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Sunday, April 04, 2004

Woman who killed her children found not guilty

By reason of insanity. This case is so much like Andrea Yates's case that even the defendent drew the comparison. While some on the right, particularly the religious right, are scrambling to call these crimes a natural product of leftism by arguing the slippery slope argument. Quickly: This is what you get when you allow women small amounts of independence and abortion rights. Next thing you know, they are hiding things from their husbands and killing their children. Of course, to everyone else, it looks like both these women, isolated by their ultra-conservative religious beliefs simply went mad from cabin fever mixed with post-partum depression. Because of the constant presence of religion in their lives, it isn't any wonder that their madness seemed as God-driven as everything else in their lives. Those same religious values make it incredibly difficult for a woman to speak up and either ask for help or even explain that God is speaking to them directly. There are countless stories from Catholicism that demonstrate how women who feel they have received direct communication from God are treated--they are pretty much ignored until the orchestrate something dramatic like the stigmata. Of course, showing stigmata is a relatively harmless act compared to killing your children, but then again, these women of the Catholic tradition were not isolated from the society around them.
I am by no means arguing that religious belief in and of itself spurs people to murder, and definitely not child murder. Catholicism emphasizes the importance of good works and community, making it more likely that a woman who is sliding downhill like this will be discovered and helped. In fact, most mainstream religions recognize the place that psychology has in our society and most priests and ministers would counsel a woman in this situation to seek help and would also probably help in making sure that the children were put in a safer situation.
What I see in these two child-murdering cases is how unworkable the monolithic standard of "traditional" family is. One father who rules over the family, one mother who silenty nutures the children and adores the husband, and no outside interference from relatives who might undermine the father's absolute authority is too tight a fit for the majority of people. And it's not really a tradition anyway. Extended families and friends have always played an important role in raising children, as advice-givers, babysitters and most importantly, as adult companions to mothers of young children who may otherwise feel isolated. The stereotype of the friends and family of housewives is a bunch of clucking gossips who seem to exist only to undermine the husband's control of his household. From another perspective, however, the gossips (in the older sense of the word, meaning women who spend alot of time visiting and talking about their own and others' lives) are an anchor to the world that keeps women from going crazy from isolation.


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