Thursday, May 25, 2006

Varkam on Infanticide and the Afterlife

Commenter Varkam left an interesting comment today regarding my last post, and I want to post it here for everyone to read, as well as respond to it. So here we go:


Though I generally agree with your hypothesis, I think that there is something you ought to make more clear. Namely, that religion is not a necessary condition for infanticide.

I agree completely, however I think that non-religious infanticides happen much more rarely than religiously motivated ones.

You asked streetapologist to provide an example of either "1) a mentally ill atheist mother who killed her children, or 2) a mentally ill religious mother who killed her children due to a non-religious motivation". In the realm of mental illness, I can think of two disorders off the top of my head that don't involve delusions or any sort of psychosis that would lead to the same outcome; postpartum depression and Factitious Disorder-by proxy (formerly Munchausen's Syndrome-by proxy).

Again, I agree completely. But how many non-religious, contemporary examples can we find, especially compared to the examples I have already posted on that do involve religious motivation? The only argument I made was that religion serves as a catalyst for infanticide, and non-religious examples will be much more rare, and accordingly, harder to find.

Varkam then provides a non-religious example of infanticide, but upon closer inspection, it is actually an argument for my side:

I believe that Brooke Shields recently came out in the open regarding her postpartum depression (and was subsequently blasted by Tom Cruise-religious nutball and actor-about her seeking treatment in the form of therapy and SSRIs) during which she recounted a tale of how she almost killed herself and her baby as a direct result of the depression.

Brooke Shields admitted that she, like many thousands of women, experienced infanticidal and suicidal feelings due to post-partum depression. And like many thousands of women, her feelings were not religiously motivated. But also, like many thousands of women, Brooke Shields never killed her kid! Brooke Shields did not have sufficient legitimization for her feelings, and instead she recognized the disease for what it was. She talks about it, rather than acts on it. This is no example of non-religious infanticide at all. Brooke Shields has not met the requirements for membership in The Offspring Murder Club.

But what if Brooke Shields did have intense religious feelings during that time? Would she have done the same thing as Offspring Murder Club member Andrea Yates, who was suffering from 1) severe postpartum depression, and 2) severe afterlife-belief?

Factitious disorder-by proxy is a little more exotic. With respect to this conversation, mothers who are afflicted will create illness or injuries in their children for reasons other than secondary gain. There have been several documented cases of this over the years, including ones involving mothers eventually killing their children. Have you seen the movie The Sixth Sense? There is a character in that movie who kills her daughter in this fashion. I'm not offering that as evidence, only an illustration.

Again, I agree with Varkam, although it would be nice to have some actual examples of this disorder to look at.

Suffice it to say I think that you are on the right track when it comes to religion. It is true that not all religious people commit these acts, but the word catalyst fits very nicely.


Well, Varkam and I agree about 95% of the time. I appreciate his input. But as far as Brooke Shields goes (and all other post-partum depression sufferers who don't kill their babies), they belong in my evidence bin.

The afterlife can be hazardous to your children's health.


Simon said...

Is the 'afterlife' like the 'afterbirth'?

Anonymous said...


I think that, in all actuality, you and I agree 100% of the time. I agree totally that religion or religious beliefs, often times, is a major contributing factor in many cases of infanticide. All that I was proposing is that there is more than one road to Rome, so to speak.

After doing some research, there is (apparently) a more debilitating form of postpartum that takes the form of postpartum psychosis. From the statistics I saw, apparently 4% of people suffering from PPD eventually commit infanticide. I cannot comment on the veracity of that statistic as I am unfamiliar with the original source. However I feel I would be safe in assuming that someone, somewhere, has killed their child without the assistance of religion. Indeed, the Inuits practice infanticide all the time. The Chinese used to practice it a good deal more frequently than they do now (i.e. killing female children). I take it, however, that instances such as these are simply red herrings in this conversation.

As for Factitous Disorder-by proxy, I can think of one case I read about some time ago. The short end of the story was that a woman kept having children that died under mysterious circumstances. When it came out that she was the culprit, I think the bodycount had reached some obscenely high number to the order of 8 or 9. I wish I could remember more, but I will dig through my old psychology books to see if I can't find a more illuminating example.

I think it was Bill Maher who said that religion is a "gateway psychosis". I think in cases like Andrea Yates and Lashuan Harris, this becomes particularly applicable. It may also very well be the case that cases such as these happen much more often than cases where there is no religious motivation (or perhaps it is just that we hear about these cases more often, as they seem much more sensational than just the "pedestrian" nature of straight-up mental illness).

Whichever the case, I do agree with your argument. However I think that we should keep in mind that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Or with respect to this discussion, a kid.

Forgive the dark humor.


Mark said...

This is a bit of a tangent from the main dicussion but

From a non-religious perspective, Jared Diamond, in his Book Collapse details a number of Island cultures that regularly committed infanticide in order to control population growth and keep from destroying their habitat. Sounds harsh. It is harsh, but it was that or starve everyone to death.

Also another way these cultures controlled populationa: many "available males" would go on "missions" (more like suicide missions) in small boats to find new lands.

And the culture developed natural birth control methods....

Aaron Kinney said...

Thanks for the additional comments Varkam. That example you gave of the woman who had 8 or 9 children die under "mysterious circumstances" (her PPD) is chilling.

Yes, there are many roads to Rome. You seem to know alot about these kinds of disorders and illnesses, at least more than I do. And I appreciate your input.

You know, I watch Bill Mahers show in HBO whenever I get a chance, and I wish I saw the episode you referenced. Religion is definitely a gateway psychosis.

Freaking scary!

A Rational Being,

Those examples from the island culture are freaky too. But at least those killings were done out of utility and not out of craziness. I can imagine that on a small island with limited resources and lots of horny people, some kind of killing/population control would simply be necessary to prevent overpopulation and starvation. It would be an unfortunate situation to be sure. I mean, sending people on suicide missions hunting for new islands is obfviously a sign that the people needed more land and resources isnt it?

Anonymous said...


When Bill Maher referred to religion as a gateway psychosis, I believe he was being interviewed on Larry King Live. What's more, a woman from Texas called in to the show and retold the story about how she had "talked with God". She then asked Bill what he would do if God spoke with him. Without missing a beat, Bill said "I would check myself into Bellevue, which is exactly what you should do".

I laughed for a good five minutes.

And about mental disorders...I just know enough to know I don't know very much at all, if that makes any sense.

In any event, I've had your blog on my RSS feeds for some time now. Always enjoy your posts.


Aaron Kinney said...

Bill said "I would check myself into Bellevue, which is exactly what you should do".

Fucking brilliant. I love that guy!

I'm glad to see you are a long time reader of my blog. Arent RSS feeds the bomb?

Thanx again for your input and feel free to comment whenever you like!

I know what you mean when you said: I just know enough to know I don't know very much at all, if that makes any sense.

I have a very good friend who is about to obtain her masters in Psychology. Its a hell of a field and there is so much to know, and like you, she says that the more she learns the more aware she is that she knows almost nothing. Strangely enough, her knowledge of the topic impresses me very much. Makes me feel like I dont even KNOW what I dont know! (aka dumbass)

The DSM is no joke!

I once saw a comedy stand up routine where a guy used the DSM ot psychoanalyze God and ended up attributing quite a few disorders onto God, like narcisism (spelling?) and some other obsessions and complexes. It was a very amusing piece.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I think you're making the classic mistake of having a hypothesis and then looking for information to support it. If you want non-religious reasons women have killed their babies and children, there are plenty of examples out there. Try looking up: Paula Sims, Margaret Garner, Darlie Routier, Diane Downs, or Kathleen Folbigg. And those are just the ones it's easy to lookup online.

In your earlier post, you said, "What else ever inspires a woman to kill her children besides religious reasons, regardless of the woman's mental problems?"

Nonsense. The biological experience of conceiving and delivering a child doesn't automatically turn a woman into a nurturing, loving paragon of motherhood. Being 100% responsible for a screaming, helpless, filthy infant, who never sleeps, is an incredibly difficult task. Even the most unselfish, mature and devoted mothers have times when they want to just shut the brat up, any way they can. Show me a woman who's never been angry with her child, one who claims she's never fantasized about going back to a life without children, and I'll show you a liar. I love my children, but being their mother is the hardest thing I've ever done, the hardest thing I can imagine doing.

Most parents, though, don't kill their children (and, no, infanticide and filicide aren't restricted to mothers - fathers do it too.) We don't because we know it's wrong. In the end, what holds you back at the darkest moments are your ethics, your moral code, your conviction - however arrived at - that it would be wrong. That there has to be a better solution. That it isn't worth it.

But some parents don't seem to have that. Some people's barriers against murder seem to be so thin as to be practically nonexistent. Mental illness might have brought them to that state, but too often it seems to come down to a simple cost benefit analysis for them. Kill the children, and my life will be better and easier.

What reasons beyond religion do women have to kill their children? The same reasons men have to kill their children, the same reasons any person might have to kill another. Sex, money, attention, anger, jealousy - anything that the murderer wants, that they think can only be achieved through the death of a particular person.

Anonymous said...

Sorry - forgot to sign that.

Jennifer (like that helps, but hey, can I help it if my parents had no imagination in choosing a name?)

Anonymous said...


I think you are correct, as well, in your argument. I think the reasons that people have for taking the lives of their children are many and varied, and certainly not limited to mental-illness (though I have a hard time believing that anyone who would do such a thing is a little unhinged to begin with, though I suppose it is possible) or exreme religious tendencies.

However, you can't deny that such cases where theology is a foundational basis or-in Aaron's words-a catalyst for the murder of one's children. They plainly exist. What's more, these are the cases that typically pervade the news media and capture our collective attention. To say, however, that these cases occur more often than other cases (if only based upon that observation) is misguided.

I, for one, do not know which case happens more frequently. Perhaps mothers who hear the voice of God command them to kill their children (ala the story of Abraham) are epidemic in our society. Perhaps they are (thankfully) rare. I do not know of any statistical analysis that has been performed on such a question.

For my money, however, what is not troubling is not whether or not it happens more frequently: it is that it happens at all. Various mental health scientists and clinicians are hard at work examining this issue from a psychopathology standpoint. Why is religion insulated from the discussion? If religion can be a cause for such malevolent acts, then why aren't we critically re-examining it's role in our society, insofar as it applies to this discussion? That is the question that interests me.


Anonymous said...

I don't think religion is insulated from the discussion, but I do think the role of religion is not as simply causative as it might appear. There is a common error in thinking, seen everywhere in our society, in which we assume that when two things are found together, one must be a cause of the other.

For instance, we have been urged for years to have a low fat diet because of a study down in the early part of the 20th century which found a correlation between low fat diets and a low incidence of cancer. What was not taken into account in that initial study, was that the countries which had low fat intake also tended to have high fiber intake. We know now that it is the high fiber intake that has the greater impact on cancer avoidance. Fat is not automatically bad, in fact some fats (such as from fish) are very good for us.

If a woman kills her child and then says, "God told me to do it," we have a correlation. We cannot automatically assume that her religious convictions are to blame, especially in light of the fact that there are so many more religious people that do not kill their children. It is very likely, therefore, that there is a third factor involved.

People like to think well of themselves. When we act in ways that contradict what we believe (when we're "bad,") we have a need to justify our behavior to ourselves. What is the ultimate level of justification if you are religious? To say that God told you to do it. Did you believe this before or after the crime? Who knows? Even the murderer might not know after awhile. Memory is a chancy thing, and it is all too easy to instill false memories in ourselves, especially under great emotional strain, such as guilt over committing murder.

Even for those killers who clearly stated before the fact that, "God told me to do it," it can be questioned if they, in their desire to commit an act they knew was wrong according to their belief system, subconsciously seized on the excuse of God's imprimatur to justify their own wishes.

Teasing out the role of religion in these cases is far more complex than it would originally appear. It's so easy in our horror and outrage to reach out for the simple answers, and if we already have a strong opinion we can be predisposed to interpret what we observe in the light of that opinion. But, that can be dangerous, because an erroneous conclusion will lead to erroneous solutions, which aren't solutions at all. And that would be the ultimate tragedy.


Anonymous said...


Your points are well taken. I agree that it's a difficult problem to tease apart. It could very well be that religion is just along for the ride, so to speak. However, it could just as easily be that religion is either a primary cause or a catalyst to such events. The fact that there are cases where people who kill their children who are ostensibly religious but do to claim God told them to kill their children (relative to the cases where God does enter into the equation) tells me that religion, at best, is more than just along for the ride.

Anything beyond that, however, is pure speculation. Is it a primary cause? I don't think so - or else we'd be seeing a lot more of otherwise normal individuals offing their kids in the name of God. Is it a catalyst, as Aaron said? I think in certain circumstances, this is the most probable explanation. More specifically, I think it is the interaction between belief and psychopathology that can lead to the acceptance of these actions by the individual as ordained by God. I only say that because of the apparent occurence of these cases.

But I do think that religion has been insulated from the discussion - not only regarding these matters, but others as well. It seems that, when critically discussing any area of life, religion is typically regarded as "off-limits"; that any one individuals beliefs are just as valid as any other, and therefore one has no grounds from which to evaluate them.

I am not suggesting, however, that religion be abolished based soley on these cases. The truth is that I simply don't know what role religion has to play in these cases. I think Aaron's estimation is fairly accurate, but I don't know whether or not that is the case.

The only thing that I am pushing for is more open and honest discussion regarding these matters insofar as they pertain to religion.


Aaron Kinney said...


Honestly, I think you're making the classic mistake of having a hypothesis and then looking for information to support it.

Incorrect! I got this information from -among other places- the University of Conneticut Health Center, which I linked to in my previous post.

In fact, I never even thought of posting about this topic of religiously-motivated infanticide until I came across multiple websites that reported on various studies regarding the issue. Only after did I find information from professional experts that already concluded that religion was a catalyst for murderous behaviour, did I make that claim.

Sorry to break it to you, but I am not in any way going out on a limb on this one. The professional mental health experts are in fact my source and my inspiration for this writing series of mine.

Paula Sims, Margaret Garner, Darlie Routier, ??Diane Downs, or Kathleen Folbigg. And those are just the ones it's easy to lookup online.

Oh please!

Margaret Garner was an escaped slave who killed her child on the run to save it from being captured from the white slavers. Her case is totally irrelevant to this issue.

Paula Sims suffered from postpartum depression, but she didnt need a catalyst. Good for her. Would religion have kept her children alive? No. How many preachers would love to claim that all Paula needed was more prayer or more scripture reading?

Darlie Routier's guilt is far from certain. Did you hear about the recent evidence that is getting her a new trial? Photographs of bruises on her arms and police servaillance videos of the family grieving that were never shown to the jury, 33000 errors in the court transcript, jurors saying that they were pressured into casting guilty votes, and Barbara Davis, the author who once thought Darlie was guilty, now says she changed her mind and believes she was innocent.

Of your 5 names cited, only 3 are really relevant. And you picked some names from over 100 years ago! The names Ive listed of religious infanticides are all from the last 5 or 10 years, and none of my citings have any question over guilt; none are based on circumstantial evidence, as some of your cases are.

A catalyst is not always necessary. Ive already admitted it. Youre acting as if I am saying that ONLY religion gets a mother to kill her child, but thats not what Im saying at all.

Im saying that religion is a big bad catalyst. Religion, like rollercoasters and alcohol, is not good for expectant mothers. Religion is not good for women who have signjs of postpartum depression. Religion is not good for anyone with a mental illness. Religion makes it easier for women to kill their babies.

Anonymous said...

Aaron, I posted my comments about the assurance of salvation under the comments section of your post titles "Christians Don't Know What Reality They Exist in." Sorry it took so long. I had more come up last weekend than I was expecting.

Paul C. Quillman