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Review of "Mothers Who Kill Their Children"

By Cheryl L. Meyer et al.
New York University Press, 2001
Review by Su Terry on Apr 12th 2002
Mothers Who Kill Their Children

Mothers Who Kill Their Children: Understanding the Acts of Moms from Susan Smith to the "Prom Mom" by Cheryl L. Meyer, Michelle Oberman with contributions by Kelly White, Michelle Rone, Priya Batra, and Tara Proano is an intense, and yet easy to read study of women who kill their children. It is an emotional riveting read that will open any reader’s eyes who is willing to honestly listen to the stories of these women.

Mothers Who Kill Their Children is a sociological and demographic study of American cases of women who were deemed responsible for the deaths of their children from 1990 through 1999. It is a unique study in that it is extremely current, focuses only women, and only on mothers, and includes only deaths within the United States. It is also unique in that this study was undertaken by members of the legal and the psychological communities, and that it is able to garner unique insights from both of these different professions. The study posits that “mothers who kill” are not necessarily “mad or bad” as the majority of society condemns. The study divides the mothers into five demographic grouping: young mothers who deny their pregnancy and committed “neonaticide”(killing within 24 hours of the birth), mothers who attempt to kill themselves and their children (purposeful altruistic killing), neglectful mothers who actively or passively let their children die, abusive mothers who inadvertently kill their children while disciplining them, and abused women who kill their children due to coercion or their own domestic victimization. Each of these groupings has its own chapter replete with copious case studies. What I found to be particularly noteworthy were the suggestions for working with the community at-large and the “at-risk” population in particular in an attempt to short circuit future deaths.

Meyer and Oberman noted that individuals who spoke to them about their study, had very strong views on this subject. They noted that, in general, the public felt “a special kind of horror” about women who killed their own children and condemned the mothers as either “mad or bad.” The researcher had a hard time presenting any other possible explanation for these mothers’ action. Yet the case studies are a very compelling argument that these women are by and large neither “mad [nor] bad.” Laura J. Miller (M.D., Editor Postpartum Mood Disorders and Chief of Women's Mental Health Services, University of Illinois at Chicago) commented on the study that “Readers will find themselves shifting from asking, 'How could she do that?' to 'How could we have let that happen to her?'"

            Cheryl Meyer is an Associate Professor in the School of Professional Psychology at Wright State University. She has a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, a Ph.D. in Social Psychology, and a JD in criminal law. She is also the author of The Wandering Uterus: Politics and the Reproductive Rights of Women (1997). The focus of her research is interdisciplinary and incorporates the law, feminism, psychology, and sociology. Michelle Oberman is an Associate Professor of Law at DePaul College.  She is a specialist in the fields of women’s health and the law, medical ethics, and public health policy. This is her first book.

Mothers Who Kill Their Children is an important book. It is an eye-opener for any one willing to look at this grizzly topic with an open mind. It is a book that begs discussion, but be prepared for the “mad or bad” reaction from other. Be also pre-warned this book can be a very emotional read with the case studies lingering long after this book is passed to a friend. I high recommend this book for college and public libraries. It is a must read for those involved in social service professions.                 


© 2002 Su Terry

Su Terry: Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY. Interests in Mental Health: She is interested in the interplay between psychology, biology, and mysticism. Her current area of research is in the impact of hormonal fluctuation in female Christian mystics.