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On Medea, Bad Mother of the Greek Drama (Disability, Character, Genopolitics) marcy j. epstein I have heard of one woman of those of old one who laid her hands on her dear children Ino, who driven mad by the gods . . . stepped over a sea-cliff and killed herself, dying together with her boys. After that, what horror could surprise us? (Morwood 34–35)1 Six years after a white South Carolinian housewife Susan Smith drove her two sons into rising waters, spurring the vigil and grief of an entire nation, she reported to the New York Times that she had suffered from a suicidal impulse so intense as to have bound her children to her own fate, but in last instant had spared herself from drowning for fear of how her own death would feel. She laid the murders instead on another’s shoulders, those of a ‹ctitious black child killer. In the end, interrogation of Smith proved to American readers that the criminalized black male ‹gure of their own imaginations was more credible than its shadow, the ‹gure of a (white) mother who kills. Medea (seeking out her children): Are you indoors? (Vellacott 44:882) 284 On Medea, Bad Mother of the Greek Drama 285 Time magazine followed the demagoguery of prosecution and defense in minute detail, citing Smith’s “strange and inappropriate” behavior during the nine-day search for her children, her heart-wrenching lies about their abduction, an uncanny statement about going to the beach in order to learn the shag, the court’s minute reenactments of Michael’s and Alex’s deaths. Medea: For the wrong, unprovoked . . . (Vellacott 22:156) More recently in Houston, Texas, an unhallowed crime scene of ‹ve drowned children laid out in a bedroom expressed, according to national press, Andrea Yates’s profound postpartum depression, as well as her despondency at being an inadequate mother;2 once again the image the Susan Smith under arrest Yates had projected as a model family in their suburban, middle-class neighborhood was shattered, and the danger of homicidal mothers lurked beneath the outpouring of grief for husband and children. Medea: For the wrong, unprovoked . . . Public sentiment underscores the demise of the natural mother in modernity, especially when white, perfect children are mutilated or killed. Because of the sensationalism of child loss and transgression attached to such reports, however, the real mental illnesses that affect many mothers— psychosis, postpartum depression, bipolarity, manic depression, and objectrelations syndromes—rarely acquire substantial press. Like the thousands of women who suffer from more exotic illnesses, like Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a surprisingly common disorder that causes mothers to subject their children to disabling and often life-threatening scenarios in order to gain attention from medical professionals,3 Yates and Smith become, to borrow from disability performance artist Julia Trahan, “icons of infamy.”4 The actions of such “bad mothers” extend further into the characterization of infanticidal women than either medicine or journalism can report. In the latest tradition of Electra, Medea, or Clytemnestra, Trahan’s “infamy” refers to the objecti‹cation of gender, sexuality, and disability. It is the sign we most fear, and to recuperate the experience of disability and womanhood, it must be performed, opened, forced as necessary, not suppressed , rewritten, or recast as a deviation from mores or norms. Some disabled women indeed re-create their disabilities in their children .5 Like themselves, the children can lose subjectivity in even Mothers’ eyes and become props, even spaces for the performance of their mother’s disability dramas. Largely masked in the tight weave of maternity, their disabilities —performed through their progeny—indicate a rift between what the public can be told and what the experience of motherhood is. Media viewers are less interested in the mental disabilities themselves, however, than in an iconography of infamy, often hysterical, an iconography that blends together two prevailing myths about disability and gender: primarily , that mothering is a biological act designed from a genetic and social template, inviolable except by women of a bereft, wicked, or counterrevolutionary nature; second, that disability, like gender, is a psychobiological affect that can be made visible and represented dramatically through social and theatrical convention. In light of this recent outcry over the discovery that race, gender, and ability does not necessarily a good mother make, the stage offers a millennia -old pageantry of perverse maternal icons that warrants closer scrutiny. 286 Bodies in Commotion The interplay of disability and gender as social conventions reveals that below...


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