Saturday, October 22, 2005

Famous Too Late

Everybody's heard of her now. LaShaun Harris didn't take her medicine to control the symptoms of her schizophrenia, heard voices telling her to throw her children in the San Francisco Bay, and she did it. As far as I know, the bodies of two of the boys are still missing, but presumably all three children are dead.

For the record, I could probably go down in history as the biggest lover of children that ever lived. The idea of three dead children makes me want to howl at the moon in grief.

At the same time, though, I'm disturbed by the fact that the wharf is now turning into a little shrine. People are leaving flowers and other mementos in honor of the missing boys. Where were any of us when she was trying to raise those children, homeless, with a severe mental illness, and an abusive partner who admitted to the national news that he was violating the order of protection against him?

This kind of tragedy doesn't happen in a vacuum. There is a web of societal failures that culminated in this horrible day. Why does ANY 16 year old get pregnant? Why do we tolerate and wink at domestic violence? Why do orders of protection only work when they're violated -and then only sometimes? Why do we still not have anything other than the most primitive of drugs to control schizophrenic symptoms?

It's not that I'm a weak-minded bleeding heart liberal who only wants to divert blame from a murderous mother. To tell you the truth, I'm not terribly interested in whether or how much we blame the mother here. I do think feminist jurisprudence has fascinating and powerful points to make, but my interests are different. The only thing we can do now is learn something from this and prevent the next desperately ill and socially bereft mother from killing her children. And the questions raised by her actions are profound.

How do we ethically offer services to someone when the services we have are themselves so debilitating? Can we force a mentally ill mother to take her meds? Can we take her children into protective custody just because she's mentally ill? LaShaun Harris had -I'm pretty sure this is true- never hurt her children before. Child Protection clearly can't comment about that, but no one interviewed suggested that there had ever been child abuse before. Ought we force people to accept shelter?

These questions all have currently-legal answers, which may or may not be satisfactory to you. But the answers suggest to me that, even had LaShaun Harris become famous through some miracle before she drowned her children, we still might not have had anything substantive to offer her. We probably could have postponed this tragedy. We might even have been able to mitigate it a little. But we would just have replaced it with other tragic outcomes.

So, I suggest that we take at least one more step back. Why are the vast majority of people suffering from mental illness women? There's something a little facile about a society that systematically truncates women's experiences and devalues their contributions, then wrings its hands and frets that doing so has such drastic consequences. Although the impulse is good, we need to do a whole lot more than leave flowers at the wharf. First, we need to offer real, meaningful help to people who are mentally ill, before they cause and endure even more pain. Secondly, we have to create a just world where people don't have to face such abject powerlessness. It sounds grandiose and ridiculous, but that IS the project, or more people will become famous too late.

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