"You are potentially capable of forgetting your child"

A heartbreaking article about parents who accidentally leave their kids to die in hot cars challenges us to feel compassion, not contempt.

Published March 9, 2009 3:25PM (EDT)

The subhead of Gene Weingarten's heartbreaking article in yesterday's Washington Post asks an inflammatory question -- "Forgetting a child in the back seat of a hot, parked car is a horrifying, inexcusable mistake. But is it a crime?" -- but it's a bit of a red herring. Weingarten makes it clear from the outset that his answer is no -- and that, in any case, no punishment could match the life sentence of guilt that parents who have done so were handed the moment they realized what happened. Seeking to demonstrate how even the most conscientious parents can have a tragic lapse of memory, Weingarten not only interviewed 13 people who have endured the horror of killing their own children in a "perfect storm" of distraction and absent-mindedness, but also a memory expert, David Diamond, who explains why it could happen to any of us: "Memory is a machine, and it is not flawless. Our conscious mind prioritizes things by importance, but on a cellular level, our memory does not. If you're capable of forgetting your cellphone, you are potentially capable of forgetting your child."

As unbelievable as that statement may sound, Weingarten makes a strong case for its truth. In every instance he covers, the parents responsible were dealing with unusual interruptions in their morning routine, got distracted and believed they'd already dropped their children off at daycare or with the baby sitter -- when in reality, they'd skipped that step and left the children in their parked cars as they went to work. Says Diamond, "The important factors that keep showing up involve a combination of stress, emotion, lack of sleep and change in routine, where the basal ganglia is trying to do what it's supposed to do, and the conscious mind is too weakened to resist. What happens is that the memory circuits in a vulnerable hippocampus literally get overwritten, like with a computer program. Unless the memory circuit is rebooted -- such as if the child cries ... it can entirely disappear." Weingarten makes it chillingly clear how the lack of that "reboot" can lead to parents sincerely believing their kids are safe in their daily routines while they're actually dying. "Several people ... have driven from their workplace to the day-care center to pick up the child they'd thought they'd dropped off, never noticing the corpse in the back seat. Then there is the Chattanooga, Tenn., business executive who must live with this: His motion-detector car alarm went off, three separate times, out there in the broiling sun. But when he looked out, he couldn't see anyone tampering with the car. So he remotely deactivated the alarm and went calmly back to work."

"I was that guy, before. I'd read the stories, and I'd go, 'What were those parents thinking?'" says Mikey Terry, whose 6-month-old daughter, Mika, died of hyperthermia after he left her in a car while he went to work driving a truck, only to realize what he'd done when he was 40 long miles away. For those of us who haven't experienced such a tragedy, perhaps the most disturbing element of Weingarten's article is how he indicts us for our knee-jerk judgments of these parents, our insistence that we would never be so careless. He quotes psychologist Ed Hickling, who's studied the effects of fatal car accidents on the surviving drivers: "We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we'll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don't want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters." Weingarten follows that up with an example of one of the comments on a Charlottesville News Web site article about Lyn Balfour, who left her son, Bryce, to perish in her car: "If she had too many things on her mind then she should have kept her legs closed and not had any kids. They should lock her in a car during a hot day and see what happens."

In the context of the article -- specifically, following Weingarten's description of listening to Balfour's interrogation by the police ("her answers are immeasurably sad, almost unintelligible, half sob, half whisper") and "unendurable" 911 call, in which she's heard screaming frantically while performing CPR on her dead son -- the heartlessness of such a comment is amplified. And yet, it's also echoed in numerous comments on this very article. (Judging from sad experience, it will likely again be echoed in comments here.) "The Terry family didn't 'lose' their six-month-old (a new low in euphemism, WaPo). They KILLED their six-month-old." "Think spraying [sic] or neutering... then they will be free to indulge their distractions." Some of the nastiest commenters are obviously stirring the pot for their own sick thrills, but others are doing exactly what Ed Hickling describes: comforting themselves by trying to make these people into something other than loving parents who made the worst mistake imaginable. "I thought about it and then jumped to what seems the most obvious conclusion: narcissism. If, of all things in your life, you put your child in danger in such a circumstance, it's because you don't give the child your fullest attention." Other commenters point out that most of the parents mentioned talking on cell phone calls while driving -- dangerous! (which, yeah it is, but let he who is without sin...) -- and several others rant about working mothers and/or parents who "place career above family," as though working to support your children means you're only marginally interested in their welfare. Not surprisingly, although most of the parents Weingarten interviewed are fathers, Lyn Balfour bears the brunt of the specifically directed condemnation. What kind of mother could forget about her own child?

The good kind. The normal kind. The sleepless, hardworking, struggling kind. That's what Weingarten's article makes abundantly clear, yet it's a message many are loath to accept, including people whose empathy or lack thereof can affect much more than just these parents' emotional recovery. In discussing why some parents are charged as criminals and some aren't, Weingarten interviews two prosecutors, Ray Morrogh, who brought involuntary manslaughter charges against one father, and Earle Mobley, who chose not to charge another. Mobley, who lost a daughter to leukemia, says he felt it was the right legal decision, "but I also have some idea what it feels like, what it does to you, when you lose a child." Morrogh, when asked if he could imagine himself making such a tragic mistake, first avoids the question but later says, "I have to say no, it couldn't have happened to me. I am a watchful father." In this context, such parental self-confidence sounds like nothing but pure -- and potentially dangerous -- hubris. After all, Mikey Terry used to think the same thing.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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