By now you have certainly heard the awful story about Lacey Spears, a single mother living in New York state whose 5-year-old son Garnett languished with mysterious illnesses for the entirety of his short life, before finally succumbing in January of this year. Suffering from fevers, infections, and, as Spears claimed, “failure to thrive” as an infant, Garnett was started on a feeding tube and kept on it until his tragic death.
In May, news outlets reported that Spears had become a suspect in her son’s death. She had reportedly called a neighbor from the hospital as Garnett lay dying, and asked her to destroy some feeding tube components in her house that may have been used as evidence against her. The neighbor refused her request and instead alerted the authorities.
On Tuesday, June 17, Spears was arrested and charged with second-degree murder for acting with “depraved indifference” that caused her son’s death. Evidence suggested that she had been giving him lethal amounts of salt through his feeding tube, which eventually led to seizures and, finally, death. Investigators suspect that her actions may be a case of “Munchausen syndrome by proxy,” a rare psychological condition in which a caregiver creates, fabricates, or exacerbates a deleterious condition in the person they are supposed to be caring for. It’s usually seen as a twisted cry for attention on the part of the caregiver.
The story is sad, upsetting, and filled with baffling twists and tawdry turns (including Garnett’s “two” dads—the biological one, and the allegedly fictitious one that Spears invented and killed off), best chronicled in a series of stories on the website for The Journal News, a regional newspaper in New York.
But it seems that the story is too tragically familiar to have legs in the national and international media. As disturbing and lurid as the details are, a mom responsible for the death of one child isn’t quite sensational enough to make it out of the local news. So the media latched onto a thread that appeared first in The Journal News’s coverage, and the story took off.
Lacey Spears, it seems, is a Mom Who Uses Social Media.
On its website, The Journal News says Spears’s “online circle cried with her at news of another hospitalization, rejoiced with her as they saw the sickly boy grow, offered prayers and support,” and calls her a “fixture” on Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace (which apparently still exists). In later headlines, as the story traveled across the various news sites, Spears became a “Social Media Mom,” and, inexplicably, a “Mommy Blogger.” I say “inexplicably” because, while Spears does have a blog, she appears to have posted on it exactly twice since launching it in 2001, once with a photo essay chronicling her day-to-day life with Garnett, and once with a bittersweet essay about explaining the absence of Garnett’s (allegedly fictional) father to the little boy.
The news media has conflated all of her alleged social media engagement into one fraught phrase: “mommy blogging.” And the not-so-subtle implication is that all this narcissistic, attention-seeking mommy blogging played a role in her son’s death. I would expect this alarmist narrative from the likes of The New York Post and The Daily Mail; but even The New York Times alludes to her social media use in cautionary tones: “And Ms. Spears shared every travail with the world on a blog and through social media. In an age of oversharing and obsessive parenting, she found a wide audience.” This quote comes from the third paragraph, before Spears’s arrest was even mentioned. Either the Times buried the lede, or the perils of “oversharing” is the lede.
Her two-post blog with three followers notwithstanding, it would still be entirely fair to call Spears a “Social Media Mom,” if she had, as the Times article suggests, “a wide audience” on Facebook, Twitter, or other channels. But this appears not to have been the case. Her Facebook and MySpace (again, MySpace? Really?) profiles are inaccessible, her Twitter account—last time I looked—had 45 followers, and she had not tweeted since 2010. Unless Spears’ has a team of lawyers and social media experts who are the most efficient expungers and manipulators of online identity ever, the media has vastly exaggerated her Internet presence. If she had the kind of following news sites have implied she had, there would be screenshots of pictures with thousands of “likes” and comments. All I have been able to find is a cute picture of Spears and Garnett with two comments and 30-some thumb icons of approval.
I have nothing to add to the heap of speculation conjured by armchair psychologists on this case, but I know a little bit about social media and mom blogging; and it seems to me that Spears’ posting photos of her child and status updates about his health hardly make her exceptional.
I talked to some established parent bloggers and asked what they thought about the media’s prevailing angle on this story. I asked actual “mom blogger” Liz Gumbinner, of the hugely popular Cool Mom Picks and Mom 101 websites, what she thinks of the media adopting the “mom blogger” narrative with no evidence to support it. Her response:
“I feel like we've really reached rock-bottom as a society when the story of a sick woman hurting her son isn't enough shock value for the mainstream media to get the page views they need any more. We now have to make it more salacious by adding in some sort of zeitgeist-y pop culture reference to social media and blogging. Yes, this woman has a blog. It has two posts on it from what I can tell. She has a Twitter account with a few dozen followers and no tweets in more than four years. She doesn't seem to be involved in any parenting blogger communities of any sort and I can't find any other bloggers who had heard of her before this. And yet, the media has focused on the fact that she is a ‘mommy blogger.’
I was on a little league team in fifth grade but it doesn't make me a baseball player. This woman clearly has a severe mental illness and I wish we could focus on that as the real cause of this horrific situation. Because really, the only ones who seem to be racking up the page views from the awful story of a dead child are the journalists.”
Dad blogger and author of The Parents’ Phrase Book, Whit Honea, said of the “Spears-as-mommy-blogger” narrative, “It’s obvious that she’s suffering from any number of issues, which is tragic, and the sad fact is that had Lacey been as involved online as the media suggests then she may have found a community of support and/or drawn some sort of awareness to her situation.”
Finally, I talked to Katherine Stone, who knows something about supportive online communities. Stone is a blogger and founder of Postpartum Progress, a national nonprofit organization focused on raising awareness of maternal mental illness and supporting the pregnant and new moms who struggle with it. She is less concerned with whether Spears can be legitimately labeled a “mommy blogger” or “social media mom,” and more exasperated by the media’s tendency to look for outside influences to explain tragedies, to the detriment of confronting the real issues of mental illness:
“The media seems to enjoy making sure to talk about blogging, Facebook, Twitter and Myspace quite a bit when it comes to the story of Lacey Spears. And yet the real story is what was going on with her that led her to continually lie? Why can't we focus on what the signs were, what we can all learn from this, so that we can help another mother who might be in a similar situation? Why do we feel more comfortable talking about how much social media attention she may have been getting, or not getting if you really look at the numbers, instead of talking about her emotional health?”