Falling

When Naomi Gaines threw her babies into the river, we were shocked. The truth is, her impulse isn't all that rare.

The Official Version
Naomi Gaines told police that she spent the early hours of July 4 at her townhouse in St. Paul's McDonough Homes public housing complex, cleaning and doing laundry. Her two older children, ages 7 and 2, were visiting relatives in Chicago. After she was done cleaning, she took the babies, 14-month-old twin boys, to a family picnic at Battle Creek Park.

That evening, she drove downtown and parked. She put the toddlers in a stroller and walked across the Wabasha Street Bridge toward the Taste of Minnesota celebration under way on Harriet Island. Thousands of people were waiting for fireworks to start.

Gaines made one round trip over the bridge, looking for other single moms, or even just a friendly face, and then again walked away from downtown, toward Raspberry Island. On her way, Gaines told police, she bumped her stroller into someone who told her to watch where she was going. She told police later it felt like people were looking at her.

Shortly after 9:00 p.m., Gaines stopped near the southeast corner of the bridge. She took one of the twins, Supreme Knowledge Allah, out of the stroller, kissed him, told him she was sorry, and threw him into the Mississippi River. Then she kissed his brother,

Sincere Understanding Allah, and threw him in too. Gaines stripped off her pants and shirt, climbed up on the railing and fell backward into the water between Raspberry Island and the river's south bank. She yelled "Freedom" as she dropped.

A man visiting from LaCrosse was able to pull Gaines and Supreme Knowledge out of the river. Sincere Understanding had bobbed briefly to the surface after hitting the water, but was pulled under by the current. His body was found two days later, 11 miles downriver.

At Regions Hospital, Gaines explained to police that it hadn't been her plan to kill her children, just herself. But at the last minute, she realized she didn't want her kids to have to live in this world without her.

She told them she would "rather be dead than live in a place where I'm not free to walk around, free to be who I am, I'm not free to see other moms out, single black moms with their kids, enjoying their kids." She didn't want to die alone in her apartment, she explained, and that was why she chose a spot where everyone could see her.

Some days later I typed Gaines's name into Google and found headlines about her from as far away as Uruguay. Why is hers the kind of story no one seems to tire of hearing?

 

An Archetypal Dream

When one of my kids was a newborn, I was plagued by a dream in which I would calmly and without a shred of rancor drop him off a balcony. As he fell, impossibly slowly, I'd think to myself, "Oh shit, I'm not going to be able to undo this."

I'd jerk awake to find myself in the TV's blue glow in a rocking chair in my living room, terrified that I'd dropped the baby from my arms, although I never had. And then I'd sit there holding him close in the middle of the night, exhausted and deeply ashamed I could think such things.

The dream lasted mere seconds, but to this day I can't tolerate the sight of either of my children near any kind of precipice.

Imagine my surprise to discover my dream, essentially, in sociologist Susan Maushart's book, The Mask of Motherhood. "I found myself in a second-story bedroom hurling a pile of indistinct little bundles one by one out the window," she wrote. "Eventually, it dawned on me that the bundles were in fact neatly swaddled babies. I was surprised, naturally, but determined to keep on with my work. 'It's a sad business,' I remember thinking to myself in the dream, 'but it simply had to be done.'"

After Naomi Gaines jumped, I called every mother I knew who had ever expressed ambivalent feelings about her children. Like Maushart, I found that virtually all had had what we came to call The Dropping Dream. One threw hers off a ledge, another a window. Two said they'd had the uninvited thoughts while awake.

One friend--who, like Gaines, was a teen when her first child was born--had been scared so badly by the dream that she took her daughter to her pediatrician and, despite her fears that her age already marked her as potentially unfit and the baby would be taken away, confessed. Her entire worldview was changed when the doctor burst out laughing and told her she'd be crazy if she didn't have such thoughts.

Another friend had been so disturbed by her repetitive thoughts of pitching her son over a banister that she did some research. "Part of it could be archetypal, don't you think?" she suggested when I asked. "An image integrated into the collective unconscious of motherhood. When mothers are teetering on the cusp of insanity, as we often are, our subconscious dredges up the image to soothe and scare the shit out of us simultaneously. The absurdity of the thought is what shocks us back into reality. Those of us who have enough support, just enough sleep, and most importantly, impulse control, merely entertain the thought as a psychological release."

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