Natural Born Manslaughterers
By Arianna Huffington
July 13, 1998
"Mistakes were made," said Brian Peterson in court on the day of his and Amy Grossberg's sentencing for the death of their newborn son. Amy followed suit by referring to the baby's death as "what has happened." This impersonal, passive language is essential to perpetuating the same denial that allowed Amy and Brian to kill their baby in the first place.
What happened was not, after all, an earthquake, a fire or soil erosion. It was not an act of God but an act of free will, the result of the topsy-turvy values of Brian and Amy's world. It is unsettling, but not very surprising, that every voice we have since heard from their world has helped prop up their Potemkin wall of denial.
"They made some bad decisions," said Evan Baumgarten, Brian's soccer coach. "Doesn't anyone remember what it's like to be 18¿ You make mistakes. You do things for love." Yeah, sort of like John Hinckley and O.J. Simpson. In Baumgarten's romantic -- and terrifying -- world view, hurling your baby 12 feet into a dumpster is just a thing you do for love, a "mistake," much like allowing a goal or touching the ball with your hands.
The French have a name for that kind of love: "egoisme a deux" (egoism for two). The medical examiners, whose findings were conclusive, had some words for it too: "massive fractures from repeated blows aimed to the head." The baby, of course, could have no words for it, but he was still fighting for his life when put in a trash bag and thrown into the dumpster. It is, it turns out, quite hard to extinguish human life. It's not something that can be done diffidently.
Yet so skewed seems to be the community's moral compass that a Peterson family friend decreed before the sentencing that Brian and Amy -- a la the Brady kids after pulling a prank on Alice or keeping the car out too long -- had "been punished enough." There are inner-city kids in jail for being caught with five grams of crack serving twice the time Brian and Amy were given -- two years for him, two and a half for her. but the crack kids can't afford a million dollars for their defense, and for some reason they don't get as much sympathetic press.
"If there is a disturbing aspect to your character," Judge Henry Ridgely told Amy during sentencing, "it was an egocentricity that blinded you to the need to seek help and to the intrinsic value of the life of the child."
Where did such egocentricity come from? Well, at least in Amy's case it seems to run in the family. What world were her parents lost in that they did not notice their daughter was eight and a half months pregnant when they visited her in college two weeks before she gave birth? In a court higher than a court of law, Amy's parents would also be spending some years behind bars. Perhaps with plenty of time to talk to each other, they could get to the bottom of why Amy was more terrified of telling them the truth than she was of murder.
Yes, I know that the responsibility for the death of the baby is uniquely and tragically Amy's and Brian's -- the inner circle of this Hell is all their own. But there are also concentric circles of graduated responsibility -- with their parents in the second circle, their friends, teachers and relatives in the third circle, and the surrounding culture in the fourth.
Amy had a roommate in college, and she also shared showers with half her floor. Did nobody notice? Or was everybody too self-absorbed to care? And when Brian and Amy checked into the Prenatal Suite at the Comfort Inn and delivered their baby, did nobody hear the baby's or the mother's cries?
Amy was called egocentric by the judge and self-absorbed by the prosecutor -- both adjectives that also perfectly describe the enabling culture. Narcissism is, after all, our mainstream culture's distinguishing characteristic. Amy and Brian were clearly in a state of arrested development. But then, so is the culture. Anything that challenges our narrowly defined self-interests is an unwelcome intruder -- as was the baby. Brian and Amy were stuck in the "Me, Me, Me" ethos of a 2-year-old -- untempered by any higher impulses.Last week another dead baby, or "mistake," was found in a dumpster in Delaware. How many more infants do we have to fish out of dumpsters before we grow up as a culture and move beyond the narcissism that determines so many of our choices and our responses to others' choices -- even if those include murder at a Comfort Inn?
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