Death of a fat girl

Is Christina Corrigan's mother on trial for neglect -- or for having an obese child?

Published September 22, 1997 8:29AM (EDT)

Christina Corrigan, 13, was found dead last November on the living room floor of her El Cerrito, Calif., home. Her body was covered with sores, and feces were encrusted within the folds of her skin. Her room smelled like urine. Food containers were strewn around her body. And according to the coroner's report, there was evidence that insects had been feeding on her flesh. At the time of her death, she weighed 680 pounds.

Christina's mother, Marlene Corrigan, has been charged with felony child endangerment in the death of her daughter. When she was arraigned last August, Marlene Corrigan pleaded not guilty.

In the courtroom were members of various "fat acceptance" groups, on hand to provide Corrigan support. They will be there again today when the preliminary hearing in the Corrigan case begins.

The case became a media feeding-frenzy, with the story of Christina's death making the front pages of Bay Area newspapers. "A lot of news reports have focused on the weight of Christina, but that doesn't matter at all," said Detective Don Horgan of the El Cerrito Police Department, one of the first officers to arrive on the scene. "She was lying in her own filth. It wouldn't matter if she was 30 years old or 50 or 80 or if she weighed two pounds or 5,000 pounds. This case is going to trial because of the conditions the girl was living in."

But Marlene Corrigan's lawyer, Michael Cardoza of San Francisco, believes the case is mired in anti-fat bias. Pointing the finger at the investigating coroner, Cardoza said that no internal autopsy was performed on Christina's body and that the official cause of death -- congestive heart failure due to morbid obesity -- is simply a catch-all conclusion used when obese people die. "Marlene Corrigan asked them to perform an autopsy but all they did was examine Christina externally," Cardoza said. "She could have died from choking on a chicken bone! The coroner was simply lazy."

Regarding the neglect charge, Cardoza denies that the Corrigan house always looked the way it did on the day Christina died. "Adolescents are not neat. What was her mother supposed to do, be her kid's maid? Christina showered and took care of herself." What about Christina's physical condition? "Her mother never saw any bed sores," Cardoza said. "Marlene made clothes for her daughter. She wrote a letter to Richard Simmons asking for help. Christina lived in good condition until the dam broke."

Last week Salon talked with Judy Freespirit of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), one of the organizations that rallied around Corrigan after the death of her daughter.

Why is NAAFA supporting Marlene Corrigan?

Well, I am supporting her because the media is making a circus out of this case. If this child had weighed 120 pounds and everything else had been equal, this story would not have made it to Page 30 of the newspaper, let alone Page 1. It is making front pages because the media has picked up on the fact that this is about weight. They would not be prosecuting this woman if the child hadn't weighed so much. Now the prosecutor is saying that weight is not an issue, which is so obviously a lie -- the issue is fat. Part of NAAFA's purpose is to educate the public. Anywhere where the issue is fat, NAAFA is going to come in because a lot of miseducation is going on in a case like this.

So you think Marlene Corrigan is being targeted primarily because she was the mother of a fat child?

We're very concerned about the chilling effect this is going to have on mothers of fat kids. Parents might now start pressuring their kids even more, because they are afraid they are going to get sent to jail if their kids get too fat.

What about all the other circumstances in this case -- such as the fact that Christina was found in terrible condition, seemingly uncared for? You might be supporting a woman who was a really bad mom.

You are innocent until proven guilty. If she did anything really terrible, that is not what we are defending. We are defending her right to a fair trial, to a fair hearing, which she is not going to get if there is the kind of prejudice that has traditionally existed in the courts over the issue of fat. This is a single mother, working full time, with a 13-year-old child. Let's say she wasn't clean -- you can't wipe a 13-year-old's ass.

Still, people are looking at this case thinking it is horrific and that someone should be held responsible, because this child was a child. And that someone would be the adult living with her, in this case her mother.

The information about how to deal with physical things for someone that size is not readily available. Over the years we have developed a lot of things, like gadgets you can use to help reach places that are hard to reach, but this mother would not have known about that. We know that the child didn't go to a doctor for a number of years; she refused. Any single fat person will tell you that going to the doctor is a nightmare. To try to get this child to go, when she can't physically lift the child -- there are a whole lot of assumptions that people are making about what this mother should have done. They didn't walk in her shoes.

Couldn't a doctor have come to the house?

The family had Kaiser Permanente insurance. Have you ever tried to get a doctor to do this? This is all conjecture, but I think that this mother must have been quite overwhelmed. I will be at the trial to find out what is happening, and even if she is guilty of some things -- there are things that she is not guilty of that she is being prosecuted for, like being responsible for the child who weighed 680 pounds.

People have been astounded at Christina's size. In NAAFA's view, is there such a thing as being too fat?

It is not for us to decide that. We don't know why she weighed what she did. It is very possible that there was something physically wrong. This child, until she was 3, was on some kind of medication for the treatment of grand mal seizures. When she stopped taking it, she suddenly gained a lot of weight. This tells us something. She fell through the medical system's cracks. You cannot eat enough to weigh 680 pounds at age 13 if your body is functioning properly.

In your opinion, who is responsible for Christina Corrigan's death?

I think that there were a lot of people who were responsible. I think that the medical establishment failed her. She did not get adequate medical care, or she would not have gotten so terrified that she wouldn't go see a doctor. I think the schools failed her, they let her fall through the cracks when she was supposed to go from elementary school to junior high. I think that a society that tells her that she is not OK, that she is a freak, has failed her. I don't think that there is anybody who isn't guilty.

Including her mother?

Her mother is part of this culture. She is oppressed in this culture the way everybody else is. I am not saying she is guilty of anything that could put her in jail. I don't know. We will see what happens at the trial. I am not saying she's not guilty, and I am not saying she is guilty. She is no more guilty than you and me, who allow this kind of attitude to keep going without rationally looking at it.

But you and I weren't living in the house.

We don't know the details. The mother was raised in this culture and must have felt that she wasn't a good mother. I don't know this, but everybody was telling her she was a bad mother. Her own sister turned her into the authorities several years ago. That doesn't mean she wasn't doing the best that she could do. It is an impossible situation. It is impossible to be the parent of a child this big. If the child had any other disability -- and I would say that a 680-pound child at the age of 13 is disabled, she couldn't walk -- the mother would not ordinarily be blamed for the child's disability, except in the case of crack. If she had seizures, or was in a wheelchair, people would have seen the mother as almost a martyr. But with a child who is fat, not only would she have to deal with this disabled child, but with the disapproval of everyone around her and the blame that, somehow, she should have stopped her daughter from eating.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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