Mothers killing their children is not a new phenomenon, nor is it an “isolated case”, as the police in Timaru, New Zealand have maintained in an attempt to reassure the community. It is, however, a tragedy, and moreover, a preventable one.
The incident of the South African mother, Lauren Dickason, a recent arrival in New Zealand who is accused of killing her three children, is certainly not an isolated case. There are currently at least two other cases of mothers standing accused of maternal filicide – a case in the Eastern Cape involving the deaths of two children and a mother in Germany accused of murdering five children, while one son survived and is reportedly expected to testify against his mother.
The phenomenon is transnational or transcultural and therefore worthy of investigation since I argue this tragedy (which it obviously is) is not “unnatural” but an understandable, decipherable and preventable issue.
Before suggesting a prognosis, it is of course first necessary to diagnose the disease.
The issue of maternal filicide is a well-known and well-traversed subject in the feminist canon. In a famous paper published in 1979 titled Women’s Time, Julia Kristeva, the well-known French psychoanalyst and philosopher, suggests that the neglect around maternal discourse(s) has a detectable historical course in the West, a discourse being a “horizon of understanding”. The crux of her idea is that the institution of “motherhood” (perhaps because of its being socially understood as “natural” and therefore “unproblematic”) is neither valued nor properly understood. Consequently, mothers receive scant support.
My thinking is that motherhood is not “natural” and certainly purposed for the wrong reasons, hence the coinage “m/other” in the title of this piece.
Kristeva coined the neologism “abjection”. This refers to the process of individuation in which every child must “reject” the mother who gave birth to her/him in order to become an independent individual in her or his own right. She argues plausibly that for girls this is far more complex and troubling than for boys. Kristeva contends that since the mother is a “gender partner”, the act of abjection condemns girls to depression.
In her book About Chinese Women, she ponders whether a more acceptable discourse on m/otherhood might be unearthed in other cultures, notably premodern China. In my own contribution to the debate on maternal filicide, I argue that although Han Chinese culture has one very healthy discourse on the maternal, namely the sparkling and beautiful mother-son relationship so ably demonstrated in Zhang Yimou’s cinematic masterpiece The Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), the problem is more nuanced than the somewhat simplistic (albeit valuable) explanation proffered by Kristeva.
In particular, I suggest that two other accounts of women’s fraught existence in patriarchal societies in the contemporary world also contribute to the fairly widespread phenomenon of maternal filicide. These are the notion of the “push-pull” dynamic in a feminist understanding of the psychology of women under conditions of patriarchy and the idea of evolutionary biologist Mary Jane Sherfey that women’s powerful prehistoric sexual drive posed a threat to men’s control over women.
As for the former explanation, Luise Eichenbaum and Susie Orbach, psychologists who are highly experienced counselling women with depression, frame the problem in the following striking manner:
Psychological attachment and lack of separation between mothers and daughters and daughters and mothers continue through generations of women. The daughter becomes involved in a cycle that is part of each woman’s experience: attempting to care for mother. As the daughter learns her role as nurturer, her first child is her mother. (emphasis added)
This curious phenomenon is the result, at least partially, of the inability of mother and daughter to achieve psychic separation. Indeed, this inability of the girl child to psychically separate from the m/other seems to lie at the very heart of the problematic nature of the form of abjection manifested by women and identified by observers such as Kristeva.
As for the second explanation, patriarchy’s fear of women’s sexuality resulted in the cultural repurposing of that magnificent resource into the institutionalisation of naturalised motherhood for ideological/political purposes with scant regard for the welfare of the woman in the body of the female. According to Sherfey, women enjoyed sexuality for largely and purely recreational purposes.
Little wonder that the postcolonial feminist Gayatri Spivak refers to the psychological and emotional “clitoridectomy” of women under conditions of patriarchal oppression. Indeed, women are known to be twice as likely as men to suffer from clinical depression in a cultural milieu that can be described as a dystopia. Women and mental disease are second cousins under these oppressive social conditions.
Finally, it is doubly ironic that if, in the context of the deplorable brain drain of scarce skills from the developing world to the global north, the Dickason couple (both doctors) did not see it fit to move to New Zealand and rather stayed in Pretoria, where they had a good support system, the tragedy might have been mitigated or even completely avoided.
Access to mental healthcare including medication and destigmatisation of mental health issues may also have played a role. Lauren may have had a psychotic episode brought on by stress, access to medication and healthcare, and the absence of a support structure.
Against the backdrop of these explanations suggested for the fairly widespread and transcultural character of maternal filicide, it is interesting that the murder accused Lauren Dickason was remanded to hospital for a psychiatric assessment after a brief court appearance on Saturday. It is society and its largely unrealistic expectations of m/otherhood which should be in the dock along with the accused.