When I heard the news about Adam Lanza and the murder of the school children in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, it triggered flashbacks to an event that touched me many years ago – a mentally ill woman who had attempted to murder her children.
Why would a mother club her young children and leave them for dead? Severe depression? Paranoid schizophrenia? Hallucinations? This mother was admitted to the Norristown State Mental Hospital sometime in the early 1940s. She was convinced her children were dead and that she had killed them. In reality her children had survived.
By the 1950s when the hospital’s population totaled 4,700 patients this mom was still locked up in a ward. (By 2008 this hospital remained in operation but had only 204 beds.) By that year there would probably not be a room for this mother. She would have been placed indefinitely in a locked up floor of a regular hospital, put in prison, treated with drugs, and eventually released on mind controlling drugs for the rest of her life. She would probably stop taking them. She might even have tried again to murder her children or someone else’s.
My mom had started working as an occupational therapist at the Norristown State Mental Hospital in the fall of 1960. She met this other mother in her art class. Mom took a special interest in her, perhaps because Mom had three kids of her own, and wondered at a woman who would try to murder her own children.
This woman’s living children were brought to see their mother in the mental hospital every weekend for years. The mother regularly denied they were her children stating, “My children are dead. I murdered them.”
One Sunday that fall as the squirrels were packing away their nut stores for winter we picked up this mother from the mental hospital and took her to church. I still remember watching her from the safety of the back seat. I was nervous, but she was a zombie, probably on heavy duty drugs. I guessed I had nothing to fear.
Suddenly Mom and I noticed a cute, fluffy-tailed squirrel hustling across the road. Mom exclaimed, “What a darling little squirrel!”
In that same heartbeat the squirrel made its fatal mistake, turning around and running directly under our car’s front wheel. There was a sickening thud. Mom and I were horrified and gazed furtively at the woman riding with us, afraid of what she might do. The mother sat frozen in a semi-catatonic state. She could not feel any more pain. Her cup of pain and self-loathing was already full. There was no way she could care about that squirrel squashed in an instant on the asphalt. Her children were dead, after all. What was the life of one squirrel?
In the spring of 1961 my mom was fired from her job as occupational therapist. (Yes, this is the same mom who had been kicked out of a church for talking about hell.) Turns out, she had committed the unpardonable sin of talking about God to an inmate of a state mental hospital. She told that poor mother that Jesus, God’s only Son, had died in her place, had carried the awful burden of her murder in his own murderous death.
The mother prayed for God to forgive her and accepted his free gift of forgiveness. The unbearable guilt that she could never let go, for which she could never forgive herself, was washed away.
The next weekend her grown children, the ones she had tried to murder and believed were dead for twenty years, came to visit as usual. It was then a most unusual thing took place. The mother held them, calling them her children for the first time since she had beaten them unconscious many years earlier.
When the psychiatrists found out that the mother now knew her children, and that she now believed Jesus had forgiven her, they called in my mother and fired her. I don’t know if the mother relapsed. I doubt she was ever allowed to leave the mental hospital. My mother went back to teaching school. Her job was finished at the Norristown State Mental Hospital, and it ended in victory.
For fifty years since that decade, the state of Pennsylvania has been failing to meet the needs of the criminally insane. Hundreds of mental asylums have been closed. Where does this leave these desperately needy people? It leaves them to live on the streets, discontinue their needed drugs, commit suicide and, worst of all, innocently commit horrific crimes on parents, little children and neighbors. This Church Lady wonders, but in her wandering she finds a star of hope.
“I Wonder As I Wander” Gretchen Peters