I generally disapprove of random scare-the-parents articles that seem to circulate so freely through the media -- as if they know we can’t resist certain garish, atypical stories. But the tale of a mom who asked to hold babies, then scratched them till they bled, made me stop and say, “What?” It’s so disturbing, and so senseless, and so upsetting -- I wanted to find a way to wrap my mind around it.
The comments on the story (warning: no babies die, but the images are upsetting) sounded like people were foaming at the mouth with fury. I would be, too, if it were my kid. But part of me wondered if there was some easily explainable disorder that this woman had, something that could be fixed if people could get past the bizarreness of her crime.
Let’s start at the beginning. Forty-five-year-old Lisa Hench has three kids in a private school in La Jolla, California, a wealthy town near San Diego. At pick-up time, she would approach fellow parents, coo over their babies, and ask to hold them. The baby would start fussing, and she’d hand him or her back. Later, parents would find their babies scratched and bitten to the point of blood and bruises.
After one instance, several moms at the school realized the common denominator was Hench. Together they added up eight babies that had been injured in this way. Hench was accused and put on trial, where she admitted, yes, she had bitten and scratched eight infants until they were inconsolable.
And she didn’t see anything wrong with it.
Because of the way the law is structured, prosecutors can only ask for so much punishment, and people are really hung up on the fact that she won’t get jail time for this.
Like I said, I thought there had to be a reason. I remember reading a novel, possibly by Gloria Naylor, in which a woman who feels lost in motherhood sticks pins in her infant, but can’t understand or explain why she does so. It was horrible, and it was fictional, but the author made me understand at least why it happened, and of course the woman suffered consequences, because writing fiction lets you play God.
In this real-life instance, I wanted to know what would drive this behavior, maybe because I wanted to play God myself -- and make sure it couldn’t happen to me. Would I be able to recognize a glint in someone’s eye? Would I be able to keep my babies safe from any random event?
I interviewed Dr. Stuart L. Lustig of the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute here in San Francisco, at UCSF. Of course, it would be completely impossible (and unethical) to diagnose someone through a media story and I didn’t ask him to. But if this were a hypothetical case, could there be a hypothetical diagnosis that might lead to insane baby-hurting behavior?
I was thinking obsessive-compulsive disorder, or Munchausen’s by Proxy, or some response to abuse being acted out as an adult. None would make this okay. But at least there would be a way to stop this from happening again, with this woman, if she would seek treatment.
The short answer? No.
“There’s nothing that springs to mind,” he said. “Even if I were to speak off the record, I’d have a hard time speculating what would make someone act this way. It’s puzzling. The reporter in the story is right: it’s a bizarre presentation.”
When I pressed him about OCD, he said that typically, someone would have a ton of anxiety that would be relieved when the compulsion is met. “You would really have to interview the person to find out if that’s the case,” he said. “I understand she’s not expected to get jail time, but I’d hope she’d get some kind of court-ordered therapy.”
Okay. So we’ve established that she’s just a crazy asshole? Then let me say this: AAAAUGH! Stay the hell away from my baby, lady! And jail time or no, her photo has been televised. I hope La Jolla is a small enough venue that she’s at least shunned and driven out of business. None of that, however, will (a) make her remorseful or (b) help her kids -- remember, she has three.
Like I didn't have enough anxiety around my kids as it is. I know, by and large, that the world is safer than it's ever been, but I can't help having nightmares about stuff like this.
Do you worry about crazy individuals, or do you try to manage your fear?
Image via http://www.lisahench.com/