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In Defense of Compassion

Elie Mystal put up something yesterday at Above the Law about the lawyer on leave from her job as an associate court attorney at the Manhattan Supreme Court who jumped to her death from her apartment with her 10-month-old son strapped to her in a baby carrier. Her son survived, thankfully. She did not.

Elie said he didn’t want to use the restraint or show the sympathy for suicide “victims” (his quotation marks) that he apparently feels society requires and expects of him. What he wrote was certainly consistent with that:

Screw this woman….

After noting her likely unsupported feelings that something was medically wrong with her child and the fact she wrote in her suicide note that what she was about to do was “evil,” Elie continued:

Damn straight she was “evil.” Look at how her concerns are all about her: she felt shame, she noticed changes, she couldn’t bear the thought. What a selfish, awful woman.

He didn’t hold back with his conclusion either:

Don’t let the fancy law degree and respectable job fool you; she’s a monster.

After Elie put up his post, a friend of the woman responded. In her post, she described her relationship with the woman then explained her theory about what happened:

My impression is that she likely had post-partum PSYCHOSIS, not post-partum depression, and, if I were a betting woman, I’d bet her doc missed it, and treated it with anti-depressants, which are known (by mental health experts) to make this type of psychosis WORSE. PSYCHOSIS, Elie. Not depression, not anxiety, not sadness. PSYCHOSIS. But it wasn’t easy to recognize (if I am right about it), because she wasn’t hallucinating unicorns and spirits — she was hallucinating about her baby perhaps having something like cerebral palsy… due to her allowing the baby to trip (like every other baby in the world has done). So it *seemed* that she was rational and was just obsessive about taking her baby to doctors. But she wasn’t, as best I can tell. If I am correct, she was far, far, far more ill than was realized, with the tragic result that ensued.

So her friend decided there was something else responsible. Undiagnosed post-partum psychosis makes the act different from one involving post-partum depression. Or anxiety. Or sadness. She goes on:

This is not a crime, not an act of a selfish woman, not an act of evil — it is an act of grave, grave mental illness that appears to have been woefully missed.

Her conclusion stresses not just the presence of mental illness, but the specific type she believes must have been responsible:

I urge you to update the story…. I apologize if I sound inappropriately critical of you — it was only after I researched the psychosis issue that any of this fit together for me, so I am sure the situation is likely mind-blowing for you, too.

I’m not going to be nearly as apologetic to Elie, and I didn’t even know the woman.

What he wrote was awful. It was attacking someone whose mind was so overcome with imagined horrors about her child’s maladies that jumping from a building seemed like a solution. He has no idea what kind of person she was. He has no idea what kind of debilitating condition she had. Most people fear death above all else, yet this woman chose to welcome it because of the terrible dreams that came to life and tormented her.

I may pretend I’m strong, but I’m really just lucky. Some people’s blood and brains and tissues and organs are made of things that are just right as they are. Others are balanced enough to get the job done, capable of dealing with most of what life throws at them, at least. Some people have stable upbringings that certainly don’t hurt things. The chemical, the biological, and the situational are all powerful things. Who am I to say this woman was evil? A monster? Who is Elie to say such things? A little noradrenaline or serotonin, perhaps a little dopamine, might be the difference between me and the people I care about and that woman who leaped to her death to escape the thing the rest of us cherish most. I can’t judge, and I shouldn’t. Elie shouldn’t.

The published response to what Elie wrote didn’t do much for me either. It’s not that it isn’t accurate, which it may well be, or that is isn’t convincing, which may also be the case. The problem is that it draws troubling distinctions. Psychosis makes things fit together for her, while depression does not. Anxiety and sadness are so obviously insufficient that mere comparison helps to emphasize the severity of the problem in the case at hand. Researching a specific cause and determining its applicability caused her to urge Elie to update the story, not the fact this was simply a mentally ill woman who made a tragic decision.

And so it goes in the criminal justice system. [Insert expert’s name here] Bullshit Syndrome type II can potentially alter culpability and/or punishment for killing a baby, while type IV makes it inexcusable. If you don’t suffer from the right sort of thing, you’re a monster. You’re evil. We can make you stand trial. We can kill you. If you have the proper illness, something a bunch of people with lots of letters after their names wrote and peer-reviewed without ever thinking their categorizations would help save or destroy human lives or something a pseudo-scientific hack pulled out of his ass to make it look like the system might not screw over everyone all the time, you might be okay. Otherwise, be afraid. We neutralize the frightening complexity of our minds and bodies with classifications that will probably seem quite absurd years from now. Enlightenment in the future is little consolation to those suffering the wrath of our ignorance today, unfortunately.

For me, Elie’s critic’s defense fell flat because it seemed so heavily based on a dubious technical distinction that seems uncomfortably close to the sort of flawed premises that abound in the system I eat, sleep, and breath as a criminal defense lawyer. She was dead wrong when she said it was not a crime. Everything is a crime these days. She nailed it, though, when she went on to say it wasn’t the act of a selfish woman or an act of evil but an act of grave mental illness that was woefully missed. It undoubtedly was, but so are countless other acts by countless other people in countless other places all over this country each and every day.

We shouldn’t stand up for other people because they fit some mold that we’ve predetermined to be capable of relieving them of fault. We should seek to understand the suffering of others even when we struggle to identify the root. Even when we might normally judge harshly whether the cause was sufficient justification. We should live our lives and create our institutions with compassion irrespective of artificial boundaries.

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One Response to "In Defense of Compassion"

  1. Jeff Gamso says:

    Lovely and right. Thanks, Matt.

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