Falling

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

There we paused, terrified at the idea that the line between Gaines and us could be so thin and so purely circumstantial. The following week I ran the results of my informal canvass past a local Jungian analyst, Mary Ann Miller. "It's a compensatory fantasy," she explained. "This is universal. It's part of the child archetype, the dreams, the fairy tales, the fantasies of needing and wanting to kill the baby. And anyone who has a balanced psyche can usually handle this."

Carl Jung posited that we all have a set of common psychic organs, just as we have physical organs. Jung deemed these "psychic organs," which he called archetypes, to be universal. Which is to say, regardless of class or culture, people all over the world find themselves contemplating the same images and themes, which arise in response to universal dilemmas. In this model, Miller explained, dreams are guided by the feelings of the dreamer. And so, among other things, we moms who envisioned our babies falling were really seeing ourselves tumbling into space.

Whatever choices we go on to make about raising our kids, assuming we're privileged enough to have choices, all new mothers lose their freedom and wholesale chunks of their identities. And there's no going back.

Gaines had four children, three of them under the age of three. She's a poor, young, single woman with a history of mental illness whose troubles are on file in official buildings all over town. One can't help wondering, by the time she kissed her twins goodbye, how much of her identity was left.

 

Hysteria

Consider all of this, and then consider the notion that her womb might have driven Naomi Gaines mad.

The word hysterectomy derived from the notion that female hysteria could be resolved by the removal of the womb. Certainly the idea is archaic and insulting. But given what we now know about postpartum depression, it's also not entirely crazy.

The so-called baby blues--the sudden drop in hormones that follows childbirth--affect 80 percent of new mothers. Fifteen to 40 percent of women will suffer a new episode of mental illness within a year of childbirth. Perhaps one in 500 will become psychotic. Women who suffer from postpartum depression once are at high risk of experiencing it again following subsequent births; often the recurrences are worse.

"Women in the first year of motherhood are five times more likely to suffer mental illness than at any other stage in their life cycle and a horrifying 16 times more likely to develop a serious, psychotic illness," Maushart writes. "Research also shows that mothers of preschool children who lack supportive partners are at greater risk of clinical depression than any other adult group. Estimates of the incidence of mild depression among mothers with preschool children range from 30 to 80 percent."

Gaines had her first baby on January 1, 1996, at the age of 16. She had grown up in Milwaukee, but moved here after the birth of Jalani, now 7, to be with his father. According to court documents, she and Nathaniel Ellis were married on March 19, 1999, and separated either two weeks or nine months later. At the time, Gaines had worked as a receptionist at Highland Family Physicians, and was making $19,200. The only property listed in their divorce file was Gaines's 1990 Pontiac Grand Am, on which she owed $5,600.

Months after their divorce was final, Ellis petitioned the court for custody of his son, complaining that Gaines was too unstable and too busy to care for the boy properly. Gaines, he wrote, "works eight-hour shifts and goes to school for five more hours. Her school and job is of great importance to her and she has only a few hours a day with our son. And also she has once attempted to take her own life and on a few occasions she that and [sic] well as written that she next time would take hers and my son because no one in Minnesota can support him. Also, she has many personality [sic] and believed to be a manic depresser [sic]."

Gaines complained about Ellis, too. According to court records and newspaper accounts, after the divorce, Gaines accused Ellis of storming into her house and breaking her car windows. Over the next three years, police would be called to her home 21 times. Two of the calls were listed as responding to an attempted suicide, two others to allegations of domestic violence.

Nonetheless, Gaines and Ellis went on to have a daughter, Kaylah, who is now two. After the girl was born, family members told the Pioneer Press, Gaines was diagnosed with postpartum depression "and other mental illnesses."

Last August, shortly after her twins, Supreme Knowledge and Sincere Understanding, were born, Gaines was "found wandering the streets talking and singing nonsensically with her four small children" according to court records. She was taken to Abbott Northwestern Hospital where doctors noted that she displayed "manic behavior" and required restraints.

The hospital petitioned the court to commit Gaines as mentally ill, with a diagnosis of "major depression variant, with psychotic features," and to allow "intrusive treatment with neuroleptic medication." The judge postponed making a decision for six months because Gaines agreed to stay in treatment and to allow herself to be medicated. She complied, and in February the commitment proceedings were dropped. Friends and relatives told both daily papers that Gaines continued to ask for help.

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