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.