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'90s FAMILY : Moms With Urges to Kill Give Their Side of Story


In the wake of Susan Smith's admission that she had deliberately drowned her two boys in a Union, S.C., lake, I heard from some mothers who were neither shocked nor outraged.

They contacted me because nearly all the reports on Smith's possible motives have relied on professionals who speculated from the outside in on her mental state. These mothers wanted to describe it from the inside out. What they wanted most of all was understanding of a nearly unbearable reality, so that seemingly competent mothers who are secretly out of control can get help before it's too late.

One, a 52-year-old artist, said she tried to kill her 2-year-old daughter 30 years ago.

Looking at Smith in family videos, unsmiling and detached, she said: "It was like looking at myself."

Over the phone, she spoke without remorse of how she was struck--seemingly out of nowhere--by a homicidal compulsion.

"I went to bed one night and the next morning when I woke up, I was not myself. I had an overwhelming urge to kill my daughter. Something just took me over. . . . I had no emotional feeling of attachment to my daughter."

She was afraid to go into the kitchen because that was where the knives were and she felt she might use them. One day, after her daughter had gone to sleep, she said she carried out an urge to get a pillow. "I still remember bending down and holding it over her head and pushing."

Then, she said, "Something stopped me. Somewhere in the back of my brain was this light." Its presence, she said, suggested that she would be stronger if she believed she could be and tried to get better.

Her symptoms subsided gradually over the next year. "The only way to describe this hell was if you have a trench and put three feet of mud in it and you're in a pair of 10-pound boots walking through it. That's what it was like."

Another mother, who did not want to speak openly, described having once had a passing thought of killing her children.

Such honesty is rare in a culture where new mothers are at once worshiped and isolated, sometimes stripped of their former identities and yet expected to cope with difficult circumstances.

In reality, maternal depression is not limited to the period after birth. A recent screening of 233 New Hampshire mothers of toddlers found depressive symptoms at double the rate of women in general and two to three times higher than other mothers.

While some mothers have been helped by medication, sociologists believe the primary solution is social support. Sheila Kitzinger, a social anthropologist and author of "A Year After Childbirth" (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1994), said maternal depression is rare in societies where people are close, or where families and neighbors offer continuous support. Mothers of adopted children also experience depression, she noted.

Even among those who experience psychotic episodes, the majority recover within a year, she said.

Those who cross the line, of course, include clear-cut cases of cold-blooded crime--such as parents who kill their children to collect insurance money. The courts will have to categorize Smith and what she did.

But all the depressed mothers Kitzinger interviewed--those who have hurt their children and those who are afraid they might--had one trait in common: None felt they had anyone to talk to about it.

One of the hardest tasks of parenthood is learning to ask for help or accepting help when someone offers it. And yet, help can be found--from doctors, from hot lines (1 (800) 4-A-CHILD) or from other mothers who can empathize.

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