If you haven’t heard the grim news, this somewhat maligned Salon headline speaks for itself: “How could a mother eat her own baby?”
When something as horrific and tragic as this happens – a new mother, a schizophrenic, splits with the baby’s father, who is also schizophrenic, goes into a tailspin that may or may not be related to the break-up, begins hearing voices, murders her baby and consumes some of his body parts before trying to kill herself – it’s only natural to say that all of this could have been prevented. Where were social services as she was breaking down? Why was she off her meds? Where was her doctor? Why couldn’t the dad step in and take an active role? Why was she released from the ER within 24 hours after trying to get help? Why was her sister apparently lulled into believing that Otty was OK to care for the baby? Why why WHY?
There is legitimate debate to be had about the entire incident – it goes to the heart of how society treats both new mothers and the mentally ill. It raises questions about the horrific state of the U.S. healthcare system. It reminds us about the oft-ignored importance of fatherhood alongside motherhood. And so on. And so forth.
But I also firmly believe that yes, sometimes horrible things simply happen. Some people get sick, and then they get sicker, and then they get so sick that they walk into some dark and unknown territory for which there is no map. The lights in their brains flicker. They look for help, and find none. In one crucial moment, there is nobody to hold them back from something monstrous.
Now, I didn’t have a problem with Salon’s “sensationalist” headline. It’s asking a very normal, practically instinctual question. How COULD a mother eat her own baby? Well, as Karen Houppert notes, it’s not as if something like this is without precedent. Ancient myths address this, for one thing.
It’s true that the rage reserved for fathers who kill their children is nothing like the rage reserved for the mothers. Some of this is due to misogyny, but another part is simply this – the mother carries the child and gives birth to it. Human beings have a hard time wrapping their heads around murderous mothers because they use their very bodies to carry a pregnancy to term, to bring a child into this world… and suddenly, they violently take the child out of this world. It’s shocking, on a very primal level.
Like many of Salon’s readers, I took issue with Houppert’s decision to lump Otty Sanchez and Andrea Yates together with Susan Smith. The former two were profoundly ill and did not receive the help they clearly needed. Susan Smith was… well, for one thing, she was clever as hell. Blamed the disappearance of her kids on a black man, knowing that this will play on people’s racism. While I’m sure that Susan Smith has suffered and continues to suffer, truth was, she made a choice between her kids and a new boyfriend. Drowning them in a car must’ve seemed like a great way to get rid of evidence, you know. Sanchez and Yates made no effort to cover up the horror of what they had just done, they felt that horror on the inside and they felt it right away. Smith, I would argue, is in a different league.
Meanwhile, people still scream about how it’s only “natural” for all women to become mothers, which always strikes me as utterly sexist and stupid. Motherhood is already a tougher deal than fatherhood, simply due to the physical sacrifices involved (unless you adopt, which comes with its own challenges), and no one is screaming at young men to drop everything and become fathers.
Right now, Kiev is plastered with ads urging young mothers to not abandon their children. Huh. Wonder why.
In this society, we are instructed that we are “future mothers” even when we are little girls. No one discusses the messier sides of motherhood. And certainly no one is rushing to build a great infrastructure for new parents. So the end result is – naive young women rush into marriage and motherhood, and suddenly, they are lost. Sometimes, abandoning the children is the least they are capable of.
I must mention the global role of religious institutions in all of this. Religious leaders, most of them men, are busy instructing women that they are nothing, nil, a blank space, until they fill the role of the all-sacrificing mother, with her obligatory halo or heaven at her feet. You keep at it, dudes. Please, continue to contribute to over-population, ecological meltdown and the poverty of women who are not even allowed to make reproductive decisions without you having your tedious little say.
Of course, the one thing that religious people do have right is this whole idea of redemption. And I really hope that there is someone out there who can whisper about it in poor Otty Sanchez’s ear in the days that are ahead. No matter who else we blame – the state, the father, the sister, the hospital staff, the treatment of mothers as a whole – it will be Otty who will live with the reality of what she has done. Her baby’s suffering is now over. Otty’s suffering, however, has begun.