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Commentary: 'When Silence Does Not Keep'

By JANUS ADAMS   |   March 20, 2002 at 3:16 PM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, March 20 (UPI) -- "Let the women keep silent in the church." The Pauline Doctrine --- words, reputedly, of the Apostle Paul himself. By this decree have women traditionally been doomed in every sanctuary --- church, government, school, business, home.

What temple is there, then, for those who cannot keep silent; for the silence that cannot keep? Or, as Langston Hughes asked in his most famous poem, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore... Maybe it sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?"

I was observing a group therapy session at an exclusive "retreat" when a woman was brought into the room, an attendant by her side coaxing each step. Seated in a circle of patients, she seemed increasingly distracted. Sliding, finally, to the floor, she crawled behind the circle on all fours, as if going unnoticed. When an attendant gently barred her exit, she turned back and curled into a tight knot where she remained in defeat for the rest of the session --- a wounded animal hiding under the sweater drawn over her head.

"She's much better than she was a few weeks ago," an attendant confided. "Postpartum. She gets it bad. Had it with her first child, too. This is her second time here."

That was the first I had heard of the illness that kills mothers from within, seizing them from their babies, and themselves. When I later heard the term "baby blues," I smelled it for what it was: condescension. It was the minimization, the marginalization, of women for whom giving birth is not "the most natural thing in the world;" women for whom "instinct" is insufficient as information or consolation; women who love their babies but whose bodies and psyches conflict; women misunderstood by a society that prizes motherhood and virginity, but does not necessarily value women.

There, but for grace... I remember thinking as she was helped away.

In the early 1980s, a woman I knew killed her two children and committed suicide. All peripheral vision lost, she was legally blind. Exploiting this, as arguments and need arose, her husband literally tormented her to death. But, how could a mother kill her children --- her CHILDREN? --- all demanded, as if we did not know. It was because she was their mother that she sought to protect them. Her children, also legally blind, had inherited her condition.

There, but for grace... .

Then, a while later, I came upon a copy of the abolitionist newspaper, "The Liberator," dated March 21, 1856 and the case of Margaret Garner. Seeking freedom and justice for herself and her four children, she fled with others from Kentucky to Ohio. Tracked and surrounded by a posse, a struggle ensued. Garner, determined to kill herself and her children rather than be re-enslaved, seized a butcher knife and slit the throat of her youngest child before being restrained.

Jailed under the Fugitive Slave Act, guilty of stealing herself and her children from their "rightful owner," her slave master; guilty of destroying the slave master's property -- her children -- she was shackled and forced shipboard, bound again for slavery.

En route, Garner either fell or jumped into the river; no one knew which. But, all agreed, she was overjoyed when her child drowned and bitterly fought her own rescue. Forced aboard a second ship, she was seen "crouching like a wild animal near the stove, with a blanket wrapped around her." Sold south, she soon died -- "escaped at last," wrote her husband.

Trapped in a society that found no fault with itself for slavery, unwilling to comprehend the incomprehensible, where she could not find justice, she sought ultimate peace.

There but for the grace... and the century, I think still.

It was this story that inspired Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved" and Oprah Winfrey's film. It is these women's lives that swirl my view of Andrea Yates.

That this Texas mother was pre-diagnosed and previously hospitalized for extreme postpartum depression is undisputed; that she killed her children knowing it "wrong" is a fact of her own admission. That she thought it "good" is what we can't understand.

Sired into a fifth pregnancy by a husband who knew her to be seriously ill; victimized by a "medical-industrial complex" that minimized, then ignored, her crisis; raised in a faith demanding submission by women to men; trapped in a social construct that demanded her to be not only exemplary, but extraordinary -- a stay-at-home-mom-homeschooler; prisoner with no exit, Andrea Yates sought to "save her children" from this fate she had lived, worse than death.

At each turn, her life was sanctimoniously sacrificed to values unsupportive of her for causes "greater than she." She saw herself failing. She did not know she'd been failed.

"Let the women keep silent in the church." In her temple of tomorrow, perhaps she and her children will find voice and peace. How could a MOTHER do such a thing, I do not know. Neither, I think, does she. That's the tragedy.

*-

(Janus Adams' latest book is "Sister Days: 365 Inspired Moments in African-American Women's History" [John Wiley & Sons, 2000]. You may e-mail her at: janusadams@aol.com)

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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