“Were it not for music, we might in these days say, the Beautiful is dead.” - Benjamin Disraeli
Sometimes a few notes of a song half heard while one is rushing past another car on the road, or when one changes radio station, a few fleeting notes, can bring back with great strength memories of the past. Vivid images that one thought were forgotten are quickly resurrected. A snatch of melody, that someone hums in the street, a few mumbled words of lyric are enough to rekindle old flames amongst the ashes. Music speaks to our soul and the only way for us to answer is with our heart. When our heart sings, the melody will cause our brain to raise a white flag, defeated…
The Child in the Truck
The streets, empty and cold. The morning, grey and cloudy. The leaves of yesterday’s paper Waltzing with the wind on wet asphalt, While bleary-eyed the newspaper boy Sourly announces a newer version of the news.
And I, serene, relentlessly introverted Listen to your rhythms Leaving your melodies to wander aimlessly In the deserted alleyways of my mind. Your verses loiter, lingering In room after room of grey matter Proselytising from my memory images, Pale, faded, ideal…
“Oh, my precious urban loneliness, Grey-dressed, frigid sister, How slowly you unravel round me! You unsex yourself, And in your newly muscular grip You tighten your wily snares To entrap me.”
Bathed in the wan, grey morning light That tiny child looks feebly, wide-eyed Through the dirty window of the truck. And in the stark beauty of waiting He sits alone, abiding The inexorable loss of innocence.
I have been distressed these past few weeks by news items that I hear from all over the world that seem to have a common theme: Infanticide. It seems that there is an epidemic out there of babies being killed, most often by their mothers, soon after they are born. Is it a sign of the times, I wonder, these new Medeas appearing all over the world confirming the wholesale madness that is gripping humanity?
One of the stories I read concerned tribal women in Papua New Guinea who used infanticide as a way out of endless internecine feuds. They kill their male babies and thus reduce the number of warring males in the next generation. Male infanticide on a mass scale was the obvious way for these women to cope with the bloodbath they were immersed in. All the women folk had agreed to have newborn babies killed because they have had enough of men engaging in tribal conflicts and bringing misery to them.
Heinous though this may seem, there is a reason to the infanticide: Violence to end violence. A sacrifice to peace, gruesome though it is. Desperation will drive people to the edge of reason. If surviving was almost impossible and getting food was hard, as husbands kept fighting and mothers and children were left to fend for themselves, what else could the womenfolk do to stop the warring tribes? Male infanticide reduces the cyclical pay back violence infamous in Highlands tribal fights.
Last year the “baby in the freezer” occurence in Pittsburgh rocked America. A 22 year-old woman put her newborn baby in a plastic bag and then a brown bag and froze it in a beer box in her freezer. According to a police affidavit, the mother Christine Hutchinson told police she gave birth to the girl on April 22 2007 and did not call medics or police, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
In a similar case, this year in Germany three frozen babies were found in a household freezer. Today a German mother has been sentenced to more than four years in jail for killing two of her babies whose bodies she stashed in the family freezer. She was not tried in connection with a third baby, also found in the freezer, who died over 20 years ago because the statute of limitations on the case had expired. The 44-year-old housewife, Monika Halbe, who was handed a four year and three month prison sentence for manslaughter, had admitted to hiding the bodies of three baby girls in the family freezer, but had denied killing them. In the macabre case that has made national headlines, it was the defendant’s teenage son who had discovered the girls’ tiny corpses in plastic bags in May when looking for a pizza in the basement freezer. The grim case revived a debate about the state of child welfare in Germany after several high-profile cases of killings by mothers came to light.
In an incident also this year, a 14-year-old girl gave birth to a full-term baby in a school bathroom and then tried to flush it down the toilet, killing the infant, police in Texas said. The occurrence at Cedar Bayou Junior High in Baytown, Texas, came just three days after another 14-year-old girl delivered a stillborn baby in the toilet of an aeroplane on her way back to Houston from a school field trip. The Harris County District Attorney's office decided not to pursue charges against the girl on the plane, who disposed of the body in a rubbish bin. The students and their chaperones were returning from New York aboard a March 30 2008 Continental Airlines flight. Houston homicide investigators interviewed both the girl and a 14-year-old boy believed to be the father. The girl, whom authorities have not identified, told police she did not know she was pregnant. Preliminary autopsy results indicated the baby was stillborn and not viable, police said. The plane landed at Bush Intercontinental Airport on a non-stop flight from New York's LaGuardia Airport. A cleaning crew found the body inside a wastebasket in the toilet of the plane about 15 minutes after it landed.
These are young girls we are talking about, old enough to experiment with sex but irresponsible and young enough not to be careful about sexually transmitted diseases and the risk of pregnancy. Young enough to panic about the consequences of a pregnancy and of giving birth under those circumstances. However, this is not only something that happens to the young and immature, as the next item shows.
Claire Jones a 32 year-old woman in Wales, told an inquest she did not know she had given birth until she started flushing her baby down a toilet by accident. She became pregnant after an affair with a work colleague but hid her condition from friends and family. After “panicking” in the toilet at her partner’s parents’ home, she hid the baby in her car boot, where police found it. Cardiff Coroner Mary Hassell said Ms Jones had built up a “web of deception”. The hearing was told Ms Jones did not reveal her pregnancy, telling friends and family, including David Stoneman, her partner of 11 years, that a wheat allergy had caused a hard mass to form in her stomach.
But on 28 December 2007, a week after her due date, she experienced pains, which she put down to diarrhoea. She told the inquest: “While I was still on the toilet, I flushed it, and I felt something pull. I stood up slightly, and I could see a foot in the bowl of the toilet.” She said the baby was underneath the water covered in toilet paper. “I could see the baby's foot, so I pulled the baby out. “I sat by the toilet. I put him on my lap. He wasn’t crying. I was trying to feel for a pulse and there was nothing.” Ms Jones was asked why she did not call for help. She said: “Because nobody knew I was pregnant. Because he wasn't breathing, I just panicked. I didn't know what to do. I wrapped him in a towel. I don’t remember how, but I must have put him in the boot of the car.”
The inquest heard Ms Jones was arrested 10 days later at the home in St Mellons, Cardiff, she shared with Mr Stoneman, and Daniel's body was found in her Vauxhall Astra car. She said she planned to leave Mr Stoneman, and her work colleague Marcus Bezerra, who was aware of the pregnancy and had bought items for the baby in preparation for his birth. When asked why she did not leave Mr Stoneman before the baby was due, she replied: “Things had got in such a mess with the two relationships. I didn’t want to hurt anybody. I just messed everything up.”
The coroner said Ms Jones had manufactured “a tissue of lies” and dismissed as “beyond belief” Ms Jones' claim about not knowing if she had given birth. Ms Hassell continued: “It is impossible to know if Daniel would have survived if Ms Jones, who had her mobile telephone with her in the toilet, had called for help. The house was full of people who, I have no doubt, would have rushed to her aid. She did not seek medical attention for herself or for her baby. If Daniel was stillborn, it is not possible to say why he did not survive. If he was born alive, the most likely reason for his death was drowning in the toilet bowl.”
The extremes of irresponsibility in these days of selfish pleasures seem to involve sad cases like these. We have lost our dignity and our respect of life. That most sacred of bonds, that of mother and child, is being degraded and corrupted. How can we explain this apparent spate of child killings? Is it really a sign of our times? Careful investigation of the evidence suggests otherwise. Infanticide ha been practiced since ancient times and is still widespread in many societies around the world. In China and India infanticide of female newborns is still common practice (as is abortion of female fetuses).
What drives a mother to kill her child? Is it hardness of circumstances or hardness of heart? The mother with the hardest of hearts who slew her children was Medea. According to Greek myth, she killed her children as revenge against her unfaithful husband, Jason (of Golden Fleece fame). The term “Medea syndrome” derives from this legend. The following factors represent examples of both hardness of life and hardness of heart causing infanticide.
Human sacrifice is one of the earliest recorded forms of infanticide. Archaeological evidence indicates that prehistoric children were sacrificed to the gods. By offering a valued possession to the gods, humans have long attempted to appease a deity. What more valuable than a newborn child?
Poverty, famine, and population control are inter-related factors. Where safe and effective birth control was unavailable, infanticide was used to selectively limit the growth of a community. Infanticide allowed for selection of the fittest or most desirable offspring, with sick, deformed, female, or multiple births targeted for disposal.
Female infanticide is a problem rooted in a culture of sexism throughout antiquity. In many cultures girls have little value. Even when female children were not killed at birth, their needs were neglected, particularly if limited resources were needed to ensure the survival of male offspring.
Deformed or defective newborns have been disposed of by most cultures across the ages. From an evolutionary standpoint, parents decide whether to invest their energy in raising a deformed or sick child that may not survive to perpetuate the family lines.
Illegitimacy is another factor leading to infanticide through the ages. To avoid shame and censure, women have secretively disposed of illegitimate babies since early Roman times. Illegitimacy and poverty are the most common reasons for infanticide in the twenty-first century.
Finally, superstitious beliefs regarding children and childbirth contributed to the practice of infanticide. In many cultures, twins were believed to be evil and were promptly killed. In some tribal societies, twins of the opposite gender were believed to have committed incest in the womb and were condemned. In some cases only one twin was killed. Other superstitions involve unlucky days of the week, breech presentations, the presence of baby teeth at birth, or atmospheric conditions during birth. Ignorance, fear, and legend have contributed to the deaths of infants throughout the ages.
More recently, especially in developed countries the psychological status of women who have just given birth has been examined and post-partum depression and other psychological states in the post-partum period have been described. Legal debate centres on the use of post-partum depression as a legal defence in infanticide (homicide) cases. The American Psychiatric Association first recognised post-partum depression (PPD) in 1994. Since then, American courts have begun to recognise PPD as a legitimate defence, although it has rarely been used successfully. Approximately 20 percent of all new mothers experience PPD, a serious and lasting depression. One out of every thousand new mothers will experience psychotic symptoms including delusions, hallucinations, and incoherent thinking. Because British law has long assumed that mothers who kill suffer from mental illness, British doctors treat PPD aggressively and British courts rule with more leniency than American courts. Many researchers suggest that the United States should follow the British approach.
When I was confronted by these news items in a short period of time, I had a very visceral and immediate emotional reaction. My first thought was abhorrence and revulsion. However, the more I think about it and the more I investigate the matter, the more complicated it becomes. The reasons why parents choose to destroy their offspring defy simple explanation. In the past, harsh conditions, lack of effective contraception, unavailability of abortion as an option for ending an unwanted pregnancy and lack of information may have contributed to the problem. In modern times many of these reasons have disappeared, but human nature has remained the same and this continues to drive infanticide rates. Are these parents who practice it unfortunate, uneducated, immature, evil, selfish, or mentally ill? Perhaps the answer lies in a combination of these explanations. Understanding of the multiple causes of infanticide can only lead to better means of prevention.
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” - Winston Churchill
Today, 1st of December, is World AIDS Day. This year’s theme is “Lead – Empower – Deliver.” Designating leadership as the theme provides an opportunity to highlight both political leadership and celebrate leadership that has been witnessed at all levels of society. It is only through effective leadership that empowerment of victims can occur and delivery of solutions to this widespread world problem can be attempted. In first world countries HIV infection has disappeared from the headlines as more effective treatments for the disease became available in 1996 with the synthesis of protease inhibitors. Such drugs, on the other hand, are not readily available to AIDS sufferers in developing countries, allowing AIDS to reach alarming rates there.
Acknowledging the significance of World AIDS Day internationally, my Movie Monday review is dedicated to a classic 1993 film, Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia”. At the time it was released, this film was a landmark in the fight against the social marginalisation that AIDS-affected people had to cope with during a time that treatments did little to curb the fatal inevitability of the disease. The film was a powerful exposé of mindless prejudice, irrational fear fired by misinformation and the triumph of reason and the meting out of natural justice for our fellow human beings in need.
The film concerns Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer infected with HIV and who is starting to develop symptoms of AIDS. He is fired from his conservative law firm when it becomes known he has AIDS as they fear they may contract the disease from him. Andrew sues his former law firm with the help of Joe Miller, a homophobic lawyer. A court battle ensues, and during its course Miller sees that Beckett is no different than anyone else who has been unjustly treated. He manages to control his homophobia and manages to help Beckett fight for his cause.
The film has several high points as well as a powerful and gripping story. Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett and Denzel Washington as Joe Miller give performances that are a recital of top class acting. Tom Hanks rightly won the Oscar for Best Male Lead in 1994 for this film. The other Oscar went to Bruce Springsteen’s song “Streets of Philadelphia” for the Best Song and Original Music. The direction by Demme is faultless and the gritty, dark theme is brought into amazing chiaroscuro by the inspired cinematography of Tak Fujimoto. In fact, it is very hard to fault this film, which creates a tremendous tour de force all in support of basic human rights.
World AIDS Day gives us the opportunity to reflect on a variety of issues that beset the world in these early years of the 21st century. The fragility of our planet as we tackle the idea of climate change on a global level, drives home the message of our own species’ fragility. We are our own worst enemies as we live our life spending our energy on mindless hate. How easy it is to stick together in tightly knit little cliques, clans, castes, conclaves, subgroups and hate everyone else different from us. How easy it is to attack with fervour anyone who does not resemble us in terms of sexual preference, politics, ideology, religion, race. How easy it is to victimise the weak and the dispossessed…
HIV is still with us today, despite the billions of dollars spent of research. Prejudice is still rife, social stigmatization of minorities still occurs. Religious hatred still inspires violence of frightening proportions. Differences in ideology still motivate acts of sickening terrorism as the recent events in India exemplify. We carry on for centuries, blissfully unaware of the germination of the seeds of our destruction. We must shake ourselves and awake from this stupefying slumber that is causing us to repeat mistake after mistake…
“A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible.” - Welsh Proverb
For Art Sunday today, a painting by South Australian Artist Richard Baxter (born 1966).
This is his painting, “With Roots Above and Branches Below”, for which the artist says the following:
There is a tree, the tree of transmigration, the Asvattha tree everlasting. Its roots are above in the highest, and its branches are here below. Its leaves are sacred songs, and he who knows them knows the Vedas. Its branches spread from earth to Heaven, and the powers of nature give them life. Its buds are the pleasures of the senses. Far down below its roots stretch into the world of men, binding a mortal through selfish actions. Men do not see the changing form of that tree, nor its beginning, nor its end, nor where its roots are. But let the wise see, and with the strong sword of dispassion let him cut this strong rooted tree, and seek the path wherefrom those who go never return. Such a man can say; “I go for refuge to that eternal spirit from whom the stream of creation came at the beginning.” Bhagavad Gita. Chapter 15, verses 1-4.
I have been blogging daily on this platform for several years now. It is surprising that I have persisted as the world is changing and "microblogging" is now the norm. I blog to amuse myself, make comment on current affairs, externalise some of my creativity, keep notes on things that interest me, learn something new and to surprise myself with things that I discover about this wonderful, and sometimes crazy, world we live in.
I sometimes get the impression that I am on a soapbox delivering a monologue, so your comments are welcome.