'[N]ot a Story to Pass On': Constructing Mothers Who Kill
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Toni Morrison has said in her Nobel acceptance speech, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” How we “do language” in judicial decisions about infanticide can perhaps be compared to and informed by fiction such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Beloved provides a fictional account of the life of a historical woman, a slave who escaped to freedom and then attempted to kill all four of her children, successfully killing one when her master came to claim her under the Fugitive Slave Act. In addition to telling a story about infanticide, which not only the typical reader but also characters in the novel find impossible to understand, Beloved is a story about the spectrum of love from hate to smothering affection. The novel suggests that understanding infanticide depends upon a notion of outlaw justice that is grounded in a mother’s private ethics. The mother’s action becomes comprehensible, if at all, only through “love for the other,” through Morrison’s use of legal narrative which helps readers to begin to understand the other. We view the infanticidal mother as “other” as a result of our binary, hierarchized thinking. “Love for the other” can take place when we refuse to label the infanticidal mother as “other,” when we privilege the “other,” and begin to hear pieces of her story from her view, when we allow her to be a speaking subject. Before examining the novel, Part I of this article compares the plot of Beloved with Modern Medea, the nonfiction account of the slave mother who committed infanticide and who served as the inspiration for Morrison’s main character. Part II explores ways in which law constructs definitions of motherhood, especially of mothers who kill their children — by pecularizing women, by silencing women, and by labeling mothers who kill their children as either “bad or mad.” Part III then examines the historical and fictional reaction to infanticide in both Beloved and Modern Medea in order to show how discourse constructs motherhood and how difficult it is to respond to infanticide with love for the other. Both the historical and fictional communities ostracized the slave mother as “other” and refused to understand the circumstances or motivation for the murder. Part III weaves together the narrative threads Morrison uses to help the reader overcome the community’s bias and to understand the mother’s murder. Although the reader may not condone the mother’s action, the reader of Beloved may be able to see her not as “other,” but with “other love” as a speaking subject, and thus perceive the circumstances that led to the infanticide. Part IV of this article is a selected sampling of Texas judicial decisions and news reports of cases of infanticide by Texas mothers from 1899 to the present, and Part V analyzes trial and media responses to the infanticides by Andrea Yates, a Houston mother who drowned her five children. Both Parts IV and V examine how juridico-legal discourse constructs mothers who kill their children. Finally, this article concludes by arguing that legal narratives of infanticide could benefit by striving to fully hear and record the accused mother’s tale not as “other,” but with “other love,” to understand the complexity of a mother’s experience.
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