by | Nov 6, 1994 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

There’s a sad little scene in the film “Radio Days,” in which an 8-year-old girl falls down a well. It is 1943. The story grips the country. Americans sit by their wood-cabinet radios, praying for the child’s safety. When rescue workers finally find her, the last hope is shattered as the reporter whispers, “This is tragic. . . . The little girl is not alive.” Her parents weep. The nation weeps with them. What could be worse than losing your child?

We now have an answer. Killing your child. Several weeks ago, two little boys were reported missing in South Carolina, stolen, like a watch, by a gunman who carjacked the mother’s car with the kids in the backseat. A weary America, sagging with cynicism, somehow found the energy to be moved again, like the America of 1943. Yellow ribbons hung from trees. Prayer vigils were held. Each night, the boys’ mother, Susan Smith, made tearful pleas on national TV. Each night, good, honest parents watched and felt a piece of their hearts go crunch.

Then came Thursday. The end of the prayers. Police found the boys dead, drowned, still strapped in the car when it was pulled from a lake.

Smith, their mother, confessed to their murders.

Mothers? Murders?

Do you get the feeling there are two worlds in this country, one in which people still work, talk and believe in things and another in which anything goes, you can kill your kids, your spouse, your parents, then look into the camera and lie your wicked head off?

Mothers? Murders? Unsafe in a mother’s arms

It is hard to say which is more unnerving, that a woman who gave birth to two babies could watch them drown, or that she could cry for help when she knew she was the killer.

“Be brave,” she implored her children Tuesday, “hold onto each other . . . We’re doing everything in our power to get you home.”

She said this after allegedly leaving her kids at the bottom of a lake?

What world is this? It cannot be the one I’ve known, where mothers worry about their babies bumping into tables or swallowing their food. In that world, parents don’t drive children into watery graves, as Smith is accused, or as Lawrence DeLisle did a few years ago, dumping his station wagon into the Detroit River, killing his four children as he and his wife swam to safety.

What world is this? It cannot be the one in which fathers play catch with sons, and help with their homework. In that world, parents don’t throw their kids into a blazing furnace, as a Muskegon man did to his sons a few years ago. They don’t beat their child to death, then claim she was abducted at a flea market, as a Florida couple was accused last week.

What world is this? Studies say that out of every 100 children reported kidnapped, 15 are murdered by their parents.

I beg to differ. Those are not parents. They are creatures biologically connected to the child, but they are not mothers and fathers.

They aren’t worthy of the title.

Look throughout history, in the greatest works of art, there is one scene painted over and over, a universal image of security and love: a child held in its mother’s arms.

“What do you say to a kid,” a neighbor of Smith’s asked this week, “when he has to worry about his mother killing him?”

Mothers? Murder? Beyond understanding

There is no excusing this. Who knows if there is any stopping it? On the same week that Smith confessed, right here in Detroit, a kindly, 70-year-old woman — who delivered telephone books to the elderly — was stabbed to death with a household knife.

The accused: her grandson and his girlfriend.

So we are killing ourselves from both ends of the family tree, our parents, our kids, our roots, our branches. And the people without blood on their hands can only wonder what is driving others to such unspeakable acts.

Is it financial hardship? Is it drugs? Money? Is it the emptiness of lives not as glamorous as TV? Or simply selfish people looking for an easy way out?

What does it matter? Once you can’t be safe in your mother’s arms, there is truly no place to hide. Smith’s neighbors in South Carolina have gone from caring to angry — a bitter anger, for caring, for crying, for being duped by a potential murderer. And next time someone cries “Help me find my children” that many more people will say, “Sure, lady, first let’s take your fingerprints. . .”

This is not 1943. We rarely cry for strangers. We are a cleft nation, two worlds, those who cling to their babies, and sigh in their soft breathing, and

the increasing number who abandon them, suffocate them or drive them into lakes and let them drown. Mothers. Murder. The unthinkable has become the morning headline. Heaven help this country now.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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