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In my famously favorite passage from Arthur Machen's influential short story "The Great God Pan," just before the end, one of two amateur investigators has just uncovered the secret of what it was that was driving young, healthy, wealthy, secure young men to commit suicide on three continents, in a manuscript left behind by one of the suicides. After reading only a few words, the partner says, "Take it away, Villiers, never speak of this again. Are you made of stone, man? Why, the dread and horror of death itself, the thoughts of the man who stands in the keen morning air on the black platform, bound, the bell tolling in his ears, and waits for the harsh rattle of the bolt, are as nothing compared to this. I will not read it; I should never sleep again." The original investigator assures him that it is true, but finishes by agreeing with the sentiment: "Oh, Austin, how can it be? How is it that the very sunlight does not turn to blackness before this thing, the hard earth melt and boil beneath such a burden?"

I think that 30 scientists and researchers from a half dozen or more different fields who gathered in rural France in 1990 to check each others' work must have felt something of that same horror when they found that they could not disprove their mutual finding. It was something that none of them wanted to believe. It was a thought that only one of the 30 of them was willing to confront the implications of, and do further research to explore the implications of. And I'm sure that they knew or at least suspected that no matter how important their scientific finding was, they would be vilified for a lifetime if they made society confront this awful truth, and that was a price that they were unwilling to pay. And see, that, to me, is the fascinating thing, even more fascinating than the awful truth itself. On the contrary, almost all of my friends that I've discussed this with since I read the book have agreed with me that, given the weight of the evidence, the awful truth in question is pretty undeniable, is important to know, and (contrary to what some might think) it is something we can learn to live with the knowledge of. If this knowledge becomes widespread, it may and probably will cause some hardship for some innocent people. But the good to society will, I believe, out-weigh those harms. So no, really, the awful truth that I'm about to reveal to you will seem anti-climactic compared to the dread that the scientists who discovered it felt.

After a several year career as one of the second generation of women to do fieldwork in primatology, Sarah Hrdy and her husband decided to have their first child. She was already in the middle of preparations to shift her career from primatology to a subject that would allow her to do her fieldwork closer to home, with fewer long absences from home, and in a more comfortable setting to raise a baby in, namely evolutionary biology, when it occurred to her (as a mother to be) just out of personal interest to study the mothering patterns of the colony of monkeys she was observing. She knew to expect high infant mortality. Primatologists have known for over a hundred years that baby monkeys and baby apes are at extreme risk from any male other than their father. (As are baby humans.) But Hrdy was startled to discover, when she tracked the mothers of new infants carefully, that infants were at almost as much risk of murder from their own mothers as they were from unrelated male adults. This baffled her for several reasons, not least of which that while there had been a great deal of research into infanticide in primates, nobody had ever reported a case of a female primate killing her own offspring except by freakish accident. The other reason it baffled her was that, as an evolutionary biologist, she could make no sense whatsoever as to how evolution could produce individuals that destroyed their own offspring, especially among such slowly reproducing species as primates. So she contacted a few other primatologists studying other colonies of monkeys and asked them to carefully monitor the actions of new mothers ... and to their astonishment, they observed the same thing.

So she gave a preliminary paper on the subject in 1976, suggesting that more research was needed to explain how this behavior could possibly have evolved in primates, only to be interrupted in mid talk by an audience member, a prominent expert in her field. He stood up, tried to stop her from finishing reading her paper, announced that primate females absolutely do not ever murder their own children, and that if she had observed a primate colony in which primate females were killing their own children, it could only be because of something she had done to them; she must have committed some horrible breach of experimental ethics that so deranged these monkeys that she had driven them insane enough to do something that no monkey had ever done before. He then stormed out of the talk and went directly to the scientific press to denounce her for whatever it was that she had done to that monkey colony, so it probably is a good thing that she was already planning on changing fields, no?

So she quietly continued her study, working behind the scenes with other researchers while she directed her own studies towards less controversial animals, such as insects. Eventually she discovered something that appalled even her with its simplicity. Not only do mothers sometimes kill their own children, they are almost never insane when they do so. On the contrary, for a mother to murder her own child is an evolutionary adaptation without which our species would not have survived some of the environmental and social disasters of the past. What's more, the actual reasoning behind this is so simple that a straightforward simple equation in four variables is sufficient to provide a reliable estimate of the probability that any particular mother will murder any particular infant: the age of the mother, whether or not this child is the gender that the mother wanted (which, itself, turns out to be easily and universally predicted based on only two variables, the mother's social status and the predicted reliability of the food supply), the child's birth weight (and to a lesser extent other indicators of long-term viability), and her estimate of whether or not attempting to nurture this particular child will only get both her and the child killed. When she took her early estimates for this equation to the 1990 conference, she discovered that epidemiologists studying SIDS, primatologists studying infanticide (following her 1976 tip), historians digging through old records to try to quantify infanticide throughout the ages, criminologists and social psychologists trying to come up with statistical models to predict mother-on-child infanticide, and anthropologists trying to statistically analyze what variables are most consistent with cultures that have high versus low rates of infanticide, had all independently discovered the same equation. And from her viewpoint as an evolutionary biologist, Hrdy demonstrates that any sane, healthy, normal, intelligent mothers who weren't capable of coldly murdering their own infant children almost certainly had no surviving descendants at all to be our ancestors during some of the species-wide threats that have been demonstrated to have happened from the fossil record and from studies of rates of genetic drift.

I mention SIDS. One of the researchers, she says, was an epidemiologist who, in the process of trying to quantify his hunch, initiated a study in which social workers and police very, very intensively interviewed and background checked a long string of crib deaths that had been explained away as unexplained random respiratory failure. It turns out that his equation was able to predict, with high (but not absolute) reliability, which infants had actually been the victims of homicide or malign neglect. If the infant was a boy when the mother wanted a girl or vice versa, if the infant was born weighing less than 8 pounds, or if the mother was in any kind of economic or physical danger if this child survived, then the baby was doomed. His final estimate, from that initial study, was that seventy five percent of all SIDS cases are actually homicides. But, he admitted, just acknowledging this possibility puts us in an awful dilemma. To catch the 3 out of 4 women whose babies suddenly die that were actually murderers, we have to treat all SIDS cases as potential homicides, therefore piling yet more heartbreak and tragedy on the 1 out of 4 who just randomly went through the worst tragedy any family can know, the sudden and unexpected death of a beloved child. Even using the predictive equation to narrow the field of homicide investigations, we'd still be casting a very scarily public accusation of homicide on an uncomfortably large number of grieving mothers.

I also mention social psychology. The central tenet of the field of social psychology is that if under a given situation, all or nearly all individuals will engage in the same unwanted behavior, then there is less to be gained by stigmatizing those individuals and lauding the ones who don't than by studying the situation with an eye towards changing it. And you can see in a heartbeat how that applies here: if infants are at extreme risk whenever one or more of three variables are present, then we can reduce the rate of (massively under-reported, intentionally under-investigated) maternal infanticide by decreasing the economic and evolutionary pressures behind gender preference, by providing mothers with as much economic assistance and physical protection as it would require for them to feel safe providing for this baby, and by intensify supervision for the first several months of life of mothers of infants who are born weighing less than 8 pounds or looking otherwise sickly. But addressing the issue in this way, and looking into the roots of the equation that predicts maternal infanticide, makes social psychologists confront the queasy implication of all of their work: if it's that sane and natural for them to do this awful thing, if this awful thing is so hard to resist, how can we justify stigmatizing and punishing them? And if we can't, then how can we live with ourselves having just (the historian points out) joined the 85% of all known historical societies, up to and including Christian western Europe as late as the late 19th century, that socially tolerated infanticide any time in the first couple of days after birth? There's pro-choice, I mean, and then there's being so pro-choice as to join the ranks of societies that have denied the humanity of a breathing infant up to 48 hours old ... are we willing to go there? Or to at least show understanding and compassion and tolerance towards societies that did or that do? The anthropologists at the conference were especially terrified of releasing their research findings, because they knew that the accusation that a society or tribe kills children has been used to justify no shortage of genocidal invasions.

I cultivate a readership that's willing to think the unthinkable, so perhaps most of you are still baffled by what part of this spawned such a terror of confronting their own research findings that 29 out of 30 scientists who discovered it immediately and without any external pressure moved to suppress their own research findings. Frankly, good -- I distrust that impulse, too, and think that we are always better off knowing the truth than not knowing it. But as you go about your day, remember this: research shows that your own mother consciously or unconsciously considered murdering you in your crib, off and on for at least the first 48 hours after your birth and not improbably for the whole first two weeks of your life, maybe even the first two months. And if your mother was under 30 when she had you and you were born male in a poor family or female in a wealthy family during times of economic hardship, or weighing less than 8 pounds, or at a time when your mother thought that her own chances of survival would improve if you didn't survive so (for example) she could get pregnant by her new husband more quickly or so she could return to work more quickly, you very nearly didn't make it. And she would have gotten away with it, too, because mothers have traditionally had a long list of potential murder weapons ready to hand, from handing you over to caretakers or adoption agencies even if she knew they had a 99% chance of killing you, to smothering you with a pillow, to switching you to infant formula that she knew was diluted with unsafe water, to declining to lift a hand to save you from some mortal peril. And because "everybody knows" that mothers don't kill their own children, nobody would have questioned her about it. Have a nice day!


( 132 comments — Leave a comment )
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Apr. 14th, 2007 08:38 am (UTC)
This sounds similar to what often happens to the "runt" of the litter, in other animal populations...
Apr. 14th, 2007 10:48 am (UTC)
Yeah, but nobody was expecting to find out the same thing for mothers who invested so much of their physical resources into producing a singleton birth.
Apr. 14th, 2007 09:41 am (UTC)
Yeah, I went and did the research and knew we were talking about infanticide, but the cheeriness with which you approach the subject makes me giggle.
Apr. 14th, 2007 11:03 am (UTC)
And yet you often hear that only a woman corrupted by whatever the speaker hates would even consider abortion.
Apr. 14th, 2007 11:36 am (UTC)
I've just read a little of the book at the library, aiming mainly at the pages 293-296 you mentioned. If I remember correctly, she had someone object to her account of risk from unrelated males among primates, and she said it was controversial, although the same thing was known for dogs and several other species.
Apr. 14th, 2007 12:27 pm (UTC)
I have a couple of questions, which may be answered in the book, but I have no money to buy it and no time to read it right now if I did. It's going on my long-term reading list, though.

My first question is: does the incidence of infanticide (or, if you prefer, SIDS) decrease in countries where abortion is readily available, or where the social safety network is good? My stab-in-the-dark response is yes, as witnessed by the fact that the U.S. has a higher infant mortality rate than any other developed nation, almost all of which have better health care than the U.S. does, at least for its poor.

My second question is: how does she define mental illness in the first forty-eight hours to two weeks after giving birth? Because I've done it, twice, and let me tell you - there's no such thing as normal in those early days. You've just been through the biggest emotional, physical, and hormonal roller coaster ride you will ever experience; it came after months of discomfort and probably at least twelve hours, possibly as much as several days, of quite intense pain; and everyone around you to whom you normally look for support, is busy pouring over the bundle of cuteness that is no longer distending your belly. Describing a woman in that situation as mentally stable is ridiculous.

My third question relates to the role of oxytocin. Oxytocin is the hormone that is responsible for uterine contractions, playing the central role in the delivery. It's also released through breastfeeding. It's been called the "tend and mend" hormone, because it makes people - especially mothers, but also fathers - bond with their children. Men's oxytocin levels will never be higher in their lives than in the six weeks following the birth of a new baby, and neither will women's. So if oxytocin plays this huge role in the bonding process, where is it when women are considering infanticide? There are factors in the birth that lead to less oxytocin - c-section and choosing to formula-feed from the outset, for example. Do these situations lead to higher rates of infant death?
Apr. 14th, 2007 01:55 pm (UTC)
You are correct in your first supposition. She comments on the abortion politics of this, namely that you can game this one either way. You can either use it to prove that abortion ought to be legal, as an alternative to infanticide, or you can confront the unpleasant realization that to the woman, the abortion decision is the same as the infanticide decision.

The second two are related. Evolution drugs the heck out of both mother and baby to prevent infanticide, and she shows how evolution has favored children with all kinds of "tricks" to fool the mother into making excessively favorable estimates of long-term viability. But, she shows, women have counter-evolved the infanticide reflex as a defense against those tricks and those drugs. There's a long, long section of the book before she even gets to the infanticide question on "avoidant" mothers, mothers who go out of their way to avoid handling or making eye contact with the baby (let alone breast-feeding it) in the first 48 hours, and what a reliable predictor that is of all kinds of dysfunction in both mother and child. It's only after she springs the infanticide section on you, in the high 290s through the 300s, that you realize that she brought that up to prepare you for this, to show you how it's possible for women to do so if they conclude that they have to.
(no subject) - velvetpage - Apr. 14th, 2007 02:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bradhicks - Apr. 14th, 2007 02:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
going off of memory here... - dreamking00 - Apr. 14th, 2007 11:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - velvetpage - Apr. 14th, 2007 02:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - ms_daisy_cutter - May. 7th, 2007 10:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
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underpopulation? - (Anonymous) - May. 16th, 2008 09:25 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rozasharn - Apr. 16th, 2007 06:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ms_daisy_cutter - May. 7th, 2007 10:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - xratedouroboros - Jun. 21st, 2007 12:44 am (UTC) - Expand
selfish? - snatchbeast - Jun. 21st, 2007 12:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: selfish? - xratedouroboros - Jun. 21st, 2007 11:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ms_daisy_cutter - Jun. 21st, 2007 05:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - xratedouroboros - Jun. 22nd, 2007 12:17 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ms_daisy_cutter - Jun. 22nd, 2007 02:48 am (UTC) - Expand
Regarding the role of oxytocin - rozasharn - Apr. 16th, 2007 06:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
Your questions - (Anonymous) - Jun. 21st, 2007 12:48 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 14th, 2007 12:35 pm (UTC)
I have one more question, or rather, series of questions. Does the rate of infanticide increase or decrease proportional to medical interventions in birth? That is, do home births have a higher or lower rate of infanticide than hospital births? Do births attended by a midwife (generally more supportive of the mother) succeed more than births attended by doctors, many of whom the woman won't actually know beforehand? If you presume that all women are a bit crazy right after the birth of a child (because anyone capable of cold-bloodedly murdering an infant is not entirely sane, regardless of those three variables, any more than those prison guards in the social experiment were entirely sane while they were torturing their volunteer victims) then what factors in the medical community will increase the support enough to tip the scales?
Apr. 14th, 2007 01:50 pm (UTC)
Well, the point is that without honestly confronting the knowledge, we will never know the answers to those very good and useful (in terms of reducing infanticide) questions. Because no one will ever do the research.
(no subject) - velvetpage - Apr. 14th, 2007 01:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Apr. 14th, 2007 12:39 pm (UTC)
On one hand, I can see where this is very heavy stuff, especially given the violent controversies surrounding abortion, birth control and social services. And on the other, I read the "forbidden lore" and thought (much as I did when reaching the "great revelation" in The daVinci Code: "Um, DUH? Wasn't this already obvious?" I guess I'm just more... expansive in my acceptance of hard truths than many other people are. I'm with you, Brad - the truth is almost always easier to hear and accept (especially when it makes sense) than a pretty lie.
Apr. 14th, 2007 01:50 pm (UTC)
I will definitely be picking up a copy of that book.

An interesting side-thought: how does the availability of "anonymous adoption" possibilities change the rules?

In my personal case, I was born to a mother who likely would have been in a personal life situation that may have resulted in "oops, the kid died." However, I was adopted at birth by a middle-class family with good prospects for the future, in a comfortable middle-class suburb of Los Angeles (at a time [1970] when LA was still a nice place to live), with a moderate family support structure.

My adoption was handled by a non-profit organization (one that, I believe, no longer exists) that specifically handled "at risk" families ("at risk", back then, being defined roughly by poverty/social status and ethnicity [most of the adoptions handled by this agency were from African-American and Native American families to Caucasian families with no children]), providing the adoption at no cost to the birth mother (typically paying for her medical care for a period of time, providing basic nutritional support, etc.). As such, I grew up "white", even though it's pretty apparent to many people that I'm (at best) Mestizo or even perhaps as close to full-blooded "injun" as one can get in Southern California.

While I know the topic of "taking" poor ethnic children of disadvantaged parents who may be under financial duress disturbs a lot of people, it is a logical solution to a whole host of socio-economic issues. Today, it's pretty much impossible to adopt a Native American child if you're "white" in many areas (in fact, the agency I was adopted through closed in the mid-1970's for just this reason), and much fuss has been raised in the early 90's of Hispanic and African-American children's adoptions by Caucasians as well...

Like I said, it should be a good read.
Apr. 14th, 2007 02:00 pm (UTC)
Henh. She demonstrates that, beyond all shadow of a doubt, from the first such Renaissance "foundling homes" until the major reforms in the mid to late 20th century, anonymous adoption was the preferred form of infanticide. That the survival rate for children placed with such agencies was usually below 1%, and never rose above 5%, and that everybody knew it. The agencies existed only so that parents could fantasize that the child they gave away was one of the 1% that made it, so they could convince themselves that they hadn't murdered their child. That the anonymous adoption agency was, until very very recently, only one of a long series of such "plausible deniability" ways that mothers, in particular, have come up with to manage the guilt of infanticide.
(no subject) - jackwalker - Apr. 14th, 2007 05:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bradhicks - Apr. 15th, 2007 01:20 am (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 14th, 2007 01:56 pm (UTC)
Yeah, just like "everybody knows" that there aren't any female serial killers (except maybe that one, who was so "famous" that she had a movie made about her). And everyone knows this despite the fact that women have been convicted of multiple murders, torture murders, sexualized murders, pact murders. Take the nurses who poison or kill patient after patient... those aren't serial killings because... well, there are no female serial killers.

Apr. 14th, 2007 02:16 pm (UTC)
So it was my second guess
This isn't a shock to anyone who's bothered to sit down and actually look at child abuse statistics. Women by far lead men in child homicide and child abuse.
Patricia Pearson's book "When She Was Bad" actually beat Hrdy to the punch on this one, at least in terms of getting a book to stores first, and offers some anecdotes and statistical evidence to back this up.

If people are actually shocked by this, then...well...they've been hanging on to some rather outmoded ideas that have more to do with propaganda (both of "the dominant patriarchy", whatever that may be, and strongly held ideas on the left as well) than they do with reality.
Apr. 14th, 2007 03:33 pm (UTC)
Re: So it was my second guess
The point isn't just that infanticide is more common than most people want to think about, it's that infanticide is sometimes the most practical course for the mother. I suspect that in some cases, the mother's survival depends on it.

The beginning of _Mother Nature_ is very interesting--it starts with debunking the ideal of maternal sacrifice. There are a few insect species where the mother dies producing one brood. In all other cases, mothers have to balance their own interests with the interests of her child or children.

Early research on mothering consisted of just having mother and child in a cage, and supplying them with food, so the researchers couldn't find out how the mother was dealing with getting food and dealing with her fellow apes/monkeys.

I wonder if part of the thing about virgins isn't just about sex (have you read Hanne Blank's Virgin: the Untouched History, and if not, why not?), but about fathering the first born--the kid who has a advantage because of competition.
Re: So it was my second guess - thetathx1138 - Apr. 14th, 2007 04:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: So it was my second guess - drooling_ferret - Apr. 15th, 2007 02:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: So it was my second guess - thetathx1138 - Apr. 15th, 2007 04:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rowandoll - Apr. 14th, 2007 04:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 14th, 2007 05:46 pm (UTC)
I wonder where post-partum depression comes into this? Is it feeling bad because you didn't kill a baby you should have? Is it a hormone deficiency of that oxytocin?
Interesting stuff.
Wasn't 8lbs a pretty big baby until recently? I was about 6 and a half and that was average back then....
It sure is a good argument for abortion rights.
Apr. 14th, 2007 05:48 pm (UTC)
When I said "It" was a good argument for abortion rights, I meant the whole subject, not the poundage.... :-)
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Apr. 14th, 2007 06:23 pm (UTC)
In many other countries, it's widely recognized that mothers kill their own children. It's called infanticide, and in much of Europe it's not considered murder.

In the UK, under the 1938 Infanticide Act a woman who kills her child when it is less than a year old and "while the balance of her mind was disturbed by reason of the fact that she had not fully recovered from the effect of giving birth", may not be found guilty of murder. Infanticide is still a felony, but of the 49 British women convicted of infanticide between 1989 and 2000, only two were jailed. The rest were given probation or hospitalized.

In Scandinavian countries infanticide cases are reviewed by a panel of doctors, who recommend either probation, hospitalization, or, very rarely, that the case go to trial. A woman who is found guilty of infanticide is still not guilty of murder, though.

In Canada, under the Infanticide Act of 1948, the current punishment for infanticide is a prison term not exceeding five years.

In fact, in 29 countries (including Catholic Italy), infanticide is considered to be either not homicide or a lesser form of homicide. In all cases it is only a killing by the mother that is so considered. In all cases, the mother must simply show that she has given birth within a certain length of time (generally one year) prior to the killing. She is generally sentenced to some form of probation combined with mental health treatment.
Apr. 14th, 2007 07:46 pm (UTC)
Aye the rose and the lindsey-oh
It's universal and I am not sure where Brad gets the idea that it is some kind of horrible secret. Mothers (and midwives and servants doing childcare) killing babies is pretty ordinary. Anyone who has any interest in traditional folk music can't miss it; it's a major theme. It also shows up in plenty of high art. Every single traditional culture has a set of beliefs and practices that indicate knowledge of what a dangerous time early infancy is, usually coded as a belief in evil spirits having special access to the mother and child. La Llorana is part of living folk culture right now.

As for it being unthinkable - I don't know, I don't have a problem thinking of my mother as human. Ariel Gore wrote about fantasizing throwing her infant daughter into the fireplace more than ten years ago. I think normal emotionally stable people understand that the perinatal period makes women kinda loopy. It's not just the desire to murder your offspring - women are usually - USUALLY - tormented by obsessive thoughts about horrific gorey accidents. These thoughts have a totally different quality to normal maternal worrying. When I read some of Temple Grandin's writing comparing autistic thought processes to the "thought" processes of animals, it made sense to me that that is what goes on in the perinatal period - you're "thinking" as an animal, in pure visual images and urges.

But I think the final piece of the puzzle as to why some people think this is OMG SHOCKING and some people are like - uh - what? Duh. - is whether your mother regularly told you she was going to kill you growing up. Mine sure did!
Re: Aye the rose and the lindsey-oh - mercyorbemoaned - Apr. 14th, 2007 07:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Aye the rose and the lindsey-oh - nancylebov - Apr. 14th, 2007 08:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Aye the rose and the lindsey-oh - mercyorbemoaned - Apr. 14th, 2007 08:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Aye the rose and the lindsey-oh - beckyzoole - Apr. 14th, 2007 09:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
Apr. 14th, 2007 08:58 pm (UTC)
Randome thought on the connection between guilt and outrage in the anti-abortion movement.
IE is a repressed/politically conservative woman who has committed infanticide (and is probably in denial/memory suppression) likely to be violently opposed to letting others 'off easy' with legal abortion?
Apr. 14th, 2007 10:23 pm (UTC)
Brad, did you mean to refer to a later conference on infanticide, or were you thinking of the 1982 conference held at Cornell University? A summary of the discussion at that conference was pretty openly published: Infanticide: Comparative and Evolutionary Perspectives, Glenn Hausfater, Current Anthropology, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Aug. - Oct., 1984), pp. 500-502.

This isn't forbidden lore. Sure, anti-choice lobbies would like to make it so, and there has recently been a trend in the US to portray infanticide as a horrible, unnatural crime... but that really is an artifact of the abortion debate.
Apr. 15th, 2007 01:22 am (UTC)
Apparently Hrdy means another; I checked, and she specifically cites a conference in France in 1990.
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