoral jerk?
Right now. There are several reasons why, even as he steps down, Ken Kratz should not be allowed to cloak himself in the protective mantle of "mental illness." The first has to do with his initial reaction to the scandal, which was no doubt his most honest. In a "combative" interview with the Associated Press the week before last, Kratz seemed willing to do whatever it took to quash the news. He "did not deny sending the messages and expressed concern their publication would unfairly embarrass him personally and professionally." He suggested he'd done nothing wrong. " 'This is a non-news story,' Kratz shouted. But he added, 'I'm worried about it because of my reputational interests.' "
What's more, Kratz has attempted to borrow the language of recent sex scandals to paint his wrongdoing in the context of marital indiscretion. "I had asked the young woman if she'd be interested in a personal relationship after the conclusion of the case," he said during his press conference, as if the timing of the come-ons was incidental. But his behavior suggests he's at least as turned on by the prospect of using his job to play sexual puppet master. According to Van Groll, Kratz had stated toward the end of their interview that he was considering reducing the charge against her boyfriend from a felony to a misdemeanor. She didn't want him to do that. In that context, his texts calling her a "tall, young, hot nymph" took on a rather menacing tone. Van Groll feared that if she didn't "bow to Kratz's wishes," he would lessen the charge or even drop her case. She took her concerns to the cops.
Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photograph of man texting by Svemir/Shutterstock.