Monday, February 2, 2009

Marguerite at the Scaffold

In the third act of Minnesota Opera’s production of Gounod’s “Faust,” Marguerite — the woman Faust seduced and abandoned — is in her prison cell, awaiting execution for killing their child. Amid the orgiastic chaos of Walpurgis Night, Faust sees a vision of her facing the scaffold and, with assistance from Mephistopheles, visits her in prison. Refusing Faust’s pleas for her to escape with him, Marguerite goes to the gallows. Her soul is saved, however, after she implores heaven for help and angels intervene.

However one interprets the cosmology behind the Faust legend, one cannot but see Marguerite’s plight through the prism of what we now know about postpartum depression. Rather than the devil being personified by Mephistopheles, it often comes in the form of “The Noonday Demon,” as Andrew Solomon put it in his National Book Award-winning book. Solomon’s book deals broadly with the phenomenon of depression, of which past-partum is one (often terrible) type.

The most notorious national case of filicide is probably that of Andrea Yates, who in 2001 killed her five young children (ages six years to six months) by drowning them one by one in the bathtub of their Houston home. Yates had been battling postpartum depression and psychosis for years, but was initially sentenced to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 40 years. That sentence was later overturned and in 2006 a Texas jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity. The court then committed Yates to a state mental hospital. The terrible circumstances of her case are well documented in “Are You Alone?” by Suzanne O’Malley and “Breaking Point” by Suzy Spencer.

Another tragic case of the criminal justice system’s failure to take proper account of postpartum depression is still unfolding in Iowa. Heidi Anfinson was convicted of second-degree murder after her two-week-old son Jacob drowned in bathwater in September 1998 while under her care. Anfinson contended that Jacob’s death was an accident, but she was sent to prison, despite considerable evidence (not adduced at trial) that she was suffering from post-partum depression.

After years of legal battles, Anfinson’s conviction was overturned in October 2008. In granting her the right to a new trial, the Iowa Court of Appeals held that Anfinson’s trial counsel had erred in ignoring evidence of her compromised mental state. Even if her counsel was not making outright defenses of insanity or diminished responsibility at trial, the appellate court found that evidence of the toll depression had taken on her was directly relevant to her defense of accidental death.

This evidence could have helped the jury understand how Anfinson could have left her infant in the bath while going into the next room to use the telephone, why she might bury the body under rocks at a nearby lake, and why she might seem flat and unemotional to investigators when questioned about Jacob’s disappearance. If Heidi Anfinson was suffering from severe post-partum depression, a condition so bad it included elements of self-mutilation, her behavior may not have been bizarre at all. Criminal justice practitioners should learn to recognize signs of "the noonday demon" when they see it, even if its calling cards are not always Faustian devils with horns and tails.

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