The Scandal Story With a Most Unhappy Ending

"I sure as heck am not going to be going to federal prison for one day," Deborah Jeane Palfrey told ABC News last year. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008

Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the "D.C. Madam" of intrigue and introspection, committed suicide yesterday. Her mother found her body hanging in the shed on her property in Tarpon Springs, Fla.

Why do we feel so sad?

It was a sorry finish to a sordid tale. Had it been a classic literary tragedy, it couldn't have ended any other way. She was a fallen woman, all scarlet-lettered and walking shame, every archetype of female sin and suffering.

We didn't feel particularly connected to her. Aside from a few media types, not many people attended her public trial last month, where she was convicted of running a prostitution ring. Everyone had moved on; there were newer and more salacious scandals.

Maybe we feel sad because of the gendered irony. The powerful men whose names surfaced in the scandal, the ones who did not appear in the courtroom, who did not have to discuss their menstrual cycles publicly, have all remained unscathed.

David Vitter is still that good-looking junior senator from Louisiana. Harlan K. Ullman (creator of "shock and awe") is listed as a senior associate on the Web site of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Former State Department official Randall L. Tobias, who previously oversaw AIDS relief, promoting abstinence and a policy requiring grant recipients to swear they opposed prostitution, slunk back to Indiana after his resignation. There, he was appointed president of the board of the Indianapolis Airport Authority. The city's mayor said that America "believed in second chances."

We anticipated that Palfrey would be sentenced to a few years in prison, do her time quietly and then emerge like Heidi Fleiss, like Lil' Kim, like Martha Stewart, like any number of the bad girls for whom a prison sentence functions as a cleansing ritual, a path back into society's embrace.

She wouldn't have had a permanent shunning. There would have been book deals, movies, forgiveness, VIP tickets to charity balls. People can forget almost anything these days.

If the voice in Palfrey's head sounded anything like the defense mounted at her trial, she would have been thinking about a lot in the weeks leading up to her sentencing, which was scheduled for July 24.

She would have been thinking that she provided a legitimate service -- that college-educated women answered her City Paper ads of their own free will, and that men contacted her of theirs. She would have been thinking that if this was a crime at all, it was surely a victimless one between consenting adults. (Do we feel sad because, deep down, we think that she's right?)

Perhaps she was marveling that she was convicted at all.

She'd already spent 18 months in prison back in the 1990s for similar charges; she'd told the court back then that her parents "just can't comprehend how my offense could be viewed so harshly."

Her likely sentence in this case of four to eight years in jail must have seemed even more dreadful.

"I sure as heck am not going to be going to federal prison for one day, let alone, you know, four to eight years," she told ABC News in an interview last year.

Maybe she was considering how her death would be analyzed after she was gone, what great meaning would be taken from her existence.

But probably not.

Because ultimately Palfrey's death isn't only about feminism or the justice of her sentence or the hypnotic circus of it all. It is also about one woman alone in the shed next to her 76-year-old mother's trailer, deciding that the future seemed too much to bear.

Stripped of meaning and analysis and cultural contexts, it's very, very sad.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company