And we thought we knew about mothers and kids

November 07, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

My friend asks his 11-year-old daughter if she wants to talk. He knows she has heard about the deaths of the two children in South Carolina, and he can see she is upset.

He wants to comfort her. He wants to tell her that most parents -- nearly all parents -- love their children. He wants to say that he loves her and that she is safe.

It's what parents are supposed to do. Except he doesn't get the chance.

Before he can even begin, she says, "Daddy, don't put any more fears into my head."

We've crossed another line. We've found something else to be afraid of.

Children get abused all the time. Some of them die. Every day, some of them die. Many more live in fear or in neglect. But this was somehow different.

We know this story. We watched this mother. She looked like any other mother with two beautiful babies. We saw video of the mom playing with her boys. They didn't look abused. They looked healthy and loved.

What, we thought as the days grew increasingly desperate, could be more tragic than this mother's loss?

Now we know.

We just don't understand.

This was not the infant stuck in a Dumpster by a desperate new mother, perhaps only a child herself.

This was not the drunken stepfather, who, beaten down by life, beats the crying baby until it dies -- while the misguided mother, maybe abused herself, stands by the husband.

This was not even the mythical Medea, who murders her children out of revenge. In long-ago Greece, they already knew what crime would most confound us.

If the stories are right, Susan Smith, once an honor student, once voted most friendly in her high school class, killed her babies because a boyfriend dumped her, saying he didn't want a ready-made family.

That explains nothing, of course. And maybe everything.

The world doesn't promise us much. But we thought we knew about mothers and babies. Now we're not so sure.

Apparently, the boys were alive when the car settled into the lake. The mother might have put them down gently first, as you would a dog. Instead, the children were strapped into their seats as the water bubbled up around them.

This is the hardest part for many people. One report has it that Smith stood watching until the end. There are no words.

This is a mother?

Of course, there are other aspects to the story, including the fact that Smith said the so-called carjacker was a black male. It reminded many of the man in Boston who murdered his wife and blamed a black killer.

However offensive that might be, this is not essentially a story about race. There is something elemental here -- the mother-child bond -- that has been shattered. No one knows quite how to deal with it.

The mother-child bond, any working psychiatrist will tell you, is the strongest of all relationships. And yet, in 1994, we also knew enough to suspect Susan Smith. Many who followed the story on TV were convinced early that she might have done it.

They said she didn't cry enough. They said that when she did cry, there weren't enough tears. They said that, although they couldn't quite put their finger on it, she didn't act the way a mother should.

We think we know how mothers are supposed to act. We know the story of Pam Basu, who was dragged to her death as she tried to rescue the child in the back of her hijacked car. You know your own mother would do as much.

But mothers, the statistics say, kill their children as often as fathers do.

A day after Smith was arrested, a woman in Florida was charged in the murder of her 7-year-old daughter. Her husband, the girl's stepfather, had been arrested earlier.

When Smith was arraigned, she was met by an angry crowd. The townspeople had, of course, been badly betrayed. But the deception wasn't at the root of their anger. It was the act itself. Those who yelled most loudly at Smith were mothers with babes in arms. They couldn't understand how a mother could do this.

Did she really do it because she was afraid of losing a guy? Or was it the divorce? Or money problems? Nothing makes any sense, of course. What's most scary, though, is that it doesn't have to.

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