Reading for 1 March 2002: The Susan Smith Story: a Modern Medea?

[source: Mother Love, Deadly Love: the Susan Smith Murders by Andrea Peyser; Harper 1995]

On October 25, 1994, Susan Smith, a 23 year old woman with two children, separated from her husband because of his adultery and recently dumped by a lover she had taken once single, killed her two sons by locking them in the back seat of her car and rolling it into a local lake.  She then claimed that she had been 'cracked' by an African American man, who took both her car and her children.  Nine days later, Susan Smith confessed that she had committed the crime herself.  Geyser's book is an account of the crime.

Note: in reading these excerpts, I ask that you pay particular attention to the emotionally charged language used by Geyser to describe the lead-up to the murder, the deception of Smith, and the community's reactions.  In short, I ask you to be critical of Geyser's rhetoric, and the way in which she demonizes Smith (mother-as-killer) as an unholy 'monster'ówhich she is notórather than a murdererówhich she certainly is.  I find particularly interesting Peyser's use of highly visual imagery (dark shadows, red tones, domestic features), her emphasis on the trust, joy, and delicacy of the children (as against their mother's 'intelligence,' and larger-than-life intentions for betrayal), and the way in which Peyser has Susan 'metamorphose' into a kind of non-human she-monster after the murders.  This is in no way meant to lighten or belittle the severity of Smith's crime, nor to suggest that I am not myself repulsed by both her actions and her subsequent lies.  But what I am after here is the way in which our society responds to female crimesóand especially violent crimesóas somehow more serious, threatening, or 'unnatural' than the crimes committed by men, and what these reactions might say about our own ideas of inherent female silence or passivity.  Try to keep in mind, then, the way that these themes echo what we have seen in our mythological representations of variously active womenóMedea, of course, but also Ariadne, Phaedra, Clytemnestra, and the Amazons...


"Alex, the little guy, always went first.  Susan Smith cradled her fourteen-month-old son tenderly in her arms, arranging tiny fists, untangling the child's merrily kicking legs.  The shadows of early evening were deepening in the carport of the Smith family's red-brick house as the young mother reached into the rear of her burgundy sedan and buckled Alex carefully into his baby seat.  Feeling the sturdy canvas straps pull tightly across his chest, the tike heard the reassuring 'click' as the fastener yielded to the will of his mother's capable hands.  The ritual of the car seat was as familiar to the tot as his mother's smiling face. To Alex Smith, nattily dressed in his red-and-white striped jumpsuit and ready to go, the back seat of his family's 1990 Mazda Protege felt like the safest place in the world.

"Mama, where are we going?"

Michael, age three, was next.  Though barely past babyhood himself, Alex's older brother was a remarkably quick and observant child.  That should have come as no surprise, since Susan, twenty-three, was known around her hometown as being 'smart as a whip' and Michael was growing into her mirror image...

...As she pulled out of the driveway, Susan's carefully glued-on expression quickly dissolved.  The patient smile she kept on hand for her children contorted into something unrecognizable.  The friendly mask she plastered on for the neighbors all but disappeared...

...As the car plunged deeper into the growing darkness, Susan Smith gave in to the wave of self-pity and anger crashing inside her.  The car became a vehicle for her bottomless rage.

'As I rode and rode and rode, I felt even more anxiety coming upon me about not wanting to live,' she said.  But what of the boys?

'I felt I couldn't be a good mom anymore, but I didn't want my children to grow up without a mom.'  It was a conundrum that had only one logical solution."

[Upon Smith's confession, nine days after the crime and her false accusation of the 'black carjacker']

"A deafening cry tore through Union, and echoed across the nation.  In a child's heartbeat, what began as a terrible tale of Stranger Danger faded into something worse.  Suddenly, the biggest threat to the nation's children no longer appeared to be the unseen hand of a faceless outsider, but the familiar form of the mother next door....

...a child-killer was hideous enough, but Susan had toyed with their emotions for nine long days as she spun her web of lies." [italics mine]

"How did a young motherópretty, smart, and blessed with loving friends and a supportive familyóturn into a monster?  And how many more Susan Smiths are out there?"

[From Chapter 13, "Mothers Who Kill"]

"The act strikes us as unnatural.  Motheróthe giver of lifeómurders the child she carried inside her, fed, and nourished....

Killing one's baby, [Dr. Leifer] says, 'goes against the cultural normóthe need for men in our society to feel that women are care-giving and nurturing.'

In reality, murderous acts committed by mothers, while uncommon, aren't nearly as rare as we'd like to believe.  And that's been a fact of life since at least the beginning of recorded history.

More than 2,400 years ago, a writer of Greek tragedy gave us Medea, that classical precursor to Susan Smith.  Enraged after being spurned by her lover, Medea killed the two sons she bore.  Euripides didn't invent this character out of thin are.  Medea certainly was not the first woman to go the baby-killing route; Susan Smith is not the last."

óIt's a bit weird, isn't it, that Peyser uses Medea (a mythological figure) as a kind of 'historical evidence' for maternal infanticide.


Do weóor should weóconsider violent acts committed by women (especially mothers) to be less 'natural' or more 'monstrous' than violent acts committed by men?  Are women today truly more 'nurturing,' less 'aggressive' by nature, or are these characteristics mere cultural constructions, our legacy of the Greek and Roman mythologizing of the role of the "active" man and "passive" woman, in which a woman who acts is herself an anomaly, a sign that something has gone wrong in the house?