The more likely that anyone of us can fail, act cruelly or violently to those we love, the more often we may be inclined to say: “There but for the grace of God . . .” And the more vigorously must come our denial.
Years ago in Texas, Andrea Yates went to prison for drowning her five children while she was mentally ill. A juror in the case, appearing on television, found that the robotic fashion in which Yates called each child to the bath, drowned it, then wrapped the body as if for sleep, and laid it on the bed was proof of her deliberate intent.
The very mechanical method by which she murdered her children points to a mother possessed. For reasons hormonal, or cultural or psychic, she was numb. But she was tried without compassion, judged purely on consequences, not the context in which she did act.
We all exist within community, and that structure dictates, demands proper actions: never more insistently than upon a mother, whose command is love.
But in Texas there was no mercy from a jury of her peers.
In the recent conviction of Gloria Nelligan of the murder of her grandson, we’ve come no further in our understanding, it appears. I see Ms. Nelligan’s conviction as proof.
Many grandmothers, mothers, single women, struggle to raise children, to set them firmly on a productive path, and many struggle with little help: struggling in neighborhoods where guns and drugs and alcohol are common, fighting against these odds to raise a citizen.
Gloria Nelligan should not have beaten her grandson, causing his death. But the rest of us, as a jury of her peers, should think a little deeper, be aware of context. For the first impulse when a senseless, needless murder is done is to deny that we ever could — to immediately and fiercely condemn the culprit. For if he could, we could.
But we probably will not. For, fortunately, we’ll not be similarly pressed. The very fact the child was in her custody belies her criminal intent.
Too many grandmothers must assume the responsibility that birth mothers have left. Death, drugs, illness, or prison — there are myriad reasons with the same result: young children with absent parents, needing care, needing guidance. Needing love.
With our Congress intent on cutting food stamps, denying health coverage, generally hostile to those with less, there is anxiety, there is frustration, there is fear and a strong sense that only those with money really count.
In this climate, fostered by that hostility, what must be the anguish of these women — and they are most often women — who love these unlucky children and see little hope? Women who know this indifference but care. Intensely. Women loving enough to fear a child’s mistake, to punish, and exceed the limit beyond what those of us in our comfortable complacency can comprehend.
In our impoverished neighborhoods comprising worn-down houses, frequent gunshots ringing out, broken sidewalks, and noisy streets, there are many Gloria Nelligans fighting for the future of abandoned kids. And their sacrifices go unsung: their loyalty, their vigilance in providing protection for these kids.
Before we judge, we must consider how much we value their devotion and how much we would, or have given, to aid their efforts. How much we’ve even thought about their efforts and often futile love.
Barbara DeMille lives in Rensselaerville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.