Why We Watched Balloon Boy

The Heene family’s saga captivated the country, cut parents to the quick—and left us wondering what, exactly, we were looking for.

10.16.09 6:58 PM ET

Thursday, as we all watched the televised spectacle of what everyone believed was a 6-year-old boy trapped in a wooden box attached to a helium balloon that was soaring uncontrollably thousands of feet above the earth, it seemed that our deepest fears were being turned into myth before our very eyes.

It was, in a sense, the anti- Up, Pixar’s recent sensationally popular film about an elderly man and a young boy who travel the earth in a house borne through the air by balloons. Rather, this was a contemporary Icarus, a young boy who had put on his father’s waxen wings—in the form of his father’s experimental contraption—in an attempt to emulate his dad, only to be destroyed—or so it seemed for several hours—by the fact that he was an inexperienced child.

Perhaps American truth and American falsehood had blurred so completely that we were all, literally, up in the air when it came to knowing what the hell was going on around us.

In a country obsessed with the problem of how to raise children, with the plague of autism, with the question of whether to vaccinate children, with tales of school shootings, with horror stories of what adults can do to children—the seemingly drunken mother who killed her children on the Taconic Parkway; the Jaycee Dugard story—some parents could not bear to watch the balloon fly wantonly over the earth.

For it wasn't just a helpless kid and our helplessness in the face of his plight. It was the fact that despite our miraculous technology, which seems to put us more and more in control of our lives every day, we cannot control what happens to our children. On some level, what certain people call fate, they are all in a balloon, beyond our reach. Yet perhaps somewhere in our terror, as we powerlessly watched the balloon rise in the sky, there was relief that the child was not being hurt by genes, or by a virus, or by other people. Relief that there was hope so long as he could hang on until help came.

The ordeal of a child in desperate straits has riveted the country’s attention before. Sixty years ago, a 3-year-old girl named Kathy Fiscus fell into a well in San Marino, California, and a transfixed country listened to the radio and watched for hours on the new medium of TV as rescue workers tried futilely to save her. In 1986, an 18-month-old girl named Jessica McClure fell into another well in Midland, Texas, and once again the nation watched the rescue efforts, which lasted over two days. This time, the child, who became known as “Baby Jessica,” was saved.

Falling into a well is an old American peril, appropriate for a time when we knew our enemies. The Iron Curtain was something you could depend on. Hurtling through the sky on the way to heaven knows where is an altogether new hazard. Nowadays, our enemies are virtually invisible, and destruction comes on friendly vessels out of the sky.

Along with the primal terror of a threatened child, there is something about the ordeal of innocence that strikes deep in the American soul. We are still shocked by everything, by sex scandals, by marital infidelity, by corruption, by violence, by public displays of anger—not an hour goes by when society is not rocked, briefly, by alarm, and then hysteria over Something That Happened Out There. We like to be shocked because we like to think of ourselves as innocent enough to be shocked. So in the spectacle of a child endangered and of all the country’s law-enforcement, and military, and technological resources used to try to save the child, we perhaps see our innocence put to the test, and our strengths and virtues fully on display in response.

Just as the diversity of audiences sitting rapt as they watched Up complicates what are so often played up as our deep political divisions, you could imagine what Americans were thinking as they watched the balloon zig-zagging over the stark, mountainous Colorado landscape. Who doesn’t feel a child’s helplessness these days, as forces no one can understand or explain seem to blow us this way and that: sinking the economy, then lifting the economy, even as jobs and homes are flying away overnight. And for a second, when I turned on the TV and saw the balloon flying over the unforgiving terrain, and before I knew the story, I thought I was watching a military device soaring over the mountains of Afghanistan.

After it was discovered that the boy, Falcon Heene, was hiding in his attic the whole time and that the Heene family had courted public attention several times by appearing on a reality-TV show—and after the child blurted out to a TV interviewer that his parents had told him to hide “for the show”—something even stranger than the original story started to happen. The terrifying thought of a helpless boy trapped in a vagrant balloon thousands of feet above the earth gave way to another, equally startling, notion. Perhaps American truth and American falsehood had blurred so completely that we were all, literally, up in the air when it came to knowing what the hell was going on around us.

And if this was what was happening, if the whole country was, in effect, soaring uncontrollably through the sky, over forbidding valleys and hills, to where wilder things than we could ever imagine are, who was going to help us now?

Lee Siegel has written about culture and politics and is the author of three books:Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently,Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.