How could a mother eat her own baby?

The case of Otty Sanchez is shocking and gruesome. But it's also a cautionary tale about how we treat new mothers

Published August 1, 2009 10:32AM (EDT)

This July 18, 2009 photo released by Scott Buchholz shows Otty Sanchez with her son Scott Wesley Buchholz-Sanchez in San Antonio. Sanchez, 33, is charged with capital murder in the baby's death and could face the death penalty. When authorities found the infant's body Sunday, July 26, 2009, Sanchez told officers the devil made her do it, police said.
This July 18, 2009 photo released by Scott Buchholz shows Otty Sanchez with her son Scott Wesley Buchholz-Sanchez in San Antonio. Sanchez, 33, is charged with capital murder in the baby's death and could face the death penalty. When authorities found the infant's body Sunday, July 26, 2009, Sanchez told officers the devil made her do it, police said.

As news of the 33-year-old Texas woman who murdered her infant son and then ate bits of his brain and a few toes zips around the Internet, our morbid curiosity grows. The story of Otty Sanchez taps deep veins, unfolding like a Greek tragedy: A new mother breaks with her lover three weeks after giving birth to their child. Insane with grief, she hears voices telling her to kill her baby -- the fruit of their union. After murdering the infant, she begins to consume him, returning him to the body from whence he so recently came. In a moment of clarity she sees what she has done. Horrified, she tries to take her own life, stabbing herself in the heart and slitting her own throat.

Our literature profs would have us list the sweeping, irresistible themes: love, abandonment, insanity, infanticide, cannibalism, religion, an epic battle between the forces of good and evil ("He made me do it," Sanchez allegedly wailed in the aftermath, referring to the devil), divine retribution.

As fiction it is high art.

The Sanchez incident nestles neatly into a literary canon that packages parental ambivalence into clear plots and simple motives: Abraham, who is told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering; Medea, who kills her two sons to punish their father for leaving her; Hansel and Gretel, abandoned by selfish parents because it was so costly to feed them (leaving them prey to a mean old woman who planned to eat more than their brains and toes).

Alas, the details of the Otty Sanchez incident are now trickling out, ruining our tidy narrative with a clutter of problematic facts. Already our story is getting unruly.

Both Sanchez (mom) and Scott Buchholz (dad) have schizophrenia. Sanchez was off her drugs. She was in counseling for postpartum depression -- but there were signs that it was worsening. Sanchez and Buchholz separated when the baby was 3 weeks old. Sanchez came by Buchholz’s house a few days later and "stormed out" when Buchholz demanded a copy of the birth certificate. Buchholz called the police when Sanchez put the baby’s car seat in the front, neglected to strap him in, and sped off. The police followed up in a lackadaisical manner. Sanchez, possibly experiencing the onset of a psychotic break, sought help in a local hospital emergency room but was released in less than 24 hours and sent home to care for her newborn. Sanchez heard voices. The voices told her to kill the baby. She gave the baby to her sister, who shares the house with her; she did not want the child near her. Then, when Sanchez finally seemed calm, the sister returned the baby to her. Sanchez killed the baby, tried to kill herself, but did not succeed.

Questions muddle up our clean story line.

What was going on between Buchholz and Sanchez that they separated three weeks after their baby was born?

With all new parents this is a stressful time. We are all reeling during these early days, struggling to define what our roles will be, how to distribute baby care fairly (or, in any case, develop a job-share we can live with), suffer from sleep deprivation, are anxious about our new identity, remain frazzled by a crying infant and, for moms, are still recovering physically from giving birth. Buchholz and Sanchez, with a history of mental illness, are hit with a double whammy here; coping was clearly especially difficult.

How is it that Buchholz has known Sanchez for six years, lived with her, and had a baby with her, as the AP reports, but professes to be unaware until last week that she had been diagnosed as schizophrenic?

Since Buchholz himself is schizophrenic, currently on a six-drug daily regimen, this does not seem like something Sanchez would be too embarrassed to share with him. Maybe she did mention it, but he forgot? Or perhaps he was in denial, dismissing her behavior as "baby blues" or simple "bitchiness"?

Why was Sanchez, who was in counseling for postpartum depression and who had a history of mental illness, off her meds?

Women get a lot of mixed messages about the dangers of drugs during pregnancy and while breast-feeding -- even though postpartum is a particularly dangerous time for women to do without. They want to do right by their baby, but aren’t sure what "right” is. And doctors often don’t know much about how such drugs affect the fetus or breast-feeding newborn. Historically, physician drug labels have simply sorted the level of danger into vague categories without providing specific information about the quantity of the drug transferred to the infant via breast milk, nor of the impact. In 2008, the FDA began changing its labeling criteria to provide more detailed information -- but doctors are still behind the curve here. When in doubt, many are reluctant to prescribe drugs, especially ones considered optional, like antidepressants, to pregnant or nursing women. The bible of women’s healthcare, "Our Bodies, Ourselves," advises women to "work with a provider who is knowledgeable about medications and breast-feeding" but such folks can be hard to come by. Weigh the pros and cons, the authors suggest, adding that "[w]hile the second generation of antidepressants do pass into breast milk, the short-term negative effects on babies, if any, appear to be transient." Still, in what has become an enduring refrain when it comes to drugs, pregnancy and breast-feeding, the authors note: "Additional research ... is needed."

Finally, one has to wonder how it is that a new mother diagnosed as schizophrenic and suffering from severe postpartum depression showed up in a hospital emergency room in some kind of mental health crisis and was blithely sent home?

The details of just what transpired at the hospital haven’t been released yet, but if Sanchez’s postpartum psychosis went untreated, that would not be unusual. According to the American Psychological Association, mental health issues are regularly missed in hospital emergency rooms. Indeed, a 2005 article in the organization’s Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that emergency room doctors routinely overlooked problems like schizophrenia, depression and anxiety, finding a psychiatric diagnosis rate of 5.27 percent in emergency rooms, compared to a national prevalence rate of 20 to 28 percent. For African-Americans, the rate of under-diagnosis is even higher. (The study did not look at rates for Hispanics.)

These particulars, after a while, make it hard to shoehorn the Sanchez story into our fictional literary canon. After all, Medea and Abraham and the old witch in Hansel and Gretel are buoyed along on a current of "inevitability" that floats our fictional narratives of infanticide. This Sanchez case suggests -- oh, bother -- that there are some steps we as a society should be taking to support new mothers and the mentally ill.

Indeed, the Sanchez story seems to fit better among the nonfiction narratives of mothers like Susan Smith, Andrea Yates and Banita Jacks. Smith is the one who drove her two boys into a South Carolina lake in 1994. Yates is the Texas mom who drowned her five kids in a bathtub in 2001. Banita Jacks is the mother who killed her four children in 2008 and lived with their decomposing bodies in a D.C. rowhouse for months. Sanchez joins this illustrious list, becoming the latest in a long and baffling history of "killer moms" (she has already been dubbed "Cannibal Mom") who pop up as salacious reading before dropping out of sight. With these stories devoid of any context, the media and the public tease out the narrow specifics of each crime and use each fact as a brick in the wall that divides these women from the rest of humanity, separates us from the "monsters."

But juries, who sit through weeks of testimony, hear these women's lives unfold in complex ways. Their acts are "heinous," but the women themselves grow increasingly humanized. It is not simply depression, schizophrenia or postpartum psychosis that are invoked in their defense. (Plenty of ordinary murderers plead not guilty due to insanity.) It is the fact that these women have killed out of misguided love. "I felt I couldn't be a good mom anymore, but I didn't want my children to grow up without a mom," Susan Smith confessed, explaining that she intended to kill herself along with her children. "I felt I had to end our lives to protect us all from any grief or harm." (Toni Morrison beautifully explores aspects of this phenomenon of "protective murder" with the ex-slave mother, Sethe, in "Beloved.") Juries may convict these moms -- and it's hard not to since the evidence is typically irrefutable -- but they are almost always reluctant to mete out harsh sentences.

Problem is, the thick brick wall prosecutors try to construct to separate "monster moms" from the rest of us is more like a porous membrane. Not because most of us have considered killing our kids. On the contrary. Most of us would do almost anything to protect our kids. But, if these moms, in their insanity, thought they were, in fact, protecting their kids from an untenable life or the grasp of the devil or an eternity in hell, then we empathize just a bit too much with this impulse to "save" our babies.

Scott Buchholz is now screaming for the death penalty, insisting that the mother of his baby ought to "burn in hell" for this. But most of us know that, as drugs and therapy usher Otty Sanchez back to reality, she won't need the law or religion to punish her; she has constructed her own hell from which she'll never escape.

This is the fate that Otty Sanchez is condemned to share with all women in the "killer mom" canon.

It is something that lawmakers in England -- and 29 other countries, including Australia and Canada -- have long understood. In 1938, England passed the Infanticide Act, which automatically reduces a mother's murder of her baby to a manslaughter charge, understanding much better than Americans that mothers like Sanchez are clearly operating from a twisted reality over which they have no control.

Sentencing, really, is superfluous.

By Karen Houppert

Karen Houppert is a freelance journalist, assistant professor at Baltimore's Morgan State University and the author of "Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People's Justice."

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