I have always been fascinated, yet at the same time repelled, by some of the classic narratives about mothers who kill their children. As a mother myself, and possibly because of my child protection background, I have long been interested in exactly why some mothers can murder their own offspring and why writers would want to write about it.
Writers who have used this theme litter the history of narratives and whilst child murder – indeed any murder - is unacceptable to society there is something so shocking about the phenomena that it has always had shock value and therefore been of interest to writers. In classic literature there is the tale of Medea who murdered her children to exact revenge on their father. In modern literature there is the story of Beloved by Toni Morrison and countless stories which involve some measure of Fabricated Induced Illness (F I I). This can include mothers who smother their babies so making the death seem like natural causes e.g. cot death. These women are generally emotionally unstable or suffering mental illness but their concern for their children is very believable. These women appal people but maternal instinct is sometimes no match for deadened emotions or thwarted personal ambition.
But why are mothers who kill their children, seen as so much more repulsive than fathers who kill? The evolution of mankind has always required a mother or mother substitute and without that connection to a nurturing person during the defenceless time of infancy, the human race would not have survived. Jung says that the mother archetype is an inbuilt ability to recognise and form a certain relationship – that of mothering. The issue of trust and dependency therefore becomes an important one and I believe this is the reason why we are so repelled by women who go against the archetype and kill the very people they are supposed to be protecting.
I believe this theme makes for some of the most compelling drama and story telling I have come across. Modern day writers have used F.I.I. in their plots and there are many books and films depicting this condition although it is still a hotly debated topic. Crime writer Patricia Cornwell uses it in her book ‘The Body Farm’ The murdered victim is an 11-year-old girl and the suspect is a serial killer but it turns out that she was killed by her own mother. The screenwriter M Night Shyamalan also uses a similar scenario in the 1999 film ‘The Sixth Sense’. Even ‘The X files’, ER and Law and Order have all featured episodes around women who kill their children (FII). These stories reflect today’s society where the awareness of mothers killing their children is both growing and yet controversial.
It makes for challenging drama but also reflects some of the darker corners of our society.
So, could you use controversial issues like this in your writing?