Kelli Stapleton attempted to kill her teenage daughter who has severe autism, and to kill herself at the same time. She did not succeed in either task. Her daughter is apparently recovering well, and the mother is in custody. This much you know. You also know that the international autism community has variously turned it into a platform for existing causes; such as highlighting the lack of support for autism families, or the negative attitudes towards autistic people. Both approaches are actively drawing on Kelli Stapleton’s previous blogging and social media sharing, as evidence to support their position.
I quietly read the attacks, defences, counter-attacks, ad hominems and break-downs across the autism community, until I got to the point that I realised silence at this time is also being misconstrued as support for one or the other “side” of the arguments. Does my own silence imply I stand with other mothers who understand and support Kelli? Or does the fact that I’m choosing to not speak up and stand beside those mothers at this time, imply that I think they are wrong to support Kelli?
In truth, it’s the almost-lawyer in me that keeps me quiet. I prefer to comment after cases have gone through the courts (or after it has been decided they will not make it to court), because it is through those legal proceedings that the facts are drawn out and tested. I am weary of trial-by-media and the damage it does, and the defamation that usually arises in such a process. Still, there is a particular aspect of this whole public debate that I want to comment on, because I see two sides arguing about one event but as if it contains very different key elements, and I think ignoring those differences is leading to a lot of the subsequent fall-out.
The debatable difference, as I see it, is not the action or the intent per se – it appears clear that the intent was murder and the actions were towards that end. Rather, the questionable aspect, is the motivator, or if you will, the type of filicide we are seeing. I want to explain what I mean by that, and why I think it is crucial in these debates.
It appears to make sense of the filicide here, as one of three types:
- Altruistic filicide, performed in the perceived best interests of the child, either because (a) the parent perceives the world as too cruel to leave the child behind (and thus often accompanied by the parent’s suicide), or (b) to alleviate the child’s suffering (such as due to a disability).
- Psychotic filicide, where there is no other seemingly rational basis for the act, than the parent’s psychosis – those who attempt suicide are also more likely to be mentally ill – or
- Unwanted child filicide, where the parent kills an unwanted child viewed as a hindrance, including the situations where personal gain such as insurance money accompanies the death.
From what I have seen, those supporting the mother assume Kelli fits into some mixture of altruistic filicide and psychotic break, and those who attack Kelli as someone not deserving any sympathy or support, assume Kelli was motivated in accordance with something closer to the “unwanted child” category (or perhaps as altruistic type (b)).
Based on the facts that we do know – including the child’s autism, the mother’s attempted suicide, the (arguable) premeditation, and her views of the lack of compassion from those she turned to for help – one might be lead to suspect this is altruistic filicide of type (a). But you may think the facts better suit type (b), that seems a reasonable conclusion too.
The point being, whichever it may be, the type of filicide speaks to the appropriate attitude and punishment. If we use the three categories above for example, we are lead to at least these possibilities: (1) Kelli acted out of self-serving intent to benefit from the child’s death, (though this would appear highly unlikely since she attempted suicide), then your attitude to her should be utter unequivocal outrage, no question. Or (2) she did it out of some confused (or justified) version of altruism. If so, that may affect your opinion, or at the very least complicate the situation, and perhaps such motives will be relevant consideration in any court case. Or (3) she had a psychotic break. Again, this affects the punishment and public attitude, because she would thereby be lacking meaningful intent and deserves and needs help – and potentially sympathy – in an institution rather than a prison. Until you have enough facts to figure out what you’re looking at, how can you meaningfully judge, defend, or attack; let alone turn the situation into a platform for one cause or another?
I simply don’t know enough to know how to feel about the specific occurrence. I think the confused and conflicting emotions that many have right now, are because they don’t actually know what situation they’re looking at here. Some reactions and emotions are clear, and I have seen them on all sides of the debates and responses: Sad horror at the fact that a mother tried to kill her own child. That emotion is relevant regardless of the mother’s motives or state of mind. Beyond that though, the people who know best what they should feel and how they should respond, are those closest to the family because they have more information than the rest of us, and from them I have seen only outpourings of love and support. For me, at least, that tells me it is not time to condemn the mother as evil just yet. Yes, her actions were “evil,” but whether she is also evil is yet to be determined.
The child is alive, and recovering. The mother is apart from the child and any other children right now. Let medical intervention do its part, then let the law play its role, then let us also judge if required.
No one thinks what happened was OK, no one thinks the mother is more important than the daughter right now – even the staunchest Kelli supporter hasn’t said such a thing. So before we let the attacks tear our already fragile community any further apart, how about we have the humility and compassion to take a step back and see what we don’t yet know, and in turn resist the urge to turn an unquestionable human disaster into a highly questionable platform.