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Mothers Who Kill Often Give Warnings

Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Mothers suffering from profound depression differ from teens who kill their newborns and mothers who neglect or abuse their children. They often provide unheeded warnings and attempt suicide.

Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

Subhead: 
Mothers suffering from profound depression differ from teens who kill their newborns and mothers who neglect or abuse their children. They often provide unheeded warnings and attempt suicide.



Commentator Cheryl L. Meyer

(WOMENSENEWS)--The only thing that is really unique about Andrea Yates in Texas is that people are paying attention to her case. They didn't pay attention when Andrea repeatedly voiced her symptoms of depression. Moreover, most people barely note the hundreds of news stories that appear each year about mothers who kill their children. So why is our attention riveted upon Andrea Yates?

Clearly it is unusual when a woman kills more than one child, especially five, but it has happened before. Ophilia Yip, a Chinese immigrant, drove the family van off a pier into the Los Angeles Harbor killing herself and her four children in 1991, but that case received little media attention.

In fact, we found several thousand cases from 1990 to 1999 involving mothers who killed their children, and we researched over 200 of them. Approximately 10 percent of these women had killed more than one child. However, other than Susan Smith, who drowned her two small sons in Union, S.C., most people would find it difficult to name another one of these mothers. So why do Susan Smith and Andrea Yates rivet our attention?

Perhaps the best way to determine why we are paying attention is to review other mothers who have captured public attention in the last decade. Three women quickly come to mind: Melissa Drexler, aka the New Jersey "prom mom"; Amy Grossberg, who, with her boyfriend, killed their newborn in a Delaware motel; and Debora Green, the physician in Kansas City who attempted to kill her three children and succeeded in killing two of them. Melissa Drexler and Amy Grossberg committed neonaticide, killing a child within 24 hours of giving birth. Approximately one-third of the cases we reviewed were cases of neonaticide. Yet again, few cases made national news.

The one thing the women who made national news did have in common was that they seemed unlikely candidates to kill their children. They did not fit the stereotype of a woman who would kill her child. What is that unspoken stereotype? A woman who is "mad" or insane, a woman who is "bad" or evil, a woman who is economically underprivileged or a woman of color. Andrea Yates in Texas confuses us and captures our attention. We don't ask why she did it when a woman who fits our stereotype commits the crime of infanticide; we only ask why when white middle class mothers kill their children.

The reality is that the mother who kills her child is every mother, any mother.

Research Indicates Many Mothers 'Almost Snap'

My research will be published in August in "Mothers Who Kill Their Children: Understanding the Acts of Mothers From Susan Smith to the 'Prom Mom,'" from New York University Press. While we were conducting research, countless mothers approached us with unsolicited tales about how they "almost snapped." These ranged from stories relating a moment of frustration in which mothers were able to exert some control and not harm their child, to others in which women had plans and were in the process of killing their child but were saved from completing the act by an unexpected guest.

Most mothers just seem to understand how a woman could kill her child. When we target certain cases and try to ascertain how this particular mother could have killed her child, we mask the more important question, why don't more mothers do this?

We found that mothers who killed their children fit into five categories: mothers who kill through neglect, mothers who kill through abuse, mothers who commit neonaticide, mothers who are assisted or coerced into killing their child and mothers who purposefully kill their child. This last category would describe the acts of Andrea Yates and is perhaps the most difficult to fathom, especially since women in this category were frequently described as devoted to their children.

Frequently, women who deliberately killed their child or children suffered from some form of mental illness or had a history of mental illness, sometimes related to the pregnancy or postpartum period. Combined with the social isolation most mothers suffer following the birth of a child, it is not difficult to understand the stress they experienced. Some attempted or discussed suicide. In fact, many women in this category attempted murder/suicide, and some of them succeeded.

Most of the women in this category had related their distress to family, friends or health professionals, but their complaints were dismissed or not thoroughly addressed. For example, they were put on medications with no follow-up counseling. Clearly, there were plenty of warning signs in most cases.

Debate on Yates' Sanity Is Ludicrous

During the last week, as the American public has emerged from the initial shock over Andrea Yates' behavior, we have begun to question the legitimacy of her mental illness and the possibility of her pleading insanity. Indeed, postpartum syndromes are afforded little recognition in the medical and psychological communities. Neither postpartum depression nor postpartum psychosis is in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Like many women's health issues and particularly women's mental health issues, they are discounted.

Yet, in other countries, the impact of postpartum syndromes on behavior is not dismissed but formally recognized. Under the British Infanticide Act of 1922, a woman's culpability for the crime of infanticide is limited due to what is considered to be the disruption of her reasoning faculties after the birth of a child. This legal act has been replicated in varying forms in numerous countries, and there is no evidence that the law has been abused as a defense.

If she were in England, Andrea Yates would be in a hospital receiving treatment instead of being questioned on the legal strategy she will use. Like our position on the death penalty, our treatment of Andrea Yates seems relatively barbaric to the European community.

And, in fact, the debate over Yates' sanity is ludicrous. Here is a woman who gave up her career to devote her life to her family. If she were thinking rationally, as many suggest, what would be the point of killing her children and then immediately confessing her guilt? If her goal was to spend her life in prison or receive the death penalty, she could have killed anyone or just killed one of her children.

However, such debates have allowed us to lose sight of two fundamental issues. It frightens us that Andrea Yates' could be any mother, so we try to distance her from ourselves, either by making her different from us or by focusing on the legal technicalities of her case. What may be even more frightening for us to consider is the responsibility we have toward our fellow human beings.

In an incredibly humane response, despite his pain, her husband modeled this for us. He told us that he loved his wife and reflected on the role he might have played in this tragedy. Wouldn't our time be better spent if we focused on how each of us could help prevent these horrible crimes in the future and not on who is to blame for the one we did not prevent and do not understand?

Cheryl L. Meyer is an associate professor of psychology at Wright State University and author of "Mothers Who Kill Their Children: Understanding the Acts of Moms From Susan Smith to the 'Prom Mom'" and "The Wandering Uterus: Politics and Reproductive Rights of Women," both from New York University Press. Her co-author of "Mothers Who Kill Their Children" is Michelle Oberman, professor of Law at DePaul University College of Law.

For more information, visit:

Cheryl L. Meyer:
http://www.wright.edu/sopp/facstaff/meyer.html

New York University Press:
http://www.nyupress.nyu.edu/authbook.msql?book=0814756441

Postpartum Support International:
http://www.chss.iup.edu/postpartum/