Reading "Bad" Mothers: The Politics of Blame in Twentieth Century America, ed. Molly Ladd-Taylor & Lauri Umansky
A week or so ago, I stumbled across Annalee Newitz's essay "Murdering Mothers" on Google Books in "Bad" Mothers: The Politics of Blame in Twentieth Century America (1998), ed. Molly Ladd-Taylor & Lauri Umansky. Just when I had decided that this was a really terrific essay, Google Books refused to give me any more pages, and so I had to buy the book. Annalee Newitz is one of the editors of io9, a website about which I have ambiguous feelings because of it's excessive commercialism and Hollywood orientation. This essay raises my opinion of her substantially.
Newitz tries to make sense of pop culture's fascination with murderous moms, a fascination that I think has grown substantially in the decade since Newitz wrote the essay. (As I have remarked before, in this house, we refer to CNN as Child-Abuse News Network.)
She discusses the cases of Susan Smith (who claimed her children were abducted but was later convicted of murdering them); Margaret Bean-Borg, a Boston psychiatrist sued for having an unhealthy personal relationship with a male patient who later committed suicide; and Hedda Nussbaum (an abused woman who allowed Joel Steinberg to beat their adopted daughter to death, for which he was convicted of manslaughter) as well as Susan Brownmiller's novel Waverly Place, based on the case.
The portion of the essay I liked best was the discussion of Brownmiller's novel, in which she discusses the Nussbaum case as emblematic of the failures of feminism:
It's ambiguous as to whether Brownmiller is suggesting that Judith's life is a result of rejecting feminism , or as a result of feminism rejecting her. . . . That a woman like Hedda Nussbaum could exist points up the failures of feminism in a way that the defeat of the ERA never could: here was a person who should have known better, whose women friends should have known better. Traditional feminism, or what is commonly called second wave feminism, cannot fully account for a woman like Hedda Nussbaum. (p. 384)
In 1989, Brownmiller wrote an OP-ED for the New York Times about the Steinberg trial, which she attended for 11 weeks.
. . . Mr. Steinberg had very specific requirements for a suitable mate. Hardly any woman would do for this lawyer-con man who received his gratification through violence. Mr. Steinberg needed a gullible woman who would be totally under his thumb, a woman willing to abandon her family, her friends, her career and her children for a man she considered a human god. He found his ideal in a woman so narcissistic, so empty at the core despite her beauty, her college education and her professional skills that she would willfully fail to heed the explicit warnings signs that something was terribly wrong in order to stay with her lover.
I think my own view of Hedda Nussbaum is rather more sympathetic than Brownmiller's: Brownmiller, having watched the trial, concluded that Nussbaum should not have been given immunity from prosecution. (Andrea Dworkin disagreed, strongly.) So I'll probably avoid Waverly Place, much as I like Newitz's analysis of it concerning feminism's ambiguous relationship with women and women's ambiguous relationship with feminism. My sympathy for Nussbaum comes from consideration of what a powerful influence a psychopath can exert on his target.
The 2006 murder of Peggy Perez-Olivo by her disbarred attorney husband seems to me a companion piece to the Nussbaum situation. Though Carlos Perez-Olivo was ultimately convicted of his wife's murder, all of his children testified in his defense at his trial. Almost no one locally would speak about the case to the press. So when he was convicted, the TV camera crew showed up on my doorstep wanting me to talk about justice for Peggy, when it should have been her neighbor, Hillary Clinton, and her boss, the principal of my children's elementary school, who spoke out. That Perez-Olivo could compel his children's support speaks to his power and control over his family.
But where were the feminists of Westchester to talk about the matter as a case of domestic violence? I seemed to be one of a very few willing to talk about the matter, so I was contacted by the press again and again. And I only faintly knew the victim, who was a well-liked special ed. teacher at my son's school. The silence was, to me, truly unsettling.
Didn't anyone else around here (other than the press and the cops) care that she'd been murdered? That seems to me an even bigger failure of feminism than what one might extract from the Nussbaum case. Nussbaum was subject to mind-control by a psychopath, but Westchester's feminists have no such excuse. Surely, I'm not the only feminist within a 10-mile radius of Chappaqua? Surely people care if someone kills you? (Or maybe they really don't care if you live or die?)
On the other hand, the press found no shortage of people willing to vocalize about another Westchester mom, Madalyn Primoff, a Scarsdale mother whose Bad Parenting Day (she made her squabbling kids get out of the car and then drove around the block, intending to come back for them) made her world-wide infamous before the anti-climax when all charges against her were dropped.
It's not that Westchester doesn't like to talk, it just doesn't want to talk about the murder of Peggy Perez-Olivo. Meanwhile, the Primoff case was the biggest story that our local paper has ever broken, and so they're hungry for whatever Bad Mommy Tales they can get. (Women of Westchester: Disconnect the phone, stop leaving the house, and don't answer the door; infamy awaits you!) It was, in fact, thinking about the media-mobbing of Madalyn Primoff that sent me in the direction of trying to understand Bad Mother Tales, and to Annalee Newitz's essay.
I've now read about two-thirds of "Bad" Mothers, which is perhaps a little more than I can stand in a day. There is story after story of outrageous and unwarranted government (and sometimes media) intervention in mothers' lives. And things have gotten much worse since this book was published. How many justified reasons for paranoia can one stand in a day?
Particularly memorable essays among the others I read include:
- Mending Rosa's Working Ways: A Case Study of an African American Mother and Breadwinner by Karen W. Tice
- Antiracism and Maternal Failure in the 40s and 50s by Ruth Feldstein, and
- On Being the "Bad" Mother of an Autistic Child by Jane Taylor McDonnell