February 24, 2011

The Medea Question: Why Do Women Kill Their Children

Yesterday in the New York Times there was an article with the headline "Suburb's Veneer Cracks: Mother is Held in Deaths." The story is about Julie Schenecker, who murdered her two teenage children on January 28, but it could just as easily been about Susan Smith, the woman who drove her children into a lake in Union, SC sixteen years prior.

Smith's case serves as the inspiration for Cornelius Eady's play Brutal Imagination (and National Book Award Finalist book of poetry by the same title). We went into rehearsal the week before Schenecker killed her children, and were already wrestling with the same seemingly unanswerable question the citizens of Tampa Palm would face: how does a mother kill her own children? Trying to get inside the inherently incomprehensible act of filicide has been one of the primary tasks over the past several weeks of rehearsal.

This is an ancient question, the Medea question, and in fact neonaticide (the killing of one's infant child) is believed to have been used as a form of population control in ancient societies including ancient Greece, and therefore socially acceptable in certain circumstances. In modern day, as the New York Times reported in an op-ed about the Schenecker case earlier this month, some 200 mothers in America commit filicide every year. Clearly only a fraction of these cases ever make the news--this is because the vast majority of these crimes are committed by among low-income, often abused women, and the causes of death are mostly ignored pregnancies, neglect, abuse, and assisted/coerced filicide (Mothers Who Kill Their Children, Meyer and Oberman 2001).

However, women like Susan Smith and Julie Schenecker are very different cases--loving mothers from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds (Smith came from a more modest economic demographic, but her stepfather was affluent and a prominent figure in Union). These are the stories we struggle to understand, we write news articles and plays about, that have troubled our mythology for two and a half millennia, that both Brutal Imagination and Wreckage attempt to make sense of in fractured, heartbreakingly poetic ways.

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