“Everybody on the fucking planet has an opinion.”
In October of 2024, Kyle Ranch wrote and published a lengthy op-ed relating to the Gard and Salina Williams abuse trial. The title of the article was “Shut The Fuck Up”.
It almost won him a Pulitzer.
In order to gain a more in-depth perspective on the media coverage surrounding the most publicized criminal trial in American history, I reached out to Ranch in order to speak with him. When I told him what the topic of my article was, he was less than excited about the prospect (to put it very, very nicely). After reaming me out over the phone for several minutes, I finally managed to get a word in edgewise, informing him of the name of the individual who had specifically requested for me to write said article.
His tone changed fast. After hearing that, he said he’d be glad to meet up with me; although he did have three conditions, if I’d indulge him. They weren’t big ones, he assured me.
The first was simple; he wanted to choose our meeting place. Conveniently, both Ranch and I live about an hour’s drive away from the National Mall, and after a short conversation on the best time for us to hold the interview, he told me the name of the monument we’d be meeting at.
The Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence is by no means one of D.C.’s star attractions. It’s really not more than a small batch of slanted marble blocks with carved inscriptions; other than some cute ducks I saw swimming by the pond in the immediate foreground, there wasn’t much to get excited about.
It is, however, remarkably well-hidden, especially being as close to the Washington Monument as it is. My initial assumption was that Ranch wanted us to meet at TMTT56SOTDOI because it was a nice isolated public space, but he was quick to clarify after greeting me that his choice didn’t actually have anything to do with wanting to ensure the success of our interview.
“I proposed to my wife here,” he explained. “The plan was for me to take her on a nice walk down the Mall and then spring it on her at the steps to the Lincoln Memorial, but she already had me figured out. She knew that I was gonna do it, and I knew that she knew, but we each kept playing chicken for the better part of an hour instead of coming clean and saying it. She kept dragging me on lengthy detours to all the little side monuments to try and tease me, and eventually I got impatient and just went ahead and did it here. She liked that, I think.”
Chuckling to himself after seeing the confused look on my face, he motioned me over to the nearest section of stones, pointing at the small gaps between them. He carefully reached in, pulling out a small amount of thorny vine.
“I come to D.C. every few months, and I almost always stop here to reminisce when I get the chance. The only people who ever come to this one are folks who find it by accident, and there’s always weeds growing inside of it, and I’m sick of pulling them out all the time. I’ve written so many goddamn emails to them about this…”
Ranch’s second condition was that I directly mention this little tidbit of his while writing about our discussion. He believes — fairly reasonably, considering who it’s about — that this series will be read by a very large number of people. If even a remote fraction of the individuals who see this were to end up visiting TMTT56SOTDOI at some point, he thinks it would be easier for the National Park Service to justify sending someone once a month or so to tidy the place up.
“It would take, like, an hour. If that. I’m not going to say that I give a shit about making sure we respect John Hancock enough, but if you have the rocks set up already, why not take the extra effort to keep them nice and pretty?”
Once we got off the topic of mediocre memorial maintenance, Ranch’s more jokey disposition faded, and I got to see more of the man who’d angrily sworn at me over the phone. He got mad, talking about it. There was spit.
“It was so many fucking things. You had… there were so many reasons to hate them, it’s not even comprehensible, looking back now. It wasn’t the first big legal media shitstorm predicated on getting large swarms of the American public angry enough to want to literally strangle someone, but it was something special, I’ll tell you that much. Gard and Salina, lord. The perfect storm.”
He took a breath, shaking his head.
“…You know, you had the video. That’s enough right there to fuel folks with plain unadulterated rage for years, under most circumstances. There’s no ‘angle’ on that, aside from pure, raw indignation. Most people see a video of a grown adult breaking the kneecaps of her four year old daughter, and they’re going to want to see her hang. And hey, I’m right there with them. Fuck her, fuck her husband. They got what was coming to them. Not enough, as far as I’m concerned.”
He stopped, running his hands through his hair. After looking out towards the Washington Monument for several moments, he continued.
“But. Then you get the angles. And there were plenty to go around.”
He took out his right fist, extending a thumb.
“First, duh. The violin thing. It’s one thing to most people if this shit happens to some random preschooler — I mean, it does, let’s make sure to remember that — but this girl was the next Mozart. That’s what they were saying, what everyone was saying, you need to recall. Was it true? Apparently it was, but fuck if it mattered.”
He wiped some sweat off his forehead, still wiggling the loose thumb around.
“So you had entire communities of musicians and classically-trained performers and conductors and professors tweeting and writing songs and crying for this girl, a lot of them who’d been in less extreme variations of that same situation themselves. That was a huge part of it, right at the start. It took about half a day for most major social media sites to start making serious attempts at taking down copies of the video once it got going, but in that half day, fuck. If you put together up all the people who probably only saw it because their favorite famous singer decided to go and mention it on their feed… yeah, it added up. So that was the first big angle, besides plain ol’ child abuse. The pressures we put on kids in music to succeed, the problem with ‘tiger moms’, all that jazz.”
He cranked his neck around, jutting out his index finger to go along with his thumb. I got the sense that it was the second of many.
“Then we learn more about the half-sister who took the video in the first place, and we get, over the course of time, leaked information from the teachers and the family friends and fucking everyone around these absolute scumfucks of parents. We get a picture of a situation that started off bad and went to… that, and everybody has a commentary, a message, a fucking angle for every little stage of it. And then, in the incredibly long time it takes to actually start the trial proceedings, the news slows down, so you get the articles that really start to dig into the weeds. The first really bad big one, right on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, that blamed ‘helicopter parenting’. You know which one I’m talking about?”
I shook my head. I’d seen a few variations on that theme, and I wasn’t sure which he was referring to.
“Right, well, it was that one teacher that spoke to the press real early on. Says the mom and dad came in one day to talk about Clementine and were way too forceful about wanting her in a gifted class, and that’s the article someone extrapolated out of that little incident. Total fucking bullshit, who the fuck cares, whatever. Maybe they were helicopter parents. Maybe that’s bad, fine.”
He threw his arms up into the air.
“Who. The. Fuck. Cares. These people beat their preschool-age daughter half to death and the national media’s response is to analyze every minute detail of their lives in search of that one, true cause, as if it matters, as if it fixes anything. But what was that cause, right? They gotta know, don’t they? What made Gard and Salina Williams act the way that they did, to do shit that brazenly evil and heinous?”
I didn’t answer, assuming that he was being rhetorical. After realizing that he actually wanted me to respond, I told him that I didn’t know.
“Well, sorry to tell you, Camella, but that would make you the only reporter in the world who didn’t. Because everyone else sure as fuck did. These fucking op-eds, these fucking articles, these video essays, this round the clock motherfucking coverage of something that none of these people should have had anything to do with in the first place. There was always something else to say, some topic that had to be related back to it. More. Fucking. Angles.”
The fingers continued their assault. There were many more than ten examples, and it didn’t take long for him to need to loop back around to start over.
“Musicians. Helicopter parenting. Class differences, race differences. The pressure we put on parents, on kids, on society. How tough it’s gotten to get into a good college. Too much Jesus, too little Jesus. The lack of ‘community’, of ‘social cohesion’, of ‘unity’, whatever the fuck that means. The divorce, Clementine’s birth mother. Gard having cheated his way through medical school, Salina having been wrapped up in a pyramid scheme. Sociopaths. The importance of mental health. Income inequality, high taxes. The massive egos of doctors in America. National, international, local politics. All that shit that was starting to happen in Bangladesh. 45. Fucking anything.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Here’s a good one. Salina had been on her neighborhood’s HOA board for about six months, and surprise surprise, some talking head needed to make a comment about how that must have paved the way to her crime. I’m the last person in the world who is going to sit and defend the concept of Homeowner Associations, but honestly, what the fuck did that have to do with literal child abuse? The Williams Trial wasn’t the first major trial to come after the advent of the twenty-four hour news cycle and the Internet, but it was the first to arrive in our beautiful era of the hot take, and it showed. People were saying shit, screaming as loud as they could, not even because they had anything new or relevant or important or necessary to say, but just because it was possible to do so. The only aspect of the opinion that mattered was that they had it and that it was said. That was it.”
He ran his fingers over his face again, looking exasperated. I handed him a bottle of water I’d brought along in my purse, and he thanked me, taking a big sip.
“A lot of these were real issues by real people with good, honest intentions. Even people who were totally right about what they were arguing about. You know, a poor black kid goes missing, they aren’t going to get anywhere close to the same amount of media attention as their wealthy white counterpart, and that’s fucked. It’s good that people point that out, they should. But at a certain point — and I’m not going to pretend that I know exactly when that is — when you get thousands upon thousands of people ganging up to take a tragedy and the struggles of real people as allegories in order to make the same exact political or moral point, that’s fucked too. Less so for people like that with legitimate points, but… dirt like Ramey, fuck them hard. Individual lives aren’t toys for people to play dress up with.”
Although I didn’t press him for clarification, Ranch here was almost assuredly referring to Michael Ramey, author of Wind Exhaustion. The novel, which was a New York Times bestseller for five consecutive weeks, was heavily criticized for romanticization of abuse, rampant ableism, and the inclusion of a character that many saw as a very obviously fictionalized version of Melly Williams. Although said character appeared only in a flashback immediately before the end of the book, the backlash was grievous enough to force Ramey’s publisher to apologize on his behalf.
“It’s not just that people agreed and liked and nodded along. They made their own videos, their own blogposts, their own additions. Everybody needed to talk. And nobody — nobody — wanted to just shut the fuck up and say, hey, maybe I don’t have something to add here. And I’m no exception to that. Screeching about how horrible the media is for not shutting up about X is still not shutting up about X. There were a lot of people that screamed in exactly the way I was when I wrote that. I just screamed the loudest.”
Ranch’s third condition of our meeting was for me to have it explicitly stated within the article that he regrets having published the article, in spite of the accolades it received at the time, and that he only agreed to talk to me due to the unique conditions under which I’m writing. Otherwise, as he made clear, he does not think that the personal lives of the victims are something that most people — himself included — should be commenting on.
“At the end of the day, you had two little girls who were alive after having seen some of the darkest shit humanity had to offer, and they were going to have to live with that. There are an infinite number of things that a person can say about that situation, yeah. There’s almost nothing that they should.”