Where’s Dad in Media Coverage of Lashandra Armstrong Case?

At this point, we know little about the horrible tragedy that unfolded in the early evening hours of April 12th.

What we do know is that Lashandra Armstrong, mother of four children ages 11 months to 10 years, drove her minivan into the Hudson River near Newburgh, New York, with the intention of drowning them all.  Her 10-year old son, La’Shaun managed to escape, swim to shore and flag down a passing motorist, telling her, “My mommy just drove the car in the water.”

That motorist, Meave Ryan rushed to the scene, saw the minivan and concluded that Armstrong and the three youngest children were dead.  She then took La’Shaun to a fire station.  As Ryan tells it, the boy described what had happened:

“There was an argument about cheating, that his stepfather was cheating on his mother,’ Ms. Ryan said. On the short ride from their apartment in Newburgh to the boat ramp, La”Shaun told Ms. Ryan, his mother had called an older relative and said, “I”m sorry, I”m going to do something crazy, you have to forgive me…’

She said he told her that Ms. Armstrong had grabbed the children as the minivan rolled into the water and said, “If I”m going to die, you”re going to die with me.’ She said that La”Shaun broke free, rolled down the window and swam out.

He also told her that his mother tried to stop the tragedy that was playing out, but it was too late. He said that as the minivan began sinking Ms. Armstrong said, “Oh, my God, I made a mistake, I made a mistake.’ He said she tried to shift into reverse. But the minivan was too far into the water to go back.

Slowly the pieces of the puzzle are being gathered and put in place.  In this article, various friends, relatives and neighbors are quoted (New York Times, 4/13/11).  From their bits of information, we can learn that the three youngest of Armstrong’s children – the three who are dead – were fathered by a man named Jean Pierre, 26.  Who La’Shaun’s father is has not yet been reported.

Pierre is described variously as a hands-on dad who was frequently seen around the house although he and Armstrong didn’t live together.  He has no history of criminal behavior and none of domestic violence.

Pierre and Armstrong were often seen by neighbors doing family activities together.  Those included cooking out on the barbecue grill, going shopping and doing laundry together.

Still, there was conflict in the family.  Just what that was about remains unclear, but it’s been reported that Pierre had at least one romantic affair outside his relationship with Armstrong. 

As Armstrong headed toward the river with the children, the older relative she had called alerted police who went to the house only to find it vacant.  They’ve questioned Pierre and released him without charges.

One suggestive fact is that Armstrong had asked the landlord to change the locks twice in the previous year for the purpose of keeping Mr. Pierre out of the apartment.  Why would she do that if there was no history of domestic violence on his part and the police had no record of any disturbance there?

There could of course be many reasons.  But a woman who kills herself and three of her children apparently because of the father’s relationship with another woman is one thing.  A woman who enlists the aid of the landlord to keep him out of her and the children’s lives is another.  And a woman who gives neighbors every indication of conducting regular family life with the same man is yet another. 

How can we explain all that?  Based on what little we have to go on, I’d say it looks like a couple with kids who tried to make a go of it, but, for whatever reasons, ultimately failed.  Having failed, the man moved on to other relationships but still wanted to play an active part in his kids’ lives.  The mother then moved to marginalize him as their father and, when he persisted, took the ultimate step.  If that’s how it played out, it would be a lot like the Riggi case in Scotland.

As I say, I have little factual information to go on, but that’s the narrative I’d offer based on what there is.  We’ll see.

And, speaking of insufficient information, the linked-to article is a fairly long one.  The reporter quotes eight different people including Ryan, La’Shaun, various relatives and neighbors, the police chief, the mayor and the landlord.  He does not quote the father, Jean Pierre.

That’s not because Pierre is unavailable.  After all, the police talked to him.  So it’s interesting that the narrative of this whole event is being cobbled together without the input of one of the major players in the drama – the dad.  In an article that spends considerable time discussing family activities and what happened just before Armstrong took the lives of herself and three children, it would seem that Pierre would have a lot to offer.

But given the fact that there’s no boilerplate statement to the effect that “attempts to contact Pierre” were unsuccessful” or that “phone calls weren’t returned,” it’s beginning to look like the reporter didn’t even try.

He does include this quotation from Armstrong’s aunt:

“She”s a good mother,’ Ms. Gilliam said. “Just because she drove a car…’ Her voice trailed off. Then she said, “Nobody knows what my niece went through.’

I’m sure we’ll find out in the upcoming days.

In the meantime articles like this one seek to exonerate Armstrong on the basis of literally no information (WNYT, 4/14/11).  The article speculates that, although there’s no evidence of mental illness on Armstrong’s part, she might have been mentally ill and she might have had post-partum depression.  So it quotes a psychologist about what might have happened if Armstrong had a mental illness that was post-partum depression or psychosis.

All of that is of course true.  Countless things might have happened.  But when journalists engage not only in rank speculation, but in speculating about speculation, you know there’s an agenda other than reporting the facts about a terrible tragedy.

And since the second piece ignores the dad too, I’d say it’s trying to get readers to forgive Armstrong her awful deed rather than condemn her for it.  As with the NYT article, Pierre is probably the person best situated to throw light on Armstrong’s state of mind, but again, he’s silenced.

I have no desire to cast aspersions on anyone who is truly mentally ill.  If Armstrong were incapable of understanding what she was doing, then she has my ready forgiveness.  So far, though, all signs point to her being in full possession of her faculties.

The point being that, if a father had snatched four children from under the nose of their mother and driven them and himself into a cold watery grave,  because he was upset that she had had an affair, would newspaper articles and radio blogs be so eager to absolve him of wrongdoing that they refused to interview the mom?  I think the question answers itself.

I’ve written plenty about a culture that clings to the archaic notion that mothers can do nothing wrong and fathers can do nothing right.  The press coverage so far of this terrible incident is yet one more instance of exactly that.  And until that culture changes, mothers will still do the lion’s share of childcare and fathers will be marginalized in the lives of their children.

Leave a Reply

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