So, the thing is...  my heart aches. 

Since it always seems that all psychopaths come from Texas, it should have come as no surprise that two of the most horrific news stories of the past two weeks involved two Texas mothers who had harmed their children.  The first was the woman who shut her eight-year-old into a closet for, oh, at least four months and apparently systematically starved her almost to death.  When the child was found, she weighed twenty-five pounds.  And the second story made the cover of Newsweek: the psychotically depressed Houston mother who drowned her five children. 

I think I was more horrified and haunted by the first story.  The first news reports quoted the man who called the authorities --a volunteer fire fighter who had befriended and socialized with the couple.  The thing that got me was where he said "When I think of how I sat at their kitchen table and played cards all those times and all the while, that child was there in that closet..."  Child abuse crosses all socio-economic boundaries and this made me realize that I could be walking past a house or a child every single day who needs real help.  That's what keeps me awake at night --the thought that as I am peacefully sleeping, someone, somewhere, is systematically abusing a child.  I can almost understand an act of anger where a parent snaps.  I can't even begin to understand how a mother reaches a point of deliberately torturing her own child over many months. 

Plus, you know, the sheer maliciousness of shutting a child into a closet and keeping her there is sickening.  I look at the bright faces of my girls, the enormous potential and thirst for knowledge and love that dwells there and I simply can't imagine such an act. In my mind, I see those bright faces as a door swings shut, keeping them in darkness and filth.  How can that happen in this world?  Why did that little girl not have even one advocate who missed her presence?  What recourse has any child when the person she looks to for protection and guidance and love does something so unspeakable?  And how far into psychosis does a woman have to be to do that to a being she carried and nurtured in her womb?  

I will admit that Ana has made me more angry this week than I have EVER been at her (Isn't it amazing how programmed we are to care for the most defenseless of our family, even when it's our own beloved older child who is guilty of the crime of bonking her sister on the head?), but it never occurred to me to even SPANK her.  I did send her to her room once to think about why it wasn't a good idea to kick a ball right at an eight-month-old.  She thought about it.  For about two minutes, after which she came contritely out of her room. Some children aren't so lucky.  

It's interesting that the second story REALLY affected my husband. He said he couldn't remember being more upset by a news story.  I had all kinds of theories as to why that was. I thought it might be that he identified a little with the husband, who went off to work every day to his job, supporting his large family.  I do know that there is a sort of covenant between my husband and me --he goes off to work every day slaying dragons and I stay home and kill monsters under the bed.  We trust that the other is upholding his or her end of the deal and that if there are problems outside of the normal ones, we will make sure the other is fully aware of all facts. 

But his reasons are, as always, straightforward and clearly articulated.  He says he keeps imagining those kids staring up at her face as she killed them and wondering why the person they loved best was hurting them.  And the other thing that really upsets him is this unshakeable feeling that the father of those children had a responsibility to see how serious the situation was and not to leave his wife alone with them.  Since Andrea Yates had tried to commit suicide only a few months before, and since she was taking such strong anti-psychotic medication, and since she'd so recently given birth to yet another child, her husband had a responsibility to stop ignoring the situation and to at least consider some sort of birth control (or abstinence, since his religious beliefs dictated otherwise) so his wife could have some time to recover.  (I agree.  It's hard enough to try to parent five kids under the age of seven even if you are NOT under psychiatric care.)    

I thought the drowning case was horrible, too, but not for the same reasons.  I'm so struck by the WASTE --all that potential just wiped out.  By all accounts, those kids had great lives up until that day.  Andrea Yates did the kinds of things as a mom that I and most of my friends do.  She was actively involved in every aspect of their lives and she was concerned about their educations enough to home-school (which is no easy thing under Texas law) and she gave them tangible tokens of her love, like the little coupon books for hugs and kisses she gave them for Valentine's Day.  How is it possible that no one saw this coming?  And how is it possible to get to a point of thinking your children are better off dead than with a parent like you? 

I can't comprehend it.  I can understand being so depressed that you consider harming YOURSELF but I just can't fathom harming a child --ANY child, not just my own.  I think that once I became a mother, I just sort of assumed that we moms were all kind of on the same page as far as our kids are concerned.  That we all felt that children are sacred.  That motherhood drives us all to be better people than we were, to reach for the best within us.  I love my children so much that I would die for them --without ever thinking twice about it.  And I don't think I would want to live in a world without them.  They have propelled me onto a higher plane of consciousness --where my own life isn't so important and where my job of protecting and loving and GROWING them is the highest calling.   

In the same way that "each manís death diminishes me," I feel like each appalling act against a child diminishes us ALL.  And while I can bemoan the fact that even with a large support network, Andrea Yates still cracked and killed her children, and that the little girl in the closet was so insignificant that no one even missed her for four months, in the end, I can only do what all moms do.  I can learn to take action when I see another mom struggling, instead of assuming if I am needed, she'll let me know.  I can teach myself to ask for help when I am overwhelmed.  I can reach out to those moms I meet, in hopes that I might find that we really are all in this together.  I can hold my children a little tighter and I can pray that they will live their lives and never come in contact with that kind of evil and brutality.   

And my heart can ache for the little lost ones. 


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(c) Barbara Cooper 2001

  Barbara Cooper is the mother of Ana (3) and Jane (eight months).  She lives in Austin, Texas and her husband threatens to unsubscribe if she doesn't write something funny soon.