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."

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.

 

Who's Crazy?

At the time my second child was born, Andrea Yates was making headlines, and locally there were still fresh memories of the two Southeast Asian women who had lived, like Gaines, in St. Paul's McDonough Homes public housing complex, and who had each killed several of their children.

The nurses at the well-regarded local hospital where I'd delivered made no fewer than four stops in my room to warn me about postpartum depression. On one of the visits, the nurse told my husband to be on the lookout for a long list of symptoms. "One sure giveaway is if you just can't do anything right or make her happy," the nurse told my husband. "If that happens, immediately take the kids away. She'll be angry, but you just take them and go."

She said all of this in front of me. The husband of a friend who delivered three weeks later at the same hospital got the same lecture, except in that case they waited to talk to him until she was in the shower.

It was all I could do to ask what help I'd be offered in that instance. They do wonderful things these days with antidepressants, the nurse replied.

 

 

The Squeaky Wheel

There's a body of research out there positing that infants are programmed to annoy us on purpose. The theory holds that a baby that makes its needs known by crying and fussing until it's fed, changed, or picked up is a baby with a good chance of surviving infancy. Once satisfied, babies coo and smile and otherwise prime Mom to go ahead and invest in them--to bond, as today's "attachment-centered" parents say.

"If mothers were automatically nurturing, if they evolved to care for any infant born (as essentialists argue), why should infants be selected to expend so much metabolic energy making certain that a mother does so?" asks anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, in Mother Nature. "Any dull, calorie-conserving lump of rapidly developing tissue would suffice."

Think of the fine evolutionary line the human infant must walk: Prime Mom too successfully, and she might just hurl you through that window for real.

 

Filicidal Fun Facts

American infants are now murdered as often as teens, and twice as often as they were 30 years ago, according to federal statistics. If this factoid is surprising, consider that people who kill teens are dangerous to society as a whole. People who kill their babies are only dangerous to their babies.

The United States ranks first in the number of homicides of children under four. Some experts believe that this rate is underreported by up to 50 percent, because it's often tough to prove that an infant did not die of sudden infant death syndrome or "overlying," the accidental smothering by a parent who rolls over on the baby in their sleep.

Nearly half of these cases, or slightly more than one percent of overall homicides, are neonaticides, killings that occur during the first 24 hours of the baby's life. The day a baby is born, its chances of being murdered are 10 times higher than on any other day.

Almost 90 percent of mothers who commit neonaticide are 25 or younger, and the majority are poor, unwed, and probably hid their pregnancies, according to legal and psychiatric research. They are rarely psychotic, although they may experience some kind of dissociation. By comparison, women who commit infanticide, the killing of a baby during its first year, are often psychotic, depressed, or suicidal.

In either case, weapons are almost never used; instead, death usually occurs literally by the parent's hand. Exposure, drowning, strangulation, suffocation, or trauma to the head are common methods.

Women commit two-thirds of neonaticides and infanticides.

Forensic psychiatrist Phillip Resnick parses filicide--the killing of a child by its parent--into five types. Altruistic filicide is the most common. Mothers are most likely to commit this type of homicide, usually as an extension of a suicide attempt. "These mothers see their children as an extension of themselves," Resnick told Psychiatric News. "They do not want to leave a child motherless in a 'cruel' world as seen through their depressed eyes." Less often, a parent kills a child to end its suffering--albeit sometimes an imagined suffering the mother has projected onto the child.

Resnick's other four categories are less common: Acutely psychotic filicide is driven by hallucinations or delirium; unwanted child filicide includes the killing of newborns; in fatal maltreatment filicide, children die as the result of a beating. The last category, revenge on a spouse, is more commonly practiced by fathers than mothers.

In Britain, Canada, Italy, and Australia, infanticide is a separate crime from other types of murder. A woman who kills a child under the age of one who can prove that the "balance of her mind is disturbed" is guilty only of manslaughter. England has a long history of viewing the crime as distinct, passing infanticide laws in 1623, 1922, 1938, and 1978.

Some 25 other countries recognize postpartum depression as a legal defense. The United States isn't one of them. Here, postpartum depression is sometimes raised as part of an insanity defense, but due to a Byzantine twist of reasoning, the gambit rarely succeeds. To be legally insane in most states, one has to be incapable of appreciating that her actions were wrong. Mothers who kill, as we have just seen, tend to have altruistic--if perverted--motives. They know their actions are legally wrong, they just aren't able to see a humane alternative.

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.

From medieval times on, many infants born to women of means were sent to rural areas to be fed and cared for by wet nurses. Of course, many were not in fact nursed enough, or were nursed only until their families' payments stopped, at which point they were at the mercy of an invariably contaminated water supply.

Throughout Europe, millions of infants were turned over to foundling homes, where mortality rates sometimes reached 85 percent. There were 16 such homes in Tuscany alone, Hrdy notes. The largest, Innocenti, received 15,000 infants from 1755 to 1773 alone; two-thirds died before their first birthday. During one year, in the homes opened in Moscow and St. Petersburg during the 18th-century European Enlightenment, 99 percent of infants admitted died. Still, the homes operated for centuries.

"Because there were rarely enough lactating nurses to go around, foundling homes did little more than forestall death from exposure--just long enough to ensure that the baby was baptized," Hrdy writes. "A mother who abandons her infant to a foundling home--even those where mortality rates are in the vicinity of 90 percent--is regarded as unfortunate, but legally and spiritually blameless. Technically, her infant will die of malnutrition or dysentery, not neglect; she did not kill it."

 

 

Christian Rites and the Christian Right
In 1997, Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published an article in the New York Times Sunday magazine exploring the infamous case of the New Jersey teen who gave birth in the bathroom during her high school prom, left her dead baby in a garbage can, and returned to the dance floor. He argued that "normal human motives are not always moral, and neonaticide does not have to be a product of malfunctioning neural circuitry or a dysfunctional upbringing." The legal system, he argued, should deal with these parents accordingly.

For his trouble, Pinker was accused of promoting infanticide. The late conservative columnist Michael Kelly (who died in Iraq in April) raged that Pinker "came out for killing babies." Inevitably, Kelly's right-and-wrong rant veered into the murky waters of whether life begins at birth.

A vast amount has been written on this topic, much of it by social scientists who note that many cultures reserve naming, christening, or other rites of admission to the clan for a time when they're sure that the baby in question is a keeper. Even though christening is a Christian rite, religious antiabortion groups reject this sort of distinction. They would prefer that abortion--and even certain forms of contraception--be termed infanticide.

Minneapolis freelance writer and self-described "Paleo-Conservatarian" Lee Shelton was quick to raise exactly this argument in his online Toogood Report after Gaines tossed her toddlers into the Mississippi. "I contend that in the eyes of a society that has embraced infanticide for the last 30 years, she did exactly the right thing," he ranted. "After all, if she had decided to kill her children a mere 15 months ago, she could have done it in an abortion clinic without anyone taking notice."

Hrdy notes that among the hunter-gatherer !Kung, a woman goes into the bush alone to give birth. If she comes back alone, she is not regarded as a killer. If she comes back with a baby, it is taken into the group and will be protected.

Today, amniocentesis allows us to make that decision months earlier. Although technically the decision of what to do when the results of the test aren't promising is left up to the mother, society has evolved an entire apparatus for deciding what to test for and how to classify the results. Insurance companies cheerfully pay to test the fetus of a 35-year-old woman for Down's syndrome, for instance, but usually won't pay to check for cystic fibrosis on the rationale that a baby's CF might be "managed" for several decades.

 

 

There but for the Grace of God

Mine An Ener chose not to undergo amniocentesis, and gave birth to a girl with Down's syndrome. The baby needed a nasal gastric feeding tube, which required round-the-clock maintenance. Ener is 38, white, married, and a tenured professor at Villanova University. She had recently begun treatment for postpartum depression.

On August 4, Ener finished feeding her baby around 9:00 a.m. She carried the six-month-old girl into the kitchen of her mother's home in St. Paul. She picked up a large knife, and then continued on into the bathroom, where she slit the baby's throat. When medics arrived in response to a 911 call, they found Ener's mother holding her daughter from behind in what the newspapers described as an "embrace." Her hands, still clutching the knife, were crossed over her chest.

According to police, Ener said she didn't want the baby "to go through life suffering." The Pioneer Press printed a profile of Ener under the headline, "A Mother's Losing Struggle." Friends described her as wracked by guilt for her inability to make her daughter well, and for her own failure to cope. Readers who wrote to the Pioneer Press described her as selfish and accused her of taking the easy way out.

Last year an Inver Grove Heights woman smothered her six-month-old daughter, who suffered her entire life from several painful birth defects and who sometimes had several seizures a day. The baby, Amanda Mae, had her very own website where her parents chronicled months of traumatic attempts to sort out the various chromosomal abnormalities she suffered.

Two days after smothering the baby and a day after telling her mother and a trusted friend what she had done, Amanda's mother checked into a suburban motel room and shot herself. There was some brief talk about whether to prosecute the grandmother and the friend who, as a licensed social worker, was obliged to report instances of suspected child abuse.

The final entry on the website notes that Amanda had "gone to be with Jesus": "Psalms 145:18 'The Lord is close to all who call on Him, yes, to all who call on Him sincerely. He fulfills the desires of those who fear Him. He hears their cries for help and rescues them. The Lord protects all those who love Him."

 

Perfection

Several months ago, I tripped across an online bulletin board where dozens of mothers with small children were raving about someone known as the Fly Lady. A few clicks of the mouse and I learned that Fly Lady is the queen bee of a cyber community that holds as its aim the mastery of housework. All new members are treated to an electronic course in FLYing--that is, conquering the chaos children bring to a house. Most of the sample tips looked like those online exercise and diet programs that are so popular: "Week One, cut out lard and take a five-minute walk around the block..."

One tip in particular stuck in my mind. Every night, without exception, followers were to scrub their kitchen sink to a shine. Fly Lady's reasoning is that everyone has time to do this one thing, and looking at a sparkling sink will make you feel empowered.

The newspapers made something of the fact that when police searched Naomi Gaines's house, the beds were made and toys were tucked on shelves. It's as if we expected to find things as out of order there as they were in her psyche. Chances are that with her two older kids in Chicago, she simply had a chance to pick up at last.

Then again, maybe she had already formulated a plan, and wanted to leave things in order. Maybe she feared that the world--the same one that was too cruel to care for her children in her absence--would pass one last unfriendly judgment on her un-shiny sink and, therefore, her mothering skills.

This seems far-fetched, I know. But remember that mothers are expected to be perfect. So when we fail, we are met with scorn and derision. And when the standard is perfection, well, failure is inevitable.

That's not even the cruelest part of the bargain: The ambivalence that's created when a mother realizes she can't live up to this ideal is supposed to remain as buried as the Dropping Dream. The ambivalent mother, we assume, just isn't trying hard enough. Or, worse, she doesn't really love her kids.

Indeed, if you've made it this far in this story, you will have noticed the number of times I seek to convince you that, Dropping Dream and all, I am a loving mother. I have a whole shelf of books by women who confess to feeling ambivalent about the experience of motherhood, and every single volume is littered with entreaties for readers to believe that the author really loves her kids.

And so I say, fuck you, Fly Lady. Most days I don't have time to clean my sink. But more to the point, God help me if I live to see the day where my self-esteem is tied to the sheen of my porcelain.

 

The Obvious Question

On July 7, the Ramsey County Attorney's Office charged Gaines with second-degree murder and with attempted murder in the second degree. Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner says she does not believe Gaines would succeed with an insanity defense. Gaines's attorney has said nothing, but has asked for more time to formulate a plan. In the meantime, Gaines has been committed to a state hospital for 60 days of observation and evaluation.

Set aside

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