With my son home sick, the hands that should have been busily typing away on my laptop were otherwise occupied rubbing his back and holding a bucket. Because I was not able to get my daily fix of literary lamenting, I turned my attention to the next best thing, the Casey Anthony murder trial.
Maybe it is because I came of age during the OJ Simpson trial, or perhaps I just possess the same innate need for social gossip as the hundreds of people lined up outside the Orange County courthouse every day, but the lure of focusing on a media magnet, especially one accused of a mind bogglingly horrific act, is too much for me to refuse. So I plugged in to live coverage, and began watching and listening. Within seconds, I was hooked. I watched as this seemingly normal, rather attractive young mother sat quietly beside her attorneys as they battled for her life. She seemed composed, self-assured, and quite unflappable. But when they played the 911 recordings and the jailhouse tapes, and I heard the anxiety, frustration, and apparent disconnect in her voice, a new picture developed.
I am a mother to three wonderful, loving and extremely patient children. And as a mother to three children, there have been many days when my voice has reached the pitch I heard on the tapes in that courtroom. There have been times when I have said mean things, turned a cold shoulder, and dare I say it, ignored my children. I would not go so far as to say that I have neglected them. But because I struggle with thoughts of guilt born from my many depressive episodes, I am glaringly aware that my children have not been the center of my attention all of the time. They have been fed, clothed and bathed (most of the time) and they have always been kept safe. But there are definitely times when I have to muster up the desire to interact with them.
By some small miracle I never had post-partum depression, but I can understand the depth of isolation, despair and hopelessness that it encompasses. I am sure that having those feelings immerge when a new budding life is reaching out to you with open, unconditional love, must be intolerable. If you have ever fallen into a major depressive state that is not related to post-partum, maybe you have had the same feelings I have had as I watch these mothers on trial for their lives. Most people see them as monsters. I see more.
Susan Smith rolled her car into a lake with both of her young boys inside on October 25, 1994. She was suffering rejection from a boyfriend. Andrea Yates drowned all five of her beloved children in the family bathtub on June 1, 2001. She was suffering from depression at the time. Lashandra Armstrong drove her minivan into the frigid Hudson River with all four of her children in it on April 12, 2011. Her oldest son escaped. She had been suffering from paranoia and felt threatened by the father of her children. Maybe it is because I have dealt with depression. Maybe it is because I can honestly say I understand what it feels like to be on the precipice of insanity. Maybe it is because I can, in a very different way, understand. I can understand being at the mercy of overwhelming feelings. I can understand not being able to put certain thoughts and worries out of my mind.
When I hear of a mother committing one of these unfathomable acts, something stirs inside my soul. I cannot be sure if it is anger, rage, sorrow, grief, or perhaps even pity. Was there no clues leading up to the fateful day? Did anyone recognize symptoms of mental instability? Were there blatant cries for help that went unanswered? When a person is in the grips of mental sabotage, she is often unable to throw herself a lifeline. Who is to blame for these acts? The law does not allow an oblivious husband or aloof partner to be charged for their lack of action. A clinician cannot be prosecuted because they did not see the train coming down the tracks, and rightly so. But for those people who have always been an unloaded gun, when the mental monster inside chooses to fully load the chambers, the only answer is to punish the weapon.
Some of these people receive not guilty verdicts by reason of insanity. Others are just found guilty. Either way, there are no winners. Children are dead. Mothers are sent to rot in prison. Families are left in ruins. And the mental health profession suffers the heat of the spotlight. Clinicians are blamed for not seeing signs and offering help. And legitimate illnesses are twisted, tried and often turned into fodder for water cooler gossip and best-selling books, leaving those suffering afraid and unwilling to reach out for help. The whole process undermines our ability to determine who is truly ill and push for better interventions and awareness before things like this happen.
And perhaps it is because of my own struggles that I will tune in for the verdict of Casey Anthony. Maybe she didn’t have depression, or narcissism, or any pre-printed psychologically correct label du jour. Maybe she is just a pathological liar (will that be in the DSM-V?). But one thing I know: if she did kill her child, then I don’t think anyone of us could call her mentally stable.
© Copyright 2011 by Jen Wilson. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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