killing of a child in real life has no symbolic meaning, no power other than that of an expression of evil and is, therefore, one of the worst acts a human, let alone a parent, can commit. In literature, however, the killing of children is symbolic of a diseased mind or of a diseased culture. Euripides' Medea kills her children, but she is a symbol of Mother Earth, of the Gods, and of nature all of which can exert, with no warning and no necessity of explanation, a death upon any or all of us. That which we are given can be taken away. The killing of a child in literature is, in some contexts, a symbolic reminder of the seeming arbitrariness of nature. While some critics interpret Medea as being a proactive population reducer, she can be rightly understood as a sick woman who, like the animals that eat their young when threatened or afraid, killed her children for no logical reason. Throughout history parents have, in real life, killed their children. While Medea makes us reflect upon the symbolic meaning of her acts, people like Susan Smith and Andrea Yates make us sick and wonder just how disturbed a person has to be to actually believe that killing his/her own children is the right thing to do (Derbyshire, n pag). No argument about nature or population control can justify a parent murdering the children. Medea, by our modern interpretation, was insane - made mad by jealousy and a misguided belief that she would best punish Jason (her hero husband) by killing her children first, and then herself. She was insane. It is the purpose of this paper to demonstrate that the natural order of life is for a parent to protect the child and that abuse of the child, including murder, is a reflection of an unstable mind and a person who is unable to function effectively within the community. In short, the child murderer is a severely broken person.
The killing of one's own children is a behavior that opposes common sense and common values. By contradicting common notions about the unshakeable beneficence of parental emotions, infanticidal parents have inspired some of our society's bitterest moral condemnations -- just think of how we reacted to Susan Smith. A mother's murder of her young is an especially shocking act, it is the ultimate violation of the natural order that can only be attributed to psychopathology. Modern attempts at explaining maternal infanticide have typically sought excessive and morbid motivations in the women, real or imagined, who have committed this horrible act. Freudian psychoanalysis, for example, has understood infanticide as ultimately drawing from a woman's pathological revenge wishes against her husband (Sommerville, 69). This is the "Medea Complex" and the death wishes for her children are not only manifested in infanticide, but in spontaneous abortions, pain during intercourse, and all forms of child neglect and abuse (Sommerville, 69). Women who hurt their children often symbolize their husband within the children and, unable to hurt the husband directly through fear or some other barrier, exact their revenge upon the child. This, certainly, is what Medea did. When Jason returned to throw her over for a younger, prettier woman, she went insane and felt that punishing her children and herself was a better punishment than simply killing Jason - which could have been justified in the audience's eye.
Modern critics of Euripides' Medea have generally relied on some form of the infanticide-as-revenge hypothesis in attempting to account for the murderous behavior of the play's protagonist. And indeed, given the way Medea is treated by her husband Jason, it is not hard to imagine how she could be brutally angry with him. After all, in his blinding infatuation with a younger woman, Jason has cruelly abandoned Medea and the two sons she bore him, leaving them as helpless strangers in Corinth while he meanwhile marries into the Corinthian king's household and encourages the king to exile his erstwhile family. "The man who was everything to me," a devastated Medea responds, "has turned out to be the basest of men" (Somerville, 69)
Jason certainly did a very bad thing to his wife and family, and anger directed at him, even destructive anger is understandable. But, Medea is not just any woman. She has a history of harming men in extreme ways (she dismembered and murdered her own brother so that she could escape to marry Jason. Clearly, she was a keg ready to explode. But, in the modern Medea's such as Susan Smith, we may not find such a clear symbolic link to future behaviors that put children at risk. The fact is that predicting child abuse and child murder is very difficult, nearly impossible.
If we turn a critical psychological eye on Medea, we can take a very clinical view and see that a diseased mind is what led her to kill her brother, her children, and herself - all for the attention of a man who would ultimately betray her. She was unstable and unable to manage her emotional state. Medea is the archetype of the wickedly diseased woman. We can see slivers of her in all the evil women of children's stories (the child-eating witch in Hansel and Gretel as a standout) (Eilerass, 128). Stepmothers, in particular, have been given a very bad image in the entire Western psyche (Haebich, 66). From the Roman Empire through to the present day, they have consistently linked stepmothers with abuse, cruelty and neglect of children. This despite the fact that stepmothers have played a significant positive role in family maintenance throughout western history. Prior to this century high adult death rates, particularly of women in childbirth, meant that many families were disrupted by death followed by remarriage and establishment of stepfamilies. This occurred at rates similar to family disruption caused by divorce today.(Haebich, 66).
Child abuse has become a major public health problem worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which estimates hat 40 million children ages 14 years and younger around the world suffer from abuse or neglect (Public Health Reports, p260). The abused child suffers terribly. But, the most horrible suffering is experienced within the psyche of the child. The abused child experiences a psychological impact from which is can be nearly impossible to recover. It is the purpose of this paper to examine the psychological impact of abuse upon children.
Our society is one governed by laws and social expectations. We expect, reasonably, that our citizens will respect these guides for behavior. However, there are certain people for whom the moral obligation to society's laws and expectations do not effectively control their behavior. For whatever reason, certain people govern their behavior based upon urges or impulses that supercede their obligation to society and humanity. These people are those who treat others with cruelty, who abuse and neglect their children, who sexually assault / molest the defenseless, who create situations of terror in the minds and souls of others. Abusing parents have been found to be more likely to attribute hostile intent to others and to have higher levels of hostility themselves (Crimmins, et al., 54). Abusing parents also frequently engage in excessive self-criticism and feelings of guilt (The Lancet, p88). However, it is difficult to predict whether any individual is likely to abuse their children.
Abusers typically have a serious unfulfilled need for support deriving from their childhood (while we are unaware of such an issue with Medea, her failures to manage her emotional state must stem from something).
They are frequently socially isolated (Medea was left alone for years as Jason was on his quest, Susan Smith rarely left the company of her children to spend time with adults) and have emotional needs which render them incapable of caring for a child or even knowing how to provide a nurturing family environment. Additionally, victimizers often lack adequate support systems, which results in not being able to discuss their feelings or turn to for support (Powers, 40). Poor marital relationships, which are impacted by low self-esteem and extreme external stress (poverty, divorce, poor working conditions, etc.) all result, very often, in taking those stresses out on their children (Simpson & Stanton, 454).
Often, too, child abuse is attributed primarily to the male parent. Fathers who felt more effective as parents were less likely to have neglected their children. A greater sense of efficacy may reflect parenting skills and be important in enhancing the contribution of fathers to their children's well being (Mark and Dubowitz, p2505). Mothers are also quite likely to engage in child abuse, but much less so for sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is often perpetrated by the hands of male relations who have consistent contact with the child.
Medea is the archetype of the abusive parent. Her problems stem from some imbalance, emotional, chemical or otherwise, that led her to the conclusion that killing her children was the correct path to take. Our modern incarnations of…