Tragedy, American-Style

Tragedy, American-Style

by Merle Hoffman

For in other ways, a woman Is full of fear, defenseless, dreads the sight of cold Steel; but, when once she is wronged in the matter of love, No other soul can hold so many thoughts of blood. –Medea, 431 B.C.

I was in love with someone very much, but he didn’t love me and never would. I had hurt him very much, and could see why he could never love me. –Susan Smith, 1994 A.D.

Our Medea has destroyed her children. –William F. Buckley Jr., 1999

Television described it as a “great human drama,” but in the end I found the surreal progression of the white Ford Bronco with O.J. Simpson in the passenger seat holding a gun to his head anticlimactic. I marveled at the citizens lined up along the roadside holding handwritten signs proclaiming “O.J. We Love You” and “Go, Juice, Go.” But I found myself longing for the natural denouement of great tragedy, the catharsis, which, according to Aristotle, comes from a purification of the emotions of terror and pity that leads to an experience of rebirth. Unlike that roadside post-modern Greek chorus, I yearned for what I considered appropriate closure in this situation–a confession expressing guilt and profound remorse. In a way I wanted, indeed needed, to see O.J. Simpson blow his brains out, preferably at the gravesite of his murdered wife.

But Simpson would not deliver. Simpson is no Othello. Just as Susan Smith, whose own personal Greek chorus greeted her with “baby-killing bitch” and “hold your head up, you’re a baby murderer” is no Medea. And therein lies a value shift worth contemplating.

I was 15 when I first read Euripides’ Medea and remember being deeply moved by the story of this barbarian princess who falls in love with Jason, leader of the Argonauts, and murders both her own brother and Jason’s uncle to help him. Exiled to Corinth with their two sons, Jason casts her aside to wed the daughter of the King of Corinth. While pretending to submit, Medea horribly murders father and daughter through the gift of a magically poisoned robe. Then, fearing for the safety of her sons and in an act of vengeful honor and radical insurrection, she slays them with her own hands and escapes with their bodies to safe exile in a chariot drawn by dragons. Queen, goddess, sorceress, and then mother, Medea denies Jason even the touch of his dead children’s flesh.

I was struck by the force of her character, the strength of her will — and her conscious ownership of her appalling deed:

I shall kill my own children.
My children, there is none who can give them safety….
For it is not bearable to be mocked by enemies….
For those children he had from me he will never
See alive again, nor will he on his new bride
Beget another child, for she is to be forced
To die a most terrible death by these my poisons.
Let no one think me a weak one, feeble-spirited,
A stay-at-home, but rather just the opposite,
One who can hurt my enemies and help my friends.

Medea’s story and ultimate fall are truly tragic. Like Othello, blood honor is what moves her. And like him, she can claim she was one who loved “not wisely, but too well.” Medea-the-queen naturally assumes the responsibility of moving with power in the world. Medea-the-woman lives within the laws of patriarchy and clearly understands that her political and social position are purely derivative of her husband’s. Medea-the-mother loves her children, but knows that legally they belong to her husband. In murdering them she reclaims that power for herself. Although Medea processes her decision with the chorus over the space of the play, there is no ambivalence or attempt to distance herself from her crime. She does not seek to hide. Nor does Othello. “Nothing extenuate,” he says just before he stabs himself and dies on the bed where he murdered Desdemona.

When I first heard about the disappearance of Susan Smith’s children, and throughout the nine days of the search, I would imagine myself standing alone in the middle of a country road watching the back of my car receding as someone drove off with its precious cargo. I caught my breath at the edge of the horror, the magnitude of the loss, the rage, the impotence, the crushing anxiety, the struggle to believe the unbelievable. Then, slowly, a gnawing suspicion crept in, so that when at last her arrest was announced, I was not overcome with shock or rage, just an ineffable sadness.

As for many others, Medea was my first association. Did she say goodbye to her children, I wondered? Did Susan Smith, like Medea, powerfully claim ownership of her actions as the car sank quietly into the dark waters? Was she conscious and determined, moving with the power of her own horrid logic, or was she in the end merely swept away in the sea of her own emotions?

In her confession to police on November 3, Susan Smith said that she “wanted to end my life so bad. I did go part way, but I stopped. I went again and stopped.” After she allowed the car to roll into the water with her two children strapped into the back seat, she “took off running and screaming, ‘Oh God. Oh, God. No!’ ” Smith seems to have experienced such a loss of self, such a dissolution of boundaries, that the murder of her children appears to be a case of “suicide by proxy.” Wanting to kill herself, she kills her children.

Unlike Medea, who is not unhinged but acts out of strategic design and what she perceives as political necessity, Smith is psychologically unbalanced. “When I was at John D. Long Lake I had never felt so scared and unsure as I did then,” she wrote. “I was an absolute mental case. I couldn’t believe what I had done.” While Smith sends Michael and Alex back into the hands of their “Heavenly Father,” where she knows “they never will be hurt again,” Medea keeps her children out of all male hands — even their bodies are denied to their father.

No, Susan Smith is no Medea. In fact, she was a classic good girl, the most traditional kind — self-limiting and self-minimizing. Voted the “friendliest senior of the class of 1989” at Union High School and considered the “kind of student you want in your class” by her school principal, this member of the National Honor Society chose not to go to college or leave her small town. Instead, she stayed close to home, and gained definition and affiliation through a man by becoming a mother and then a wife. She married David Smith when she was two months pregnant.

David Smith, however, is something of a Jason. His infidelities were public knowledge, and Susan was known to show up at the Winn-Dixie where he worked to check on his whereabouts. Her sense of self was so enmeshed in David that she reportedly attempted suicide twice over him: once during high school when he broke off their relationship, and a second time because of difficulties in their marriage. If true, the two suicide attempts reflect Smith’s enormous need for male connection and approval.

For Smith, the “good girl,” there was always a man and always a problem. When she was seven years old, her father committed suicide. At 16, she told police, her stepfather had molested her, although she never pressed charges. By 19 she was married, by 22 she had taken a lover who rejected her, by 23 she had sent her two baby boys back to Daddy, back to their “Heavenly Father.”

From published reports it appears that Smith was indeed distraught and suicidal over an unrequited love when she murdered her children. Tom Findlay, her lover and the boss’ son in the office where she worked as a secretary and earned $17,000 a year, had written her the now-infamous letter telling her he was not ready to be a father. And she had begun divorce proceedings against David because of his infidelities, which, according to her best friend Donna Greer, sent her into deep depressions. Like Medea, Smith may well have thought to herself…

It was everything to me to think well of one man,
And he, my own husband, has turned out wholly vile….
A man, when he’s tired of the company in his home,
Goes out of the house and puts an end to his boredom…

According to the Chicago Tribune, secretaries in the office called Findlay a “catch.” Perhaps Smith saw him as her ticket out of what she experienced as the draining monotony of a lower-class existence. Without David and the hope of a new life with Findlay, she lost all sense of self.

Who, if not herself, was she killing? By all reports she had been a good mother. There is no known pattern of Susan Smith ever abusing her children, not the situation in the majority of cases of female infanticide. Her crime seems to have appeared full-blown out of nowhere. “I guess she just wanted to be with Findlay,” Rebecca Smith, sister of her estranged husband David, told the Tribune. “He had money and he didn’t want to have kids around.”

Had her two young sons come to represent all that was male, all that was powerful, all that stood in her way, all that she tried to please but never could? Were they symbols of male power, as Nicole Brown Simpson was of white power?

Smith’s Greek chorus, unlike Simpson’s, offered no comfort or pity. There were no handwritten signs of support or T-shirts or 400 fan letters a day. After she was arrested, one Houston man told the Houston Post that she should be driven into a lake and drowned like her children. And a woman from her town, a mother of two, was overheard to suggest Smith be taken off suicide watch so that nature could take its course. Maybe it’s because Simpson is a celebrity who has fallen far from his role-model status and Smith is a small-town nobody who managed to manipulate a whole nation into aching for her and her plight. Maybe it’s because Smith killed two innocent children and Simpson’s target was his sensual ex-wife. Or maybe it’s because, as Cheryl McCarthy wrote in Newsday, “At a time when marriage is crumbling, careers are being aborted in mid-life, and priests are revealed to be child molesters, the Mother Love Myth is all we have,” and Smith has shattered it, just as Medea did. And that scares us. “Mothers don’t like to admit it, but for many there have been times when they felt like killing their children,” McCarthy noted. Or as Frank Rich postulated in the New York Times, “We feel the horror of Susan’s crime not because it’s unimaginable but precisely because we can imagine it.”

But in the end, both Susan Smith and O.J. Simpson have much less to tell us about themselves than about the world in which we now live, a world more profoundly removed from that of Euripides and Shakespeare than mere technology can tell. Their stories speak of how very far we have gone from holding our heroes and anti-heroes accountable for their acts, and of how individual responsibility has given way to theories of victimization and system error.

Tragedy requires its main characters to fall, but fall consciously–to take ultimate responsibility for their crimes and to come to some level of understanding about themselves and their motivations. Simpson and Smith fall far short. They are merely piteous, not tragic.

Simpson may have shared Othello’s great rage and jealousy, suffered similar social and racial slights, and held his view of women as property–Nicole was a “trophy wife.” But in his pathetic, but non-prophetic, suicide note, Simpson could only claim that “at times, I have felt like a battered husband or boyfriend, but I loved her,” and add a plaintive, “I’ve always tried to be up and helpful. So why is this happening?” Simpson has no center, no moorings and no moral compass. He floats amorphously in a sea of self-pity. “Please think of the real O.J. and not this lost soul.”

This splitting off of Simpson the Good from Simpson the (alleged) vengeful murderer is symptomatic of a far deeper societal disassociation–the disconnection between cause and effect, the rupture of action from consequence. Whatever great passions may have driven the murders he is charged with is lost in a series of endless media manipulations and legal maneuvers. “Getting away with it” becomes the ultimate achievement, and melodrama replaces what should have been tragedy.

As for Susan Smith, whatever we learn and eventually come to understand about the motivations behind her horrible crime, she will always remain ultimately mysterious and ultimately alien. She, too, claims no conscious ownership of her deeds, although she admits to them. This is not to say that it would be better if Susan Smith had truly mirrored Medea and deliberately set out to kill her boys. However, Medea’s crime does imply a distinct choice. Smith is merely one more voice in the chorus of “victim” criminals who fill our papers and our airwaves with their claims of being moved by forces beyond themselves. We are left once again with a rupture of action from consequence. There’s no catharsis, merely a tragedy by proxy.

Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.