No one will ever know what demons overtook the mind of 30-year-old Leisa Jones. The mother of four from Staten Island, New York, originally came across as a victim. Authorities initially thought that her 14-year-old son C.J. had murdered her and all his siblings before setting the house ablaze. Now it appears that C.J. was the victim, along with his brothers and sisters, and that Leisa killed them by slashing their throats before burning the house down around all five of them.
It’s a crime few can comprehend—a mother killing her own children doesn’t fit into the maternal paradigm we understand. Even a murderous father is easier to grasp than a mom, who isn’t supposed to be capable of such acts. Yet incidents in which mothers kill their kids are more common than most people think, and the past two weeks have seen an unusually high number of such unspeakable incidents.
This belief that a mother’s love is innate, says Scheper-Hughes, is the reason that doctors and social workers often miss signs that a woman is about to harm her own child.
Just a few days after Leisa Jones was determined to be the perpetrator of the Staten Island fire, 37-year-old Micaela Jackson of the Bronx shot her 12-year-old son Kenneth to death with a handgun, and then turned the weapon on herself. And that same week, in Irving, Texas, 30-year-old Saiqa Akhter suffocated her 5- and 2-year-old kids with a wire because, she said, the children were autistic.
But perhaps most horrific of all is the case of Dominique Cottrez, a 45-year-old Frenchwoman who recently confessed to suffocating her eight newborns over the course of the last two decades. Cottrez, who is overweight, concealed the pregnancies from her husband and two grown daughters. The massacre came to light when two of the cadavers were discovered in the yard of a house where she once lived. An autopsy suggested that they had been killed in the late 1980s. The remains of six more infants were found in plastic bags in her garage.
Why would a woman do this when, by nature, mothers are supposed to be nurturing, loving, and protective of their children? Because, says Dr. Nancy Scheper-Hughes, professor of medical anthropology at UC-Berkeley, that’s simply not true. “Something that is very pernicious in society is the view that ‘mother love’ is natural and that all women are born with this capacity to love infants,” she says. “Mother love is not a myth—it exists, but it has to be learned, it has to be taught, because while there are some biological triggers, they're not strong enough to prevent many women from either neglecting, abusing, or not caring well for children.”
This belief that a mother’s love is innate, says Scheper-Hughes, is the reason that doctors and social workers often miss signs that a woman is about to harm her own child. According to Scheper-Hughes, “A woman might say, 'I told my mother, or the doctor, that I'm really having a hard time, that I really don't like my baby, and sometimes I feel like killing him.’ But the people they talk to say, 'Oh, well every mother feels that from time to time, but don't worry, you are a good mother, you do love him.’ All because people don't want to even imagine that a mother might not love her children.”
The cases in the Bronx and Staten Island are complex, because the mothers committed suicide. According to forensic psychiatrist Margaret Goni, when filicide (the term for when a parent kills a child that’s more than a year old) is associated with suicide, it could be because the mother feels like she can't abandon the children even if she decides to kill herself. “But,” she says, “it can also be done to relieve suffering, if the mother feels that the victim is suffering. This can be real or imagined, meaning that it can be psychotic thinking that the child is suffering. They might want to relieve the child's suffering, and then they kill themselves.”
The case of Dominique Cottrez in France is a bit different because the infants were killed right after they were born, a crime psychiatrists call neonaticide. In such cases, the mothers are often diagnosed as suffering from “denial of pregnancy,” which leads mothers to kill their newborns and discard them like bodily waste. Doctors say that such horrific behavior is possible because, in the mind of the mother, the baby never really existed. For these women, the actual birth usually comes as a shock, as they have suppressed the knowledge that they are pregnant. The result is a Darwinian get-this-thing-out-of-me logic in which the mother merely tries to survive the unexpected birth. Then, experts say, she will usually shift into a mechanical mode in which she is focused on cleaning up the mess, after which she will go back to her “normal” life, often completely unaware of what she’s actually done—leaving her at risk of engaging in the exact same behavior over and over again.
But Cottrez’s case has authorities baffled because she doesn’t seem to fit any sort of recognized profile for perpetrators of neonaticide. “These are commonly immature, emotionally overwhelmed women from strict backgrounds,” explains Dr. Michael Welner, chairman of a forensics consulting group and the prosecution’s principal expert witness in the Andrea Yates case. They usually have “no relationship to the father, are typically young, and often sexually inexperienced. They are neither depressed nor psychotic, but employ massive denial and elaborately conceal pregnancy and seek no prenatal care.” Cottrez, according to statements conveyed to the press by a French prosecutor, “was perfectly conscious of the fact that she was pregnant each time.” (Her lawyer says further psychiatric tests are needed to know what was going on in her mind.)
It’s tempting to believe that any woman who kills her child is crazy. But according to Welner, that presumption should never be made. “Some mothers are mentally ill,” he says, but “some are personality-disordered, some substance-addled, and some are working through conflicts in relationships in tragically foolish ways.” Sometimes it’s a combination of one or more of these factors. Working with these cases, he adds, “teaches you open-mindedness at the outer limits. I confront my prejudices by recognizing that just as all people have good qualities, all people are capable of the unthinkable.”
It is indeed unthinkable, for example, that a woman might kill her child in order to facilitate a romantic relationship with someone who doesn’t want children, or even to get back at an estranged husband. Yet according to Goni, “There are cases where it can be spousal revenge, if there was some conflict with the husband.”
The bottom line, says anthropologist Scheper-Hughes, is that the reasons why a mother kills her child could be as numerous as the reasons why any other killer does what he does.
“We idolize mothers,” she says. But when one of them says she is having trouble bonding with her child, the last thing we should do is play it down and assume her maternal instincts will eventually kick in.
Constantino Diaz-Duran has written for the New York Post, the Washington Blade, and the Orange County Register. He lives in Manhattan and is an avid Yankees fan. You'll find him on Twitter as @ cddNY.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek Magazine since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl, which was inspired by one of his articles. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Reader's Digest, Vibe, Courrier International, Salon, and Los Angeles from five continents. He is based in Paris. Follow him at twitter.com/ericpape