JJ Abrams and Nikki Catsouras

May 12, 2009 § 3 Comments

Photos by Mark Seliger / The Catsouras Family

Sometimes, Scott and I will be watching a movie or a TV show and a face will look familiar, so we’ll go to IMDB and look at that actor up to see what else they’ve been in (oh, right, that’s Matt Albie’s assistant from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip!). Or one of us will wonder who the last horse was to win the Bluegrass Stakes and then go on to win the Kentucky Derby (it was Strike the Gold, in 1991, confirming our theory that it had been a long, long time), and we’ll do the research necessary to get the answer in less than 2 minutes.

That’s one of the great things about the Internet — access to endless amounts of trivial data that years ago would’ve required a trip to the library to learn — but two glaring examples of that being a very bad thing revealed themselves to me recently.

The first is the new issue of Wired, the Mystery Issue, and in particular the column by guest editor JJ Abrams about ‘The Age of Immediacy’ and the lost art of discovery. This is a long blockquote, but indulge me, because I really thought this whole essay was brilliant (as I do most JJ-related things):

“…the spoiler: that piece of information meant to be kept secret, like the end of a movie or TV show or novel. Spoilers give fans the answers they want, the resolution they crave. As an avid fan of movies and TV myself, I completely understand the desire to find out behind-the-scenes details in a nanosecond. Which, given technology, is often how long it takes—to the frustration of the storytellers. … Spoilers make no bones about destroying the intended experience—and somehow that has become, for many, the preferred choice. … In some cases, spoilers don’t just prevent the intended experience of something, they prevent the very existence of it. I guess the question is, who among us has the self-control to choose not to go for the easy answer?”

The column ends with a hint that the entire issue is filled with hidden puzzles (in addition to the obvious puzzles) that readers will find only by carefully paying attention — through a difficult, trying process of discovery … but imagine the feeling of success and triumph at the end, at I FIGURED IT OUT!. I hate to admit it, but my first reaction was, “Wow, I should check online to see if anyone has figured it out yet!”

Luckily, at that moment, I wasn’t near a computer. I didn’t Google it. The next two nights I stayed up until 1 a.m. in bed with a pencil and an annoyed husband, trying to find and figure out the secret puzzles. I couldn’t solve any of them — I eventually gave up because the whole process made me feel dumb — but I didn’t cheat, either. So, if nothing else, I take solace in the fact that I didn’t break JJ Abrams’ heart.

I can’t help but think, though, that JJ Abrams’ heart would break if he knew about Nikki Catsouras. She was a deeply troubled 18-year-old — a brain tumor as a child left her impulse-control mechanisms compromised, which ultimately, her parents believe, led her to try coke and steal her father’s Porsche, which she crashed minutes later.

Gruesome photos of the crash scene showing her nearly decapitated head were leaked and multiplied online soon after, despite her family’s repeated attempts to block them. Those sites cater to morbid curiosity and call themselves things like ‘Porsche Girl Photos Revealed’ — all the while mocking her as a spoiled rich bitch who got what she deserved. Her family knows differently, and now they live in fear of accidentally stumbling upon these photos online — her younger sisters are forbidden from using social networking sites as a precaution — and they’ve racked up huge debts in court, issuing cease-and-desist letters and fighting to have the photos taken down. (Their case is an interesting, and difficult one — what constitutes a violation of privacy? Did I violate the family’s privacy by including the image of Nikki, a family photo they released to the media, at the top of this post?)

The Catsouras family recently opened up about the story to Newsweek, and acknowledged that by drawing attention to the case, they are potentially enticing more gawkers to seek out the ugly photos. “The fact is that we will never get rid of the photos anyway,” Lesli Catsouras, Nikki’s mother, is quoted as saying. “So we have made a decision to make something good come out of this horrible bad.”

What breaks my heart — and turns my stomach — is that you can see the fallout every time Mr. or Mrs. Catsouras makes a public statement or appearance. It doesn’t take long for terms like “Nikki Catsouras” and “Nikki Catsouras accident photos” and “Porsche Girl Photos” to pop up in the top 10 on Google Trends (sometimes, if you get up early enough, she will just be there, lurking, in the top 100, for no reason I can find other than the sheer power of the viral Web). I have no doubt those terms in quotes will quickly become the most searched on this blog — and I hope the people looking for them will be bitterly disappointed. Not only that, I hope they’ll feel ashamed — I hope they’ll think twice about Nikki’s family, and choose, as JJ Abrams would encourage, to exercise some self-control.

Don’t look, or look away. Discovery is a good thing — but, ultimately, there are some things that none of us should be able to see.

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§ 3 Responses to JJ Abrams and Nikki Catsouras

  • lynda says:

    HORRIBLE accident; HORRIBLE photos- so sorry for Nikki and her family; as well as the Honda survivers. No child, nor parent; no matter whos fault- deserves such a horrible outcome/fate. I came here being nosey I will not deny, from just hearing about the case and wondering what it was all about. I now SEE what this was all about. Horrifying indeed. God bless

  • Refugio says:

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  • Well-Wisher says:


    You didn’t violate the family’s privacy by including the picture of beautiful Nikki among flowers in your post. Precisely because the family themselves willfully released that picture to the media for dissemination. Whereas the accident pictures were released without authorization — of the CHP or of Nikki’s family — by dispatchers who had a duty of care not to subject Nikki to Internet spectacle.

    I personally would have liked to have seen this case go to a jury trial, rather than reach an eleventh-hour settlement. I believe the family would have emphatically won, and it would have solidified in case law the familial right to privacy for a deceased loved one.

    Thanks for your thoughtful piece.

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