The murderous mother. We’ve seen her face before, splashed across the front pages of newspapers and magazines. On television she’s the headline story, viewers captivated by the image of a woman seated in court, usually stone-faced, in an orange jumpsuit. A figure born to sell tabloids, a monster ready to be crucified by the public.
For me, two faces come to mind: A tearful Susan Smith on the cover of TIME, an apathetic-looking Andrea Yates on the cover of USA Today—both with headlines questioning their motives, their sanity. There’s never a clear-cut reason, of course, for their crimes. Mental illness, depression, a troubled marriage, religious zealotry—the list is long and complex, just like the women themselves.
In middle school, I learned of Susan Smith’s crimes. It blared from the car radio when my mother picked me up from school, it jumped out at me from every television in the house. What I found most shocking was that she had invented a Black gunman on which to pin her filicide. “I can’t sleep, I can’t eat,” she said, crying, “I can’t do anything but think about [her children].” In her home state of South Carolina, one can imagine how this false allegation affected local Black communities. When it became clear that she had murdered her own children, the outrage set in, and the nation was sent reeling, terror and bewilderment sweeping into the collective consciousness.
A homeroom teacher, sensing unease, brought up Smith as a point of discussion. After a few minutes of silence, someone raised their hand and said parents murdering their children isn’t anything new—it’s in the Bible, too. A cacophony of voices shot through the classroom. Angry students explained that passages from the Bible require proper examination, an impossibility if one cannot acknowledge the cultural and historical framework in which the scripture was written. But employing context, it became clear to me then, was a feature not available to just anyone. So what do we think of Susan Smith?, our teacher asked us, again. This time, voices were calm, conclusive: A monster, a villain, a demon. Death, we all agreed on, was the only ending suitable for someone like her, someone like that.
I didn’t think of Susan Smith again until college. There I learned of Procne, Medea, Agave. Of course the world of myth has their fair share of misbehaving mothers. As the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, I have long been terrorized by the story of La Llorona. I am careful, even now as an adult, not to wade too long in dark shallow waters, lest I be dragged and drowned by a screaming banshee.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Procne learns of her husband’s assault on her sister, and in retaliation kills their son, chopping up his little body and serving it to her husband as a meal. For Procne, revenge is a dish best served piping hot and heaped onto a plate. And Medea, too, kills her children to exact revenge on her cheating husband, Jason. The act of filicide is not without its troubles, however. In Euripides’s version, Medea laments in her opening speech that her husband’s abandonment has left her with “no fatherland, no house, and no means to turn aside misfortune.” Having left her family years ago to marry Jason—and enraging her father in the process—she is now without a husband, stripped of her roots, and has no recourse to reassemble her family unit.
For ancient audiences, this speech in the play would most likely be “a reflection of Athenian social conditions,” as classicist Bernard M. W. Knox writes, a life where women “were confined to the home” and had little agency outside its walls. That said, women today would have no problem understanding Medea’s pain behind her husband’s infidelity. What we might not understand was her eventual decision to kill her children. “With the death of her children,” Elizabeth K. Markovits writes in Future Freedoms, “the Athenian woman has no meaning left, no purpose.”
With Medea, that lack of meaning generates a new one: Children now dead, she is neither a wife nor a mother, has purposely severed the social contracts that once made it so. She is free. At the same time, Markovits also reminds us that Medea is “not simply a deviant, horrifying mother,” that in the end, her capacity for violence is what allows her “to overcome all pain to re-establish her honor.”
Absolutely no one would say the same of Susan Smith. Rumors swirled that she had killed her children in order to be with her lover, Thomas Findlay. In this sense, her affair likens her to Jason. But part of that rumor bleeds into a Medea-esque line of thought: One cannot be a wife and a mother with a crumbling marriage and a lover on the side—for a woman in this position, something has to give. Jason left his family to start over with someone else, but for whatever reason, Smith was not willing to do the same. In court, Findlay shared that Smith had “a secret affair with her stepfather,” a man who was rumored to have molested her when she was a teenager. With a backstory ripe with taboo and abuse, it seems Smith had no house and no ‘fatherland’ to come home to, either.
Prosecutors were quick to shut down the ‘abuse excuse’ for the reasoning behind Smith’s crimes. Like Medea, she was painted as no victim. And like Medea, that made it all the more difficult to define her. “A vixenish adulteress…a frightened wife, a skillful liar and a doting mother,” were the varied descriptions from witnesses. She admits, on that day, she had driven around town for awhile, initially planning on taking her own life instead. Medea, too, grapples with her own decision, asking herself if she can go through with committing a “most unholy deed.” In fact, Medea questions her motives repeatedly, making her seem, at times, more human than Smith.
Nearly 27 years later, Smith is still a topic of interest. A TV movie of her life aired in 2000; she was the focus of an American Justice episode in 2004. In 2015, she wrote from her cell: “I am not the monster society thinks I am.” Monster or not, mothers have long been characters that people find fascinating, especially in fiction. Rachel Mans McKenny, in an article for Electric Literature, writes that a recent trend in literature “makes the mothers themselves the locus of horror,” often due to “mothers…trapped within their walls, with little opportunity to escape.” Two millennia later, those Athenian social conditions pop up and still ring true.
When motherhood appears in fiction, we are given the space to focus on maternal themes, analyze female characters and ruminate on their behaviors. With myth and fiction, we can move “away from reality,” as Mans McKenny points out, and move closer to “better understand [the reader’s] world.” With myth and fiction, we have a fuller story, a bigger picture. It’s what allows us to sympathize with Sethe and leaves us pitying Agave. Like my schoolmates once intimated, context is a gift.
If literature is a catalyst for dialogue, how do we then talk about women like Susan Smith? Why does it feel like we are given more dimensionality on the page than in the flesh? It’s difficult when we consider that literary narrative and media narrative are two separate things. The latter can often rely too heavily on headlines whose purpose is to shock, enrage. Even before the Internet, headlines on Smith were steeped in clickbait-like fashion: DOES SHE DESERVE TO DIE?, Susan Smith’s Lawyer vs. the Electric Chair, Staring Into the Heart of the Heart of Darkness. It is these stories and articles that render Smith into a mythical beast, bigger and scarier than Medea herself.
I thought of Smith again when I became a mother. Thinking back to her crimes, I found myself disgusted by her in a way I wasn’t before. I worried her brand of monstrosity was contagious, or worse, genetic. What I found was that motherhood was just as much a struggle outside my home as it was inside. In public, people told me my son was too skinny for a baby—some asked if I was feeding him. (Yes, really.) When I shared that I had stopped breastfeeding, I was chastised. Never was there a need to ask for parenting advice—it was flung at me like a dirty dishrag (which, some will insist, should be made only of organic cotton). There was no reason to tell anyone that I decided to go back on antidepressants: Parenthood begets judgment. On Facebook, I was told by a stranger in the comments section (note: never read the comments section) that I was a bad mother because my son was vaccinated. In the throes of my new-mom exhaustion, I thought maybe stories like Medea’s aren’t really about filicide and whether or not we have contempt for these acts but rather, the ways in which women are able to seek retaliation, regain power, recapture a sense of self.
I want to be clear: I do not think Susan Smith should be freed from prison, I do not think she should be pitied.
But while we might never learn why mothers like Smith make their fateful choices, we should acknowledge the dialectical elephant in the room. There is a problem in the gendered response we give to these women—mythical or otherwise—by claiming they failed at the one job they were expected to value most. We wag a finger, we shake our heads. And we feel, deep in our bones, that we have every right to do this. And maybe we do. But I do think we can begin to address motherhood in the same way we let it breathe through fiction: Women who, as Mans McKenny writes, are allowed to be “eely,” mothers who struggle with “mental health care and child care and sexual satisfaction,” mothers whose identities do not begin and end with childbirth, and that giving birth does not spackle every crack in our psyche, does not fulfill our every need. We can be good, bad, everything in between—more than cautionary tales of monsters lurking in the dark.