Research Paper: Women Who Kill Their Children

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Women Who Kill Their Children

The Nature of the Unnatural:

On January 27th of this year, Julie Powers, a 50-year-old mother from Tampa, Florida, shot her two teenage children to death. When asked by police for an explanation, she replied that she killed her children because they were "mouthy" (Szalavitz 2011). Such a response shocks us, not only because it violates our biological impulse to care for our species, but also because it denies the long-standing social and cultural tradition that defines mothers as the embodiment of our protective and nurturing nature. What then could prompt Powers and other mothers to turn against their own instincts and others' expectations, murdering those whose health and safety they are meant to protect?

In order to find an answer, we must first dismantle a prejudice that often plagues attempts to explain the motives of women: the reluctance to credit (or blame) them for their actions. In her book "Women Who Kill" (2009), Ann Jones points out that "historians often assume that women have not significantly acted, but have been acted upon." Such a prejudice can infiltrate cases of maternal infanticide from the very beginning.

When Susan Smith drowned her two sons on October 25, 1994, she concocted a terrifying story that the media immediately believed and circulated: that a black man had hijacked her car with her two young boys in it. The story led to a nine-day manhunt for the suspect that she described. Inconsistencies in her story led the police to suspect foul play on her part, and she subsequently failed three lie detector tests. On November 3rd, she finally confessed, writing that she planned to commit suicide by driving her car into a lake, but at the last minute she got out and let the car sink with her two sons inside (Rekers 1996). Her family, her friends, the media, and the nation in general were shocked and outraged.

Smith had successfully portrayed herself as a victim (at least initially). She played on the age-old stereotype of women being victimized by men, and the more virulent stereotype of white women being victimized by black men. Because these stereotypes are so deeply entrenched in American culture, her family and the media had no problem believing the story without any second-guessing. It seemed more likely to everyone that a black man would commit a violent crime against a white women and her children than that a mother would drive her own children into a lake. But the statistics tell another story. According to the Department of Justice, 88% of children who are murdered die at the hand of their own parents. In 55% of these cases, the mother is the murderer (Rekers 1996, p. 120).

After Smith abandoned her tale of victimization by a black man, she and her defense attorneys developed a different tale of victimization. They portrayed her as a victim of mental illness -- specifically, depression. This "medical victim" explanation for mothers killing their children was a unique product of the 20th century. Cheryl Meyer (2001) points out that, before the beginning of the 20th century, "the Judeo-Christian world seems to have understood infanticide as a crime committed by desperate and/or immoral women" (p. 10). The discovery in the late 19th century of the connection between pregnancy, birth, and maternal mental illness opened the door for a sophisticated approach to infanticide.

England in particular took the mental illness model very seriously. In 1922, the British Infanticide Act was passed, making it impossible to charge a mother who kills her child with any crime higher than manslaughter if she can prove she was suffering from postpartum depression (Meyer 2001, p. 11). The law is not as cut-and-dry in America, however. While postpartum depression is generally not accepted as a legal defense against maternal infanticide, the more severe diagnosis of postpartum psychosis is often considered as a mitigating factor.

Postpartum psychosis is different from postpartum depression in that it usually involves a "dramatic break with reality" (Ibid). Women suffering from postpartum psychosis often suffer visual or auditory hallucinations; some of these hallucinations may urge the woman to kill her child or children. In Infanticide: Psychosocial and Legal Perspectives on Mothers Who Kill (Spinelli 2003), Wisner et al. describe the case of a 38-year-old mother of two who suffered severe postpartum psychosis after the birth of her second child. Outwardly, the woman was calm, relaxed, and well-spoken. But she described being haunted by a "dark shadow" who would take over her limbs, at one point forcing her to try to strangle her infant. To avoid this "shadow," the mother would pace back and forth on the porch all day, in the middle of winter, with both of her children. Luckily, she sought treatment before this delusion prompted her to commit a serious crime, but other women have not gotten treatment in time -- with disastrous consequences.

The most well-known case of postpartum psychosis resulting in infanticide is the case of Andrea Yates, a mother of five who systematically drowned her five children one by one in the family bathtub in 2001. Yates had a documented history of postpartum depression and psychosis. After her fourth child was born, she twice attempted suicide and was hospitalized. Despite the fact that doctors warned her and her husband that future pregnancies would doubtlessly lead to future psychoses, the couple had a fifth child. A few months after the birth of their last child, Andrea became deeply psychotic and suicidal. Convinced that Satan was out to torment her children and that the only way to protect them was to send them to Heaven, she drowned them, laid their bodies on the bed, and called the police.

The religious and altruistic elements of Andrea's delusions are not uncommon in mothers who kill their children. In a recent article for Time Magazine (Szalavitz 2011), psychiatrist Phillip Resnick identified five main circumstances in which parents kill their children, a categorization that he first developed in the early 1970s. The first case, and the most prevalent circumstance in which mothers kill their small children, is "altruism." These mothers often believe strongly in an afterlife, and believe that their children would be happier there than if they continued to live. In many cases, these mothers plan on committing suicide and joining their children. Many have followed through with this plan, but many have not.

The second circumstance which prompts parents, both male and female, to kill is acute psychosis. The previously-mentioned postpartum psychosis is a particular concern for mothers, but often recedes after the hormone fluctuations and physical stresses of pregnancy and childbirth have receded. There are other psychoses and mental illnesses, however, that are just as devastating and far more difficult to diagnose and treat. Resnick dines "acute psychosis" in strictly psychological terms, as a state in which the person is mentally compromised by hallucinations, epilepsy, or delusions. Cheryl Meyer (2001), however, contends that there are also personal, social, and economic influences that can also affect the mental stability of these parents. According to her, a history of sexual or physical abuse, disability, substance abuse, economic hardship, and high sociocultural expectations can lead parents (especially women) into a state of mind where killing their children almost seems "inevitable" (p. 15). Meyer points to the case of a young woman who had endured constant sexual abuse as a child, had been gang-raped as a teenager, and barely made a living as a prostitute and dancer. She had a daughter at the age of nineteen, and became terrified that her daughter would be condemned to the same kind of life that she had lived. This woman, suffering from a combination of mental illness and altruistic delusions, smothered her 11-month-old.

The third type of infanticide that Resnick isolates is fatal battering. In these cases, killing is not generally the objective; more often, death occurs from abuse that has become lethal. Parents who commit this type of murder are often affected by the same psychosocial factors mentioned previously. They have almost uniformly been the victims of abuse themselves, and are continuing the same cycle of suffering that they experienced. Though there are certainly many cases of women who commit fatal battering, it is the leading cause of parental murder among fathers (Szalavitz 2011).

The fourth circumstance that Dr. Resnick points to mainly concerns parents who kill newborns: the fact that the child was not wanted in the first place. Meyer offers a particular subset of this category: women who deny their pregnancy. For these women, as "tremendous fear surrounding the repercussions of the pregnancy" leads them to refuse to acknowledge the pregnancy, both while they are pregnant and after they have given birth (p.53). Astoundingly, some of these women enter such a deep state of denial that it affects them physically: they continue to menstruate throughout their pregnancy and gain very little weight. These mothers have difficulty coming to terms with their crimes after the fact. Many have no recollection of the birth itself, and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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