Article Brings Some Facts, Some Myths to Bear on Maternal Filicide

With the murder/suicide by Lashandra Armstrong of herself and her three youngest children last week has come the inevitable spate of articles attempting to absolve her of guilt for her terrible act. Some have speculated that she may have suffered from postpartum depression even though no article has yet produced any evidence that she was or that she was undergoing treatment. Others have seized on the words of a school aide who said Armstrong seemed to have been acting in a paranoid way shortly before drowning herself and her children in the Hudson River.  While that observation may be suggestive of something, it’s anything but conclusive. By contrast, this article takes a different tack, but incongruously ends up in much the same place as the others (MSNBC, 4/17/11). 
Still, it raises an issue that needs to be discussed. The piece gets a lot right.  It points out that the common response to an incident like the Armstrong murder-suicide is shock and that that is in part because it’s a mother who did the deed.  That contradicts a cherished notion of mothers and nurturing that pervades our society and popular culture. So, many people’s response to the Julie Schenecker or Armstrong killings is a gasped “How could she?”  We construct a mythic all-loving, all-giving mother and then struggle when facts arise that contradict the myth. A big part of that struggle inevitably involves keeping the myth intact and one tried and true way to accomplish that is to interpret the mother’s actions as insane.  “How could she do it?”  “Because she was crazy.”  That analysis of her actions maintains the fiction of the loving, giving mother with which we seem far too comfortable to abandon in favor of more accurate facts. And that is where the article makes a bit of headway.  It says frankly that cases of maternal filicide (the killing of a child by a parent) are not as rare as we might think.

Our shock at such stories is, of course, understandable: They seem to go against everything we intuitively feel about the mother-child bond. But mothers kill their children in this country much more often than most people would realize by simply reading the headlines; by conservative estimates it happens every few days, at least 100 times a year. Experts say more mothers than fathers kill their children under 5 years of age.

Good so far.  Better yet is what the article describes as one of the results of clinging to a construct of mothers that is all to often contradicted by facts.  The myth not only blinds us to reality, it prevents us from seeing and doing anything about dangerous maternal behavior.

And some say our reluctance as a society to believe mothers would be capable of killing their offspring is hindering our ability to recognize warning signs, intervene and prevent more tragedies. And so the problem remains.

Just so, but then the article does just what it seems to criticize – it seeks to explain maternal filicide and nowhere condemns it.  It also gets key facts wrong. The figure stated above – that mothers kill about 100 children a year in the United States – is called a “conservative” one.  That’s putting it mildly.  In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services figures for 2007 show that mothers acting alone took the lives of 347 children in 48 states.  Fathers acting alone were responsible for 208 child deaths. So, despite its all-but-stated intention of clearing up the factual picture on mothers who kill their children, in the end the article soft-peddles the statistics. But it doesn’t stop there.  Its initial question – “how could she” – leads inevitably to answers that seek to absolve the perpetrator of wrongdoing.

The issue of mental illness is a tricky one. Some women are obviously seriously ill — for example, Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children, one by one, in the bath in 2001, believing she was saving them from the devil. After first being convicted of capital murder, she was found innocent by reason of insanity and remains in a mental institution.

But Oberman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, says cases are not always so obvious — sometimes depression is enough to send a woman over the edge. “Almost all these women are not in their right minds (when they commit these acts),” she says. “The debate is whether they’re sick enough to be called insane.”

Not surprisingly, postpartum depression is considered, as it should be since, in rare instances, it can be serious enough to cause delusions, hallucinations and the like. But then (apparently this is an irresistible impulse) trouble with the significant male other is raised.

Besides isolation, another frequent similarity in the cases is a split with the father of the children. “So often there is an impending death or divorce or breakup,” Meyer says.

The article is right that determining when a parent is to mentally unbalanced to be held responsible for his/her actions is “tricky.”  It’s often not an easy call and mental health professionals often differ. But what is not so tricky is that all too often, we seek to absolve mothers of their wrongdoing by resort to the very “tricky” determination of whether she was able to appreciate the difference between right and wrong at the time she acted.  Articles like the one linked to and many others concerning the Armstrong case cast about, sometimes desperately, for any indication of a state of mind that would allow us to maintain our image of the good mother. By contrast, when fathers kill their children, that’s seldom if ever done.  Similar articles pass off the tragedy as yet another example of male brutality and therefore not fit for deeper examination. And needless to say, what’s true  of child homicide is likewise true of lesser forms of injury, neglect and abuse.  To an overwhelming degree, popular culture condemns male wrongdoing and seeks to forgive the distaff variety. That’s true to such a degree that even an article that tries another tack, ends up in the same place as so many others. Thanks to John for the heads-up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *