The United States has one of the highest rates of intrafamilial violence of any nation in the world. As a statistical composite, we Americans are a nation of grieving adults and idealized infants, grim cynics and lost innocents. Given our daily headlines, this should not come as a complete surprise, I suppose. But it is interesting nonetheless, our erstwhile obsession with the perfect child in the perfect family, yet our collective unwillingness to provide the kind of social safety net that other industrialized nations enjoy. From the Menendez brothers to Susan Smith, the media-projected national family dynamic sometimes makes one think of the Greek god Kronos devouring his children whole, ultimately forced to vomit them, kicking and vengeful, back out again.
For anyone seeking what’s left of the stereotypical, honest-to-God-sanctified-by-marriage American household, the past few weeks have been particularly good for grim cynics, particularly bad for lost innocents. In Massachusetts, for example, Leo Felton, the Aryan supremacist son of a white mother and black father, was arrested for trying to ignite a race war. His wife, who took a sledgehammer to his computer so as to destroy evidence, claims to have been motivated only by a deep sense of wifely duty and a divinely mandated commitment to her marriage vows. The couple are converts to Greek Orthodoxy. Felton’s girlfriend, on the other hand, who helped him stockpile a goodly amount of ammonium nitrate, appears to have been somewhat less devoutly faith-based in her initiative. (The race war was to have been waged against blacks or Jews, in case you’re wondering. Freud would have been busy in contemporary America.)
In Idaho, meanwhile, where crazed Easterners seem to flock in order to pass as fierce mountain men and have standoffs with mustachioed local lawmen, there is the odd, sad tale of Michael McGuckin. McGuckin, a graduate of the exclusive Groton preparatory school and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was the less-than-perfect son (he didn’t go to Harvard, he married beneath his station) of a Boston Brahmin family whose ancestors founded, among other institutions, the venerable firm of Shreve, Crump & Low. Over the years, McGuckin and his wife found religion, home-schooled their children and retreated further into the literal wilderness of Idaho’s backwoods, as well as into the figurative thicket of their own fears. After he died of multiple sclerosis in May, the family’s strange, impoverished living conditions came to the attention of outsiders, and McGuckin’s wife was arrested for felony child neglect. When social service workers came to the house, six of his eight children held off local authorities at gunpoint for five days.
But the case generating most attention of late is undoubtedly that of Andrea Yates, the Houston housewife who drowned her five children in the bathtub. “Both of us really went into our marriage, you know, saying we’ll just have as many kids as came along,” said her husband, a computer programmer with deeply held evangelical Christian convictions, of her postpartum illness that had increased with the birth of each child.
In a mothers’ Internet chat room I once logged onto, the site with the most hits belonged to a woman who had nine boys including two sets of twins, all of them under the age of 9. Any advice? she pleaded. Birth control! read the first reply. So how many girls do you have? read the second. Prozac, read the third.
Andrea Yates had been prescribed antipsychotic drugs much stronger than Prozac, and she clearly had longer-term mental health problems than just a lot of children. But the Yates case revealed a deep gender divide about the isolation and stress of family and motherhood in a society that extols self-sufficiency as its premiere human value. From Anna Quindlen to Marie Osmond, a remarkable range of women publicly confessed a kind of empathy for Yates–for what Quindlen called the forbidden understanding: “There is the unimaginable idea of the killings. And then there is the entirely imaginable idea of going quietly bonkers in the house with five kids under the age of 7.”
On the other side of the gender divide were voices like those of Howie Carr, a shock jock with the harshly complex voice of a smashmouthed Puritan elder. “Whaddaya think?” railed Carr, challenging his viewers to call in. “Should she fry?” Seventy percent of Carr’s viewers thought that yes, Andrea Yates should be fried at once. And indeed, Texas prosecutors–scrupulously avoiding the vulgarity of such words as “fry”–charged Mrs. Yates with capital murder, for which execution is a likely penalty.
In 1892 Charlotte Perkins Gilman published The Yellow Wallpaper, her fictional critique of the marital exemplars of the time: controlling martinet husband who nevertheless embodied civic virtue; genteel obedient wife, confined by the so-called cult of true womanhood to her duties in the nursery, slowly and surely going mad. If Gilman were writing today, I think her novella would not be so very different but for a few updates. It would feature a wife as the promise-kept prisoner of a divinely driven, hovering husband, as still home alone in the nursery but taking all kinds of prescription drugs to help keep things moving serenely. Perhaps she may even have attended (with her husband, of course) the fifth annual Smart Marriages, Happy Families convention in Orlando, Florida–“a grand bazaar for the growing relationship-building, marriage-promotion business,” according to the Boston Globe. She would stay in her marriage with no thought of divorce, for fear of becoming one of those welfare recipients whose antithesis she supposedly represented, those women with no husbands whose street-schooled children are hooked on all those terrible, numbing nonprescription drugs.
Andrea Yates purportedly told police that she killed her children because she was a bad mother who had permanently damaged them. And so perfection chases intolerance chases cruelty, collapsing in a heap of tragic paradox. We are a nation of individualists, with little sense that, just beyond the back fence of our fear, we could be building the villages that might help us, if just a little bit.