Learning from Nicole John

By Gamal Hennessy

Let me start off by saying that the death of a child is not a desirable thing. There is no benefit to attacking her or her family during their time of grief.

I will also state the obvious fact that New York Nights has always been a self appointed advocate of New York nightlife. We are one of the few independent media voices that support the culture.

As an advocate, it is appropriate for me to write about my perspective on the Nicole John story. There is a bubbling sentiment going around the mainstream media that the club she went to is somehow responsible for her death. This has to stop. Closing Tenjune will do nothing to alter the fanatic mentality that is the underlying cause of Ms. John’s death.

The End of Nicole John
Ms. John’s background was unique in the details but not in the general theme of her story. The attractive young woman just starting college in New York who has a fake ID and goes into a club to drink is not an unusual occurrence in New York nightlife. The idea that she leaves the club with her friends and goes to a private party in a high rise building is also not a memorable event in this environment. What made Ms. John’s story special is that she was the daughter of an American diplomat to Thailand, who had a fake ID from Brazil and when she went to that private party she fell out the window and died.

After her death, everyone immediately started taking sides. The Manhattan DA is going after the club because the only valid ID is one from the US or Canada, not Brazil so the operators are under scrutiny. The blogsphere pours out “Oh well, hot underage girls get drunk all the time so what can you do about it?” Commentators with their own axe to grind attack everything from her rich upbringing to promoters to Jersey Shore. What very few people are doing is looking at the underlying culture of alcohol in America or the things that can be done to actually change behavior in people like Ms. John.

Liquor as a Rite of Passage
In the United States, consumers must reach a certain age before they are legally permitted to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages. While the actual age varies from state to state, this legal barrier creates one of the most powerful social effects of liquor in nightlife. Nightlife is an adult environment primarily because alcohol is served there. The message we send is, “If you can drink, you must be an adult.”

The fact we label people who can drink “adults” and people who can’t drink “minors” creates a need to drink that has nothing to do with the liquor itself. The permission to drink is a symbol of adulthood and independence. This is one of the main reasons that teenagers struggle to obtain fake IDs and then sneak into clubs even though they may not like the environment. Many of them don’t really want the liquor because they dislike the taste of alcohol and prefer something that tastes like fruit punch. But they do want to grow up faster than our society will allow. They want to be adults faster than their physical, mental or emotional capabilities can manage. For many of them, consuming liquor is a short cut to that status.

One of the problems with this rite of passage in America is that it leads to amateur behavior. The twisted logic is, “If one drink makes you grown up, then the more drinks you consume, the more grown up you must be.” Overconsumption leads to personal pain that spills over into the general community and the perception of nightlife as a whole, a fact clearly illustrated by Ms. John’s death.

Responsible Indulgence
This problem goes deeper than fake IDs. It is bigger than anyone providing drinks to minors. It is more pervasive than the idea that beautiful women fuel nightlife culture and that status often provides them with both the impunity to ignore rules and places them in the path of potentially dangerous situations. The basic problem is overindulgence. Ms. John died not because she went to a party or because she drank. If the current reports are to be believed, she died because she drank too much. She consumed more than she could handle and she lost her life over it. She engaged in the basic amateur pattern of abuse instead of use. It is the same pattern that many nightlife patrons engage in. Almost none of them suffer the same fate as Ms. John, but the circumstances could be different for any of them.

We can’t, as a culture, prevent deaths like this one by closing a venue or even by trying to preach abstinence from alcohol to our youth. People will move to a new venue when the first one closes. While abstinence can save minors from this fate, it could have just as easily been a 37 year old who fell out a window. Is that any less tragic? We can protect our patrons if we trumpet the idea of use without abuse. If we show that tens of thousands of people go out every week to drink, dance, laugh, flirt, hook up and take questionable Facebook pictures without getting wasted then we can change the perspective of potential Nicole Johns. If we promote the idea of responsible indulgence, then we can enjoy all the things that draw us to New York nightlife without suffering the pain of losing another patron or coping with the misplaced blame of the police or the NIMBY media. It worked for designated driving. It can work here as well.

Have fun.