04.17.14 5:00 PM ET
The Psychology of Mothers Who Kill Their Children
The mug shots have gone viral: wide-eyed, scared-looking Megan Huntsman, 39. The speculation is rife: how could this 39-year-old from Pleasant Grove, Utah, have allegedly killed six of her babies soon after their birth without anyone noticing she was even pregnant?
But the bigger question is what emotional drivers pushed her to do such a thing, one she has reportedly admitted.
So far, the details in Huntsman’s case, which emerged this weekend, remain murky. But filicidal references—those of parents killing their children—are rife in culture and literary tradition. They range from the biblical, i.e. Abraham planning to sacrifice son Isaac to please a God who liked tests of dedication, to the mythological, as in the story of Medea, who in the Greek myth popularized by tragedian Euripedes, killed the children she had with husband Jason, to punish him for leaving her for another woman.
Philipp Resnick, psychiatry professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, proposed filicide types where possible motivations might be inferred, such as altruistic filicide (where the parent believes they are killing the child for its own good—the most commonly cited reason), unwanted child filicide, spouse revenge filicide, accidental filicide, or filicide in the throes of a psychotic episode.
But what Huntsman has confessed to doing falls under the specific category of multiple neonaticides—a term coined in 1969 by Resnick, meaning the killing of a child in its first 24 hours of life—which, scientists say, are a rarity.
Resnick told The Daily Beast that although neonaticides are not unheard of, multiple neonaticides are very rare.
“Repeated neonaticide usually occurs where a woman has not had her earlier crimes discovered,” said Resnick. “I can’t comment directly on what the motive was in Utah. But it is a relatively uncommon phenomenon to [commit neonaticides] repeatedly, especially as a married woman.”
Contrary to what one would initially assume, Resnick said neonaticides are not immediately associated with psychiatric problems, saying social issues, such as the fear of being stigmatized, for example by having a child outside of marriage, play a definitive role. In some contexts, neonaticides could even be motivated by the need to allocate resources, he said—making neonaticide a sort of belated form of family-size control.
“Historically, Eskimos living in harsh environments would have twins and send one away on an ice float to die, because the mother may not have enough milk to support two,” he said. “If the circumstances are such that someone does not have the finances, or the wherewithal to raise a child, they may kill that child—that is a social problem in contradistinction to a psychiatric problem.”
This sort of Darwinian line of thinking is also mentioned in recent research published in Forensic Science International in February. A team lead by Timothy Mariano, a third-year psychiatry resident in the Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Rhode Island, who examined more than 94,000 filicide cases from a 32-year-period in the United States, found infants to be at the greatest risk of filicide.
“Relatively few resources have been invested in an infant relative to an older child,” Mariano wrote in the report.
However, Sandra Wheatley, a British psychologist specializing in family psychology, pointed out the choice to kill a child—whether neonaticide or filicide—represents a conscious decision difficult to classify as healthy.
“The fact is, when somebody decides to end the life of a child, whether they are just born, or whether they have been around for longer—that is still a decision they weigh up, with the pros and cons,” Wheatley said. “It is very hard for most of us to understand how somebody could weigh up the evidence and come up on the side of death in that scenario, and consider that as the best outcome to act upon.”
A similar case in France made headlines in 2010, as Dominique Cottrez, then 45, confessed to killing eight of her new-born babies and hiding their bodies in the house she shared with her husband in a village near Lille.
“In both cases, the husband discovered the bodies of the babies in shoeboxes in the garage,” said Wheatley, who followed the case in France closely, and is following the Utah case as well. “To put the bodies in the garage—which is quite a male domain—makes the bodies quite vulnerable to find. Why would she not bury them?”
She added, “You don’t need a degree in psychology to work out that something in their thought process was not logical. In order to think that this could be a way to behave, you have got to say that somewhere in there, they were not quite well.”
Mariano and his co-authors say looking at chemical issues linked to other psychiatric conditions, such as depression and schizophrenia, might help in understanding the circumstances for at least a portion of some filicide. A disturbance in levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in functions such as sleep, memory, mood and behaviour could be of partial influence, they say.
Still, Mariano said not all conclusions in their research were expected.
“One surprising finding that we did not expect was that for infant victims, fathers and mothers were equally likely to commit filicide,” he told The Daily Beast. “This bucks the long-held belief that mothers were more likely to kill infants.”
In any case, increased understanding of psychopathology in understanding filicide can only help, he said.
“I also think that it is most important to improve our screening for prevention; to that end, knowing more about the types of individuals who are filicide victims or offenders could help identify at-risk individuals,” Mariano said. “(Huntsman’s situation) seems to be a highly unusual situation and hopefully further forensic psychiatric and law enforcement investigation will shed some light on the case.”