Monday, April 6, 2015

Mothers Who Kill Their Children

I've mentioned before the surprise and wonderment that occurred when I discovered, several years ago, the existence in my library of an entire section devoted to books of and about fairy tales (which really initially spurred this blog into existence, as after I read so much I wanted to be able to remember and store the information).

On a recent trip to my local library I stumbled across another section that shouldn't surprise me-the murder section.  In the midst of various books on serial killers and famous murders, I found a title that piqued my curiosity; Mothers Who Kill Their Children by Cheryl L Meyer and Michelle Oberman, with Kelly White, Michelle Rone, Priya Batra, and Tara C. Proano. Although morbid and disturbing, I found the subject of infanticide by mothers to be fascinating, and incredibly applicable to fairy tales. The rate of mothers who abuse their children and either attempt to or succeed in killing them in fairy tales is frighteningly high. In the past, psychologists have explained this by saying it's young girls' playing out their Oedipal fantasies in which their fathers desire them and mothers are their rivals.

And while this is true on some levels-especially for those of us who were never abused, it's somewhat flattering to imagine yourself as someone else's rival, and the simplistic cast of fairy tales don't usually allow for complications like love triangles so family members tend to get in on the action-but the fact is, child abuse has been around for centuries and is not going away any time soon. Not that every fairy tale is based off of fact, but when those stories of mothers harming their children reach the public, they are sensational and tend to spread quickly. So it's not unheard of to think that the famous fairy tales such as Snow White, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, or Juniper Tree could have been inspired by people trying to understand how such acts of violence could have been committed by the one who is supposed to nurture and protect.

In fact, with all this discussion about the new Cinderella movie and whether or not it's feminist enough, it disturbs me a little that all of the heated debates about this tale of child abuse center around the faults of the young girl who did or didn't act too passively. (To clarify, I'm not referencing any of the reviews by my fellow fairy tale bloggers, but other ones around the internet like this one, or the whole discussion that generally circles around Cinderella). This is blaming the victim, which you should never, ever do in cases of actual abuse (read more on how to respond to someone who has been abused here). The book specifically negates any ideas that women allow abuse, or that they must all be weak and passive to have been abused.

Now don't get me wrong: I'm all for versions in which the heroine is not passive, and uses her wits and courage to creatively get out of horrible situations; I realize we apply fairy tales to situations in our own lives and patterns of passive females can be dangerous precedents. In the world of Faerie, taking risks that might be dangerous or foolish in real life are often rewarded. Plus, certain versions can make Cinderella appear extra dumb and helpless, which doesn't help matters. I still have yet to see the new movie so can't speak to how well it handles Cinderella's character and situation. Still-with all this talk over whether or not Cinderella should have rescued herself, why aren't we talking about how the stepmother could have gotten to the point where she would inflict such pain on her husband's daughter?

The truth is, abuse is something it's hard to escape. People who have been abused tend to gravitate towards abusive situations-it's all their used to, and they may believe it's all that there is or all they deserve. There is also the tendency for abuse victims to become the abusers later in life. While it's possible to escape from the cycle, the majority of abusive parents were once abused themselves. We should be asking where the stepmother came from and what her childhood was like and what factors lead to such extreme treatment of Cinderella. Research indicates that those who have been harshly punished are more likely to act violently. It's fairly common to see Snow White as a generational warning, that if Snow White is given worth for being young and beautiful, she is almost destined to become the stepmother as she grows older. The same could be said of other tales-Hansel and Gretel are more likely to be neglectful parents because of their trauma, and Cinderella is more likely to abuse her own children some day and/or end up with an abusive partner.

Not only that, but we should be looking at the whole culture. Laura J. Miller's comment on the back of the book states, "This carefully researched account shows how social forces can contribute to both the causes and cures for infanticide. Readers will find themselves shifting from asking, 'How could she do that?' to 'How could we have let that happen to her?'"

Take Cinderella. A stepmother comes in and starts dressing and treating her stepdaughter like a slave. This would have been obvious to other people in the community-they would have seen her clothes and her actions, knowing she was the true heiress to the estate, yet nobody did anything to help that we are aware of. Friends, family members, neighbors-in some versions the father is still alive, and simply passively allows his wife to treat his own beloved daughter like this. The person who is supposed to be providing Cinderella the most support and love is the one inflicting all the pain, and no one else in her community has attempted, or been successful in, stopping her. Why should Cinderella assume anyone else would be supportive?

So how do society and culture feed our understanding of why infanticide happens? From the book's introduction, "Infanticide is not a random, unpredictable crime. Instead, it is deeply imbedded in and is a reflection of the societies in which it occurs. The crime of infanticide is committed by mothers who cannot parent their child under the circumstances dictated by their unique position in place and time. These circumstances vary, but the extent to which infanticide is a reflection of the norms governing motherhood is a constant that links seemingly disparate crimes."

In short-in order for mothers to get to the point of killing their children, they have already been feeling various pressures, and get to the point of feeling completely overwhelmed. Some people dismiss all crimes of this nature as being committed by moms who just "went crazy," but this is actually very rare. When you start to look at the individual situations each of these women came from, you feel strongly sympathetic (although it doesn't, of course, justify what they did-the book is careful to never excuse their crime, but to explain why it happened and how we can prevent it).

Cultures have gotten, overall, much better in understanding the pressures of motherhood and giving women more rights. The book begins by a quick overview of the history of infanticide and the different cultures that gave women little to no value, and it seems like a miracle some societies survived at all under those conditions. Yet still, females bear the brunt of childrearing and face unique pressures. It is so strongly assumed that women want to get married and raise children, and that females are naturally nurturing and loving, that when women do struggle they're afraid to admit it, feeling guilt and shame. Obviously, the pregnancy and birth are responsibilities of women, but in cases of single parenthood, only 4% of children were raised by fathers at the time of the writing of the book (2001)-meaning 96% of single parents were mothers. Society tends to blame women for domestic violence, even when the father was the one doing the abuse.

A typical person convicted of infanticide will have several disadvantages in life. They might have gotten pregnant as a teenager and have been threatened by families or religions who don't support premarital sex. They are more likely to have been abused in the past, more likely to struggle with depression or suicide, and more likely to struggle with poverty. They were more likely to be minorities and/or lack privilege, and feel powerless in their own situations and to help their children's futures. The vast majority of women in the book were single, or if they were in relationships, were likely unsupported, abused, or going through a difficult separation. These women may not have had the education to know good parenting techniques or how to find support. Those who gave birth at younger ages were not mature enough to bear the responsibilities of parenting along with the pressures of adolescence and early adulthood, especially since nearly all of them felt unsupported by any member of their communities.
John B. Gruelle

The book divides infanticide into categories, depending on the circumstances and motivation behind the killings. One category is that of neglect-not necessarily intending to kill the child, but failing to meet their needs. This would be the case of the mother in "Hansel and Gretel". She didn't actually attempt to kill them herself, but to get them out of the picture because there was not enough food for all of them. Many have pointed out before that this fairy tale reflects earlier times when, if crops were not good, the people did go hungry and struggled with starvation, in Germany and around the world. The mother's acts were selfish, but not unheard of. Mothers who feel that they and their children have no hope and that they might save their children from suffering might attempt to kill them simply to spare them from suffering, or sometimes combined murder/suicide.

Snow White's mother/stepmother makes multiple attempts to kill out of jealousy of Snow White's beauty, and therefore assumed increased attention from the husband and father. This category is one that virtually never happens among mothers, although the authors note that sometimes males kill out of jealousy-it is men who are actually more motivated to kill a stepchild (one killed his wife's baby because he wanted to avoid the shame of raising a child that was not biologically his own).

The mother in "The Juniper Tree" appears the most evil of all. She has no apparent motive for killing, and she is the only one who actually succeeds (although the boy is transformed into a bird, and in some versions becomes a boy again). Her method of death is violent and cruel and she even goes farther than any of the disturbing cases in the book by having the boy's father eat his son's flesh.

The book may not shed light on all fairy tale characters' motivations, but will shed light on tragic circumstances that often hit too close to home. The authors surveyed 219 cases of infanticide that occured in the United States between 1990 and 1999 (and many cases undoubtably went undetected). This does not include child abuse that does not lead to death-according to, more than 3 million cases of child abuse are reported each year, and clarifies that even though there are more than 3 million reports of child abuse, they affect the lives of more than 6 million individual children. (The book contains statistics, but being published in 2001, are not as up to date). These numbers are sobering. I can't help but wonder how our discussion of blaming Cinderella for "allowing" her abuse affects these people who have suffered and already experience feelings of guilt and shame.

The book was fascinating, although it was very difficult to read simply because of the material. The worst was reading the descriptions of how certain mothers killed their children. But the book suggests ways that culture and the government can provide more support to mothers and prevent these things from happening. Parenting is difficult even in the best of circumstances; and the more certain families suffer, the more difficult raising children becomes. Even in our own communities we can do our best to encourage and care for mothers who face troubling circumstances and their children. It may be true that many of the murders in the book could have been avoided if there had been a friend willing to lend a hand and show these mothers that there was hope for themselves and their children.

Cinderella illustrations-Frederic Theadore Lix, Valentine Cameron Princep
Snow White illustration-Charles Robinson
Juniper Tree-Warwick Goble

*Note-all the information about cases of infanticide and abuse were taken from the book; but the book had no application to fairy tales, so those are my additions


  1. Fascinating. While it may not have been touched on in the book, some mothers do indeed want the father's attention exclusively, to the point of trying to eliminate their perceived rivals within the household. I lived in fear of my mother doing exactly that for all my young life, and fairy tales showed me - even though they couched the villain as a 'stepmother' - that it had been attempted by other mother-figures in the past, and the children had survived. It was a message that gave me hope.

    What is is not so hopeful for society at large, and children in particular, is the persistent fiction that 'all' mothers love and protect their children to the best of their ability. Some don't, and there is research to suggest that the dichotomy between the 'loving mother' imagery and the reality of the mother-abused child's situation causes more cognitive dissonance for both mother and child, with lasting psychological damage to the child and possibly to the mother as well (although the guilt and shame accompanying the exposure of such child abuse often prevents a reality-based assessment of the mother's original emotional state for comparison).

    Fairy tales simplify complex truths into cautionary tales, both for the child and for the wider community. Not 'believing' in the 'fairy tale' that mothers can and will kill their children is dangerous to all concerned.

    Thanks for this - a thought-provoking post.

    1. I agree. I had a less-than-ideal relationship with my mother growing up too, which I won't go into, but suffice it to say, it's one of the reasons fairy tales spoke deeply to me - to show me that I didn't have to perish under certain circumstances and, just as importantly, that I had a choice in how I grew up, that I wasn't doomed to become exactly that person. I wish the idea that mothers protected their children as a priority were real but honestly I see more people struggle with it than not - a universal truth but it isn't.
      The book sounds like it gives good and fascinating reasons for helping us understand why not and what we can do about it - in general and specifically. I'm intrigued...

    2. Thank you for sharing! It's such a hard topic to talk about, partly because of all the assumptions. I was fortunate enough to have very loving and supportive parents, but even now I'm starting to have feelings of guilt because I don't want children of my own, at least at this time. Cultural assumptions and expectations are so huge in guiding decisions and causing complex feelings.

      And we can never really begin to deal with child abuse if we don't understand it and don't even think it can really exist except in very rare and extreme cases. I think people's reactions to Cinderella tend to reveal how little we understand about abuse and how potentially dangerous that can be to people who have experienced it. I like your point about how abuse causes cognitive dissonance in both mother and child.

  2. Kristin - I think you should have a permanent link to this article. It's excellent and important. Thank you for getting your thoughts out so articulately. I'd say more but I think there's plenty here to ponder for now.
    PS I fully believe the mother character in The Juniper Tree was a psychopath who finally cracked and became her worst self. The only reason I can think this would be a common tale at the time is to illustrate that there are people who can seemingly function as regular people but under circumstances such as condensed family home situations, coupled with grief and more, they can lose their humanity and this needs to be recognized and dealt with (these days, treated) so that life can go on. The boy (who is killed then becomes a bird, and sometimes comes back) seems to transform with the new understanding -sometimes he's restored and so is the family, other times it's like hindsight or a growing understanding (tree reference) in the sister's understanding and coping - the sad thing being that even with a resolution of sorts, she still has to live with the consequences,
    Ick - dark! But then, I think we learn best with extremes of examples and we learn the shades of these black and whites as we mature.
    Thanks again for this wonderful article.

    1. I agree with you on Juniper Tree, the mother's actions are so extreme even compared to other infanticides! Some mothers who kill their children truly were mentally unstable at the time, or suffer from extreme postpartum called postpartum psychosis-but this is rarer than people think (we tend to assume that anyone who kills their own children has to be crazy). I actually prefer the version of Juniper Tree where the boy remains a bird, I think it's a picture of beauty and hope yet still any trauma like that does leave lasting consequences-or like the brother from Wild Swans who will forever have a wing for an arm. Evil can't just be erased and forgotten, even though we can still hope for a happy ending.

      And hm-I will have to look into permanent links!

  3. About Cinderella and the abuse debate, I recently found this great set of tweets on tumblr that have put into words what we have been wanting to say for a long time.
    I think a lot of the reasons why some people don't approve of Cinderella is because they don't think the virtues of patience, forgiveness, and gentleness are strong traits but feminine traits and therefore weak, sadly. It's a sign of deeper confusions in society about what makes someone strong or weak, manly or feminine.

    1. Interesting set of tweets! Recently I wrote a review of 'Cinderella' on my blog which touches on the points you've mentioned. Oh how these traits are undervalued and misunderstood.

    2. Thank you for sharing! The common feminist attitude towards Cinderella has bothered me for a while. It takes so much courage for people to be able to share about having been abused like that, like in the tweets (which is I think part of the reason we don't hear their side of the story as often). But blaming the victim is so anti-feminist it's surprising-it's like telling a rape victim she should have been able to just fight her way out. How much more complicated and scary would it be when it's your own parent or guardian giving you the abuse?

      Again, there's also the symbolic aspect of fairy tales, and the fact that if the stepmother is portrayed as not very intimidating, it would be hard to see Cinderella as being truly abused; given the shift of Cinderella's actions through the Victorian period, there is some reason for concern. But I still have yet to hear any of the people who criticize Cinderella for being passive suggest a reasonable outlet for her. There is simply no foolproof way to escape abuse-even today with our government programs, they can often be just as broken as the families children come from.

  4. This was an insightful article, as always, and that book sound like a worthwhile (if heavy) read. Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Hey just checked out your blog, congratulations on starting it! Looking forward to seeing what else you come up with! It's so encouraging to see other people , like you and Emilyn J. Wood, approaching fairy tales from a Christian perspective. I too am a Christian and it really can affect how we interpret certain elements! Your review is the most positive I've seen in the fairy tale world, but all my family and friends have been loving the movie too.