Here‘s Barbara Kay writing in the National Post last November. She’s discussing the comments a judge made after a jury convicted a mother, Elaine Campione of drowning her two daughters because she wanted to take revenge against her ex-husband for leaving her.
He said, “It is more than disconcerting to think that if Campione had not been so abused, so used and discarded as a person, her two daughters could still be alive…’ Judge Stong was determined that even if it is Campione that gets locked up, Canadians would know that the real villain, morally speaking, is Leo Campione, the father of the dead girls (even though his alleged abusiveness was entirely based on his wife”s allegations and never proved), and it is actually the “discarded’ Elaine Campione who is the victim.
Judge Stong felt such personal animus against the grieving father that he wanted to deny Mr. Campione and his parents their opportunity to read a victim-impact statement, standard practice even with mandatory- sentencing cases. He only relented under strong pressure from the prosecutor, who reminded the judge that the murdered girls had been “an extremely important part of [Mr. Campione’s] life.’
That was last year, so why do I bring it up now? Because of its striking similarity to the Lashanda Armstrong case.
Armstrong of course is the New York woman who drove herself and her four children into the Hudson River telling them all that if she was going to die then they must die as well. The oldest, ten-year-old La’Shaun was the only one to manage to get free. He says his mother attempted to hold all the children in the car as it sank into the 45-degree water, but he squirmed away and swam to safety.
So that’s one major difference between the Armstrong and Campione cases; Armstrong is no longer alive.
But the headlong dash to find the children’s father responsible for their deaths is essentially identical. The children’s eyes had barely closed before news accounts breathlessly reported that Armstrong and Jean Pierre, father of the three dead children, but not of La’Shaun, had argued about his “cheating.”
Since then we’ve been told that he had been charged with child neglect when a toddler under his care was found wandering unattended. The fact that he was never convicted or punished for the incident came out only later.
At the time of the incident no one paused to ask what it might mean to “cheat” on a person to whom you’re not married and who doesn’t allow you to live with her and seeks to keep you out of the lives of your children as Armstrong did to Pierre.
But to rational beings, cheating, even if it occurred, doesn’t justify the intentional killing of small children. The mere fact that I have to say that speaks volumes about the type of culture we live in. But read the articles about the Armstrong killings and Barbara Kay’s piece about the inexcusable behavior of Judge Stong in the Campione murders and it’s hard to deny that, when mothers kill their children, people reflexively look for a father to blame.
That’s the nut of this article (Salon.com, 4/27/11). It’s at pains to remind us that it was Armstrong, not Pierre, who killed the kids. Why did we have to be told? Because, with all the vilification of the dad, it might be hard to keep the fact in mind.
It also reminds us that Pierre is one of the victims. He’s not dead, but he’s still a father whose three little children were killed by their mother. Anyone with an ounce of sensitivity would empathize with Pierre who’s endured one of the most terrible shocks imaginable.
But those folks seem to be in short supply among the stampede to find something – anything – with which to blame the dad for something he objectively did not do.
“He’s in shock that his children died,” said the lawyer, Stephen J. Powers. “He’s not looking to accuse anybody of anything but everybody wants to put the blame on him.”
That’s not unusual.
“It’s really good to have someone to blame,” said Dr. Philip R. Muskin, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University. “Appropriately or not, having someone to blame gives us an answer, and we like answers.”
A tendency to blame the victim is not unheard of, said psychologist David Palmiter, public education coordinator for the American Psychological Association
“In this case, one of the victims is the living spouse,” Palmiter said. “His children were killed.”
All of that is sensible enough – blatantly unfair to Pierre, but at least understandable – except for one thing. When the sexes are reversed, do people blame the mother? When a father takes the life of a child, do the media and assorted opiners and hangers-on turn their accusing fingers towards her? If the do, I’ve never seen it. Maybe someone can remind us of a single instance in which that happened.
That’s the first problem with the opinions of the “experts” in this case. They phrase their opinions in gender-neutral ways, but the phenomenon they describe is anything but that. The simple fact is that fathers receive blame from the talking heads while mothers receive understanding. Until the experts notice that glaring fact, their opinions will continue to have only limited utility.
The second problem is that these same experts who dispassionately describe people’s tendency to look for a scapegoat, do precisely that themselves.
However, the experts do not find Pierre blameless. If his relationship with Armstrong had been healthy, they said, she probably would have had one less stress factor. In addition, said Gerald Mallon, a professor at Hunter College’s School of Social Work, “a good partner might have picked out the signs of mental illness.”
Yes, she had stress in her life, just like 100% of all other adults – those who drown their helpless children and those who don’t.
And of course there’s the “mental illness” angle that Mallon and many other commenters take for granted. The problem with that is that, apart from the incident itself, there’s not the least evidence that Armstrong was mentally ill. One lay person one time said Armstrong seemed to be acting in a “paranoid” way. Beyond that single statement, there’s nothing.
There has been no report of behavior that would lead anyone to believe that Armstrong didn’t appreciate the wrongness of what she was doing. She hadn’t consulted a mental health expert, wasn’t on medication and seemed to be living a normal, if conflicted, life.
Meanwhile, the same “experts” seem not to know basic facts about the case or others to which they compare it. One suggests that Pierre and Armstrong were married. They weren’t.
Another believes that the husband of Andrea Yates didn’t know she was mentally ill, when in fact he had been deeply involved in her treatment for months before she killed their five children.
The vilification of Jean Pierre is disgraceful. Yes, it seems that the man must plead guilty to being a flawed human being. Yes, his partner did what she could to keep him out of his children’s lives and yes, he seems to have had sex with at least one woman other than Armstrong. For all that, let him prostrate himself at our feet don a hair shirt and cry “Mea culpa!”
But let us be clear about two things. First, Jean Pierre is no worse than countless people, male and female, and he’s better than many.
More importantly, nothing he’s said, done, or left undone, justifies the intentional killing of three small children. Nothing.
Blame for that rests at the feet of one person and one person only – Lashanda Armstrong. Until we get that straight, this society will be in no position to pretend that we treat the sexes equally. Until we stop reserving our condemnation for men and our forgiveness for women, the sexes will not be equal. That’s a wrong that hurts everyone.