Falling

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

Juries' responses are unpredictable. A Texas jury spared Andrea Yates the death penalty, but sent her to prison for life. California mother Susan Eubanks shot her four sons before attempting suicide, and a jury sentenced her to death.

In 1998, Khoua Her, who lived in the same public housing complex as Gaines, pled guilty to six counts of second-degree murder after killing her six children. Two years ago, Mee Xiong, another McDonough Homes resident, stabbed two of her children to death. She is not competent to stand trial and is being treated at a state hospital. If she recovers, she will be tried.

Latrice Jones, the Robbinsdale mother who eviscerated her eight-year-old because she believed he was possessed, last year became one of very few people to be found not guilty by reason of insanity in Minnesota. She was subsequently committed to a state hospital. She did not have to face a jury, though, because prosecutors had agreed that she was insane.

 

Grandiosity

Newspaper accounts say Gaines named her babies Sincere Understanding and Supreme Knowledge in the tradition of an Afrocentric sect split off from the Nation of Islam. The Five Percenters were founded in 1964 by Clarence13X, a onetime follower of Malcolm X. Adherents, many of them prison converts, believe that the "collective black man" is God, and that five percent of the population is righteous. Gaines is said to have been interested in the group's teachings about oppression, but not to have been a practitioner.

How apropos, then, that all three of the mental health professionals I called about Gaines raised the topic of her babies' divine names. "As one feels smaller and smaller," one explained, "one's fantasies become more and more grandiose."

 

Michael Jackson

Berlin, 2002: Grandiosity meets the Dropping Dream.

 

Myths, Fairy Tales, and Buried History

Snow White inspired poisonous jealousy in her mother or, worse, in some versions of the tale, her stepmother.

In "Rock-a-Bye Baby," the cradle falls, and down comes baby.

Medea killed her child in the temple of Hera, in some versions to get revenge on her husband, Jason. Hera, the greatest of all Olympian goddesses, gave birth to a deformed son, Hephaestus, whom she cast out of Olympus. He fell to Earth, where he became a talented goldsmith. In some versions of the myth, Hephaestus is named Vulcan, and he is cast out for trying to protect his mother, who angered his father.

Hansel and Gretel's stepmother convinced their father that in order to save the grown-ups from starvation, he must take his children into the woods and leave them there. The father claimed misgivings, but none so strong as to keep him from taking them back to the forest three times before he finally lost them.

It seems like a bloody story to tell to little kids, until you consider that it was probably created to help kids (and parents) cope with the fear and anguish caused by the very real historic European practice of abandoning babies in the woods.

Like many other animals, humans have always killed some of their young. Researchers have long known that in many species, mothers raise only the offspring that show the most promise. When deciding how many young to invest in, mothers also often factor in their own ability to thrive. In other words, we prefer to invest more resources in raising a smaller number of young than we are biologically capable of producing.

Throughout history, humans have disposed of "surplus" babies in a variety of ways. In many cultures, newborns that didn't pass muster with the clan were (and sometimes still are) buried alive or left to die of exposure. The Inuit used to kill deformed babies and sometimes one of a set of twins. Mojave Indians killed half-breeds at birth. Historically, the Tikopia, who inhabit one of the tiny Solomon Islands, relied on infanticide to enforce zero population growth.

Female infants particularly have been at risk. As late as the 1800s, the Chinese sacrificed newborn daughters, who were an economic drag on a household and did not stand to carry on the family name.

Aristotle, anthropologist Hrdy tells us, recommended plunking newborns into icy water to toughen them. Other cultures, including Germans, Scythians, and some Greeks, dunked babies to cull the weak, "in order to let die, as not worth rearing, one that cannot bear the chilling."

In ancient Rome, newborns were brought to the paterfamilias, who would decide whether the baby was a keeper. Roman law obliged patriarchs to put deformed children to death. Even after the practice became a capital offense in 374 B.C., prosecutions were rare.

Filicide was made a crime as a result of the spread of Christianity in Europe in the 300s (though, as it happens, one of the earliest recorded references to filicide is the biblical story of the near-killing of Isaac by his father, Abraham). The practical problem was that people were still reluctant to raise unwanted infants or ones who seemed unlikely to thrive. In response, many cultures simply created arm's-length approaches for disposing of the babies.

Changelings and other "possessed" or damaged babies could be left, like Hansel and Gretel, in the woods. Elaborate myths evolved to help parents assure themselves that this was something other than abandoning babies to the elements. Left overnight in mystical spots, sick babies might recover. Babies possessed by demons might be waiting, exorcised, in the morning.

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