An Expert Explains Why Some Women Murder Their Children
"The vast majority were very remorseful, and were trying to cope with it in whichever way they could."
This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
In April this year, 51-year old Brisbane woman Maree Crabtree will “vigorously fight” two counts of murder, one count of torture, and one count of grievous bodily harm. Her disabled daughter, Erin, 18, was found dead in 2012. Her disabled son, Jonathan, 26, was found last year. Crabtree’s children, police allege, were impaired by years of being administered prescription drugs by their mother.
It’s hard to imagine a more nonsensical or unrelatable crime than murdering your own child. But filicide is nothing new; history both ancient and modern is littered with it. Even Aristotle advocated for the death of disabled children and babies, declaring: "Let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.”
Filicide is also more common than many realize. The most recent data in Australia, drawn from the AIC National Homicide Monitoring Program, counts 30 cases between July 2012 and June 2014. Of the 32 child victims, six were aged 18 years and older. Analysis of the case studies found that filicidal fathers are more likely to perpetrate “accidental” filicide and have alcohol and drug problems, whereas filicidal mothers are more likely to commit “altruistic" or "neglectful” filicide and have mental health problems.
Meantime, in the US, a study published in 2014 used data from a 32-year period to conclude that American parents commit filicide about 500 times per year.
One of the world’s foremost maternal filicide experts, Dr. Cheryl Meyer, has interviewed dozens of women serving time for murdering their children (the basis of her books on the subject). VICE Skyped Meyer, a professor of psychology at Oho's Wright State University, to ask why women kill their children, and if they really are so different from the rest of us after all.
VICE: You started out by collecting data on women in the US who had killed their children, and found 1,000 cases over a 10-year span—about one filicide every three days. How did you then come to actually interview some of these women?
Cheryl Meyer: We went to the Ohio Reformatory for Women and asked, “How many inmates do you have here that are convicted of killing their children?” There were 1,800 women in the facility at that time and 80 of them were there for killing their children. That tells you it was a pretty good chunk who had committed filicide.
Overall, we interviewed 40 mothers. The other 40 didn’t participate — they were either [due for] release, or in appeal. A few of them said no, but not very many. With the interviews we tried to paint a picture [missing from] the data. The focus was more, “How is it that you actually got to this point where you killed your child, after a very typical and healthy childhood?” Or, “Maybe you didn’t have a good childhood. What was it about your childhood that led to killing your child?”
What did you learn about these women, as a person and not just a researcher? Was it a case of discovering they weren’t as monstrous as you expected?
That’s the first thing I would say: we went into this, like most people would, thinking that these women must be pariahs. And they weren't at all. After the very first interview, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, there but for the grace of God go I.’
The first interview was with a woman my age, and she was very articulate. She’d been raised in an upper middle class family; very smart, focused on education, very much like my own family. And at 16 she had sex with an older man in his 30s. She got pregnant and they married. Then she had three kids within a couple of years and her husband was relocated for work every year.
So she's like 19 years old with three kids and her husband is also abusive. They're traveling around the country; she can’t form any roots or establish any relationships, and there are lots of drugs and wife swapping. Finally, she gets out and goes back [home], starts working on her high school degree and gets a job. She and the three kids are living at her parents’ house, in their damp basement.
Anyway, at 19 she starts dating this guy. One day she's waiting for him to come home and his younger brother is there, who comes out with a gun and says, 'I'm going to have sex with you, and if you don’t then I’m going to kill your three children in front of you.' He rapes her, and says, 'If you tell anybody about this I'm going to say that you forced it on me and that it was statutory rape.'
She's humiliated and distraught, and she just decides life isn't worth it anymore. So she comes up with a plan to kill her children and kill herself. She successfully kills her children and attempts to kill herself but isn’t successful. She got three life sentences.
She said [to me], 'You know, when I thought about dying, I couldn’t imagine myself in death without my children. It would be like trying to die but not bringing your arm with you. I mean, they are such an extension of me.' And so, she said 'I had to kill them.' Plus, they would have gone to live with the father who was an abuser anyway.
And I just sat there and thought, ‘Oh my god — could any of this have happened to me? Yes, absolutely.’
Did you find yourself thinking often during the interviews?
Oh yeah. Even if their childhood wasn’t like my childhood, I was so grateful that it wasn't my childhood. They had just gotten the wrong parents: the first question we asked them would be, 'What what was your childhood like?' And they would say things like, 'Well, pretty normal, just like everybody else’s. I mean, I was sexually abused from the age of five until I left home. But other than that, everything was normal.'
We were like, 'What? That's not normal.' But their lens was so different from ours. You know, aren’t we lucky we didn't have their lives. Had we had their lives, I’m not sure what my life would have turned out like.
Did a lot of the mothers build a narrative to help themselves cope with the remorse?
They did. There were some, not very many, who clearly had no remorse. But I would say the vast majority were very remorseful, and were trying to cope with it in whichever way they could. Like the first woman I spoke to, who I described earlier. Her quote ends our book:
The bad parts of me, I think I kind of suppress them so much that I don't need to hate myself. There's nothing exceptionally good, nothing exceptionally bad about me. I’m OK. I hate what I did, I accept that I can't change it. I try to go on, and I hope that I don't make a mockery of their deaths in the process.
And that's where she had moved to. The women were at different levels of reconciling [their actions] with themselves. She was very advanced in how she was handling it but some women were still kind of shocked. It's almost like stages; you can see them moving from one place to another.
Is that because there had been more time since her crime?
Yeah. She’d been in for 25 years. Early on when you first get in, you are either trying to get out or you’re denying it. She had tried to escape a couple of times. But then she was resigned to never getting out and prison became her home, her culture. She knew she was never going to leave.
What kinds of patterns, if any, did you notice in the mental states of women who had committed the crime more recently?
I think about this one woman who was probably in her 20s. She pretty much cried throughout the entire interview. She was just so, so sad and so upset. She wasn't denying that she did it, she was just really sad that she’d done it and that she would never see her son again.
But there are other phases too: there’s a phase where they’re just really angry with their trial and the system. And they’re not really even focusing on [the fact] that they did something really bad.
There’s this kind of sad irony: women whose children have died from neglect or assault — so they hit the child and the child falls into the wall and cracks his skull and dies, for example — tend to get shorter sentences but have the least remorse. I think it's because they didn't feel like they were responsible. You know, ‘My father whooped me and I whoop my kid and it was just an accident.’
You talk about remorse. What about grief?
I think it’s like that woman I mentioned who’d been in for 25 years: she's [already] gone through the grieving, and now she's just trying to reconcile this with herself. She said, “I hope I see them again when I die.” She was sorry she had done it, but I don’t think she was really grieving anymore. So I would definitely say that the grief probably comes first; they grieve, and then they’re able to experience remorse after that. Those were two very separate processes for her.
I imagine most people assume mothers who kill their children are sociopathic, but that’s clearly not the case.
So our two biggest groups were mothers who killed with intent and then mothers who killed through neglect.
Obviously, the neglectful mother did not intend to do it. That’s the 25-year-old mom who has five kids: she didn't finish high school, she doesn’t know how to parent; she wasn’t parented well herself, the father offers no support… Maybe one day the older kids are taking care of the younger kids and the mother goes to answer the phone and forgets the kid is in the bathtub, and the kid drowns.
Whereas, the mothers who kill with intent so frequently have mental illness that sometimes they can't even wrap their heads around [what they’ve done]. They're totally mentally ill. Sometimes that's a transient condition and sometimes it's not. If it's postpartum it's transient, and then when they don't have postpartum anymore they feel very sorry and sad. But they didn't at the time, because when they killed the child, [they believed] the child was the devil.
The women who killed with intent are very different to the other groups. They tend to be older. Many of them went to great lengths to adopt or to get pregnant. I mean, they’re often described as perfect parents. It's always stunning how afterwards, people are like: 'I can’t believe she killed her kids. She was such a good parent.'
So the mothers who kill with intent are often the most invested mothers. Before the murder, obviously. It seems so back-to-front.
Oh yeah. And you know, they tend to not kill just one; they kill them all. They tend to not use guns or knives; they use smothering or drowning or suffocating or poisoning or something like that. Occasionally I see a knife or a gun, but they don't do that very often.
A lot of mothers in the intent category have mental illness. Susan Smith, who drowned her two kids in the pond, wasn’t actively seeking a therapist, but she had a long history of really serious mental health issues: depression, suicide, sexual abuse as a child.
And Andrea Yates, the most famous case of filicide we’ve probably ever had in the US, was clearly mentally ill. She had stacks of medical records, which I reviewed. She had postpartum psychosis, and she was described as a wonderful mother. Always dedicated to her children. Everybody was surprised.