My friend drops the newspaper story on my desk with a crisp announcement: “Well, here’s another one for you.”
“Another what?” I ask without looking up.
“Another ‘prom mom,”’ he says grimly, in the generic language usually reserved for headline writers.
I pick up the paper and see another New Jersey dateline, another teenage mother, another infant born and gruesomely disposed of in a bathroom.
This time the 16-year-old is not at a prom but at a bus terminal on an Atlantic City tour of casinos. What shall we call her: “Casino Mom”? This time the girl is not a local high school student but a Dominican sent to New York to stay with family friends. This time, most importantly, the 6-pound, 10-ounce baby delivered and abandoned in a toilet bowl is not yet dead and the charges are not yet murder.
My friend knows that I have been collecting these stories - some eight of them over the past year and a half. Not out of morbid tabloid curiosity, but with the hope that some sense will emerge from this senselessness.
A college freshman gives birth secretively with her boyfriend. The baby of a teen-age girl is found in her grandfather’s garage. A 17-year-old’s newborn is discovered in her gym bag. And of course, there is the New Jersey “prom mom,” who left the dance floor to go into labor, dropped the baby in the trash and returned.
These are pregnancies that went unnoticed and unacknowledged even in their last months, even in prom gowns. These are girls who went through labor and delivery on their own. These are newborns, dead or alive, but all abandoned. And there are charges - murder, manslaughter, abandonment - all duly filed.
My friend has a cryptic explanation for these stories: evil. He offers it to me again, in a pre-emptive strike against my attempt to understand these mothers and accused murderers.
He is among the outraged who count the horror tales as proof of a throwaway society. The op-ed pages are replete with those who describe the “prom moms” as “logical” extensions of a sexually educated and liberated, pro-choice and planned parenthood shamelessness.
But I have a been a journalist too long to believe that eight stories make a trend. I’ve been at it too long to think that something is new because it has happened now in a suburb.
Gloria Feldt, the president of Planned Parenthood who has become fodder for the “prom mom” media mill, finds it “bewildering that people think this is a new issue.” Or that they treat it as a libertine consequence.
Three hundred years ago, at the height of Puritan rule in Massachusetts, the elders feared a rash of infanticides. In 1692 they passed a law making it a capital crime for any “lewd woman” to conceal “the death of a bastard child.”
“Whereas,” wrote the lawmakers, “many lewd women that have been Delivered of Bastard Children, to Avoid their Shame and to escape Punishment, do secretly Bury or Conceal the Death of their Children,” any unmarried woman who buried a newborn was presumed guilty of infanticide unless a witness said the child was born dead. In colonial America, more women were executed under such laws than under any other.
Perhaps the real wonder isn’t that we have strayed so far from our roots, but that we haven’t. In today’s era of presumed access to sex education, to birth control and abortion, when pregnant teenagers go to school and single mothers raise children in the limelight, shame survives. Indeed, it’s making a much applauded comeback.
It isn’t shamelessness, but shame and its cousins guilt, dread and desperation that run beneath the refusal of some girls to acknowledge their pregnancy, their labor, their newborn. It is the psyche’s ability to block out reality - what we call “denial.”
One of the few who have actually studied “prom moms” accused of infanticide, Dr. Margaret Spinelli of Columbia medical school, describes them as “very cut off.” So cut off, so isolated, so emotionally disconnected that when they went into labor, they thought it was something they ate.
Does that bewilder us? Dr. Spinelli says, “It is bewildering. That’s why we should give more credence to psychopathology than a criminal act.” Indeed most countries now send such women to treatment, not to the gallows.
My friend does not want to hear me say that there is a difference between evil and illness, that understanding is not forgiving. I too believe that there are evil acts, people who just kill. But my “prom mom” file doesn’t read like that.
It’s filled with young life stories, each painful, tragic, different. Today I add another with a New Jersey dateline. I wait for the details with the absolute certainty that lives are never as simple as sermons.
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