Nice Girls Who Kill Their Babies
Patricia Pearson on the teenagers who trash their newborns, and the people who defend themWomen's Quarterly, Winter 1998
The day the baby was found, naked, entangled in the reeds along the shore of Laurel Lake, the heat was almost unbearable. It was September, but the affluent towns of Long Island’s North Fork, across Montauk Bay from the celebrity-crowded Hamptons, were doing brisk business at the ski and board shops as local teens traversed Main Road from the salty Atlantic to the freshwater pond tucked in behind Laurel Lake Vineyards. A couple of swimmers splashing through the sandy shallows noticed Michael James Ellwood, of indeterminate age—a day, a month, it was hard to tell—no one was going to stare into a dead child’s face.
The news got around pretty fast, bouncing through Peconic, mattituck, Cutchogue, and Greenport as people stopped in at The Cider Mill, wayhouse Antiques, and mcDon-ald’s, until eventually it reached Michael’s mother, who was hanging out at her friend Cheryl’s house. Amy Ellwood, the eighteen-year-old, college-bound daughter of two local teachers, summer employee of Dave Allen’s Tent and Party Services, was shocked. Not by the news itself—she knew where she’d disposed of her son on the day of his birth—but by the fact that people she didn’t know, adults in suits with somber faces, were making inquiries. She hadn’t anticipated an investigation. "I couldn’t imagine," she later said, "why the police were involved."
Amy Ellwood, of English rose complexion and long blond hair, inhabited a corner of the universe so tidy and safe that she might have been Betty, denizen of Riverdale in the Archie comics. Hers was a world of trim, white sidewalks shaded by apple and elm trees, a community both prosperous and placid; a world in which the teen still reigns supreme. Parents are benevolent but unobtrusive, providing their kids with cars, kisses, and spiffy clothes—not negligent parents, just confident ones, who smile over the good report cards issued by Mattituck-Cutchogue High School, which itself could have been in Riverdale, with its red-brick facade, white-pillared entrance, and glossy green lawns.
So it was that for several months in 1989, Amy Ellwood went about the earnest tasks of doing homework, getting good grades, co-editing the school literary journal, and attending the German club, all the while growing progressively rounder with child, and not one adult—not her parents, not her gym teacher, not the wives who work part time at the A&P mall where she hung out—remarked on her condition. Under the circumstances, the idea that she was now a suspect in a criminal investigation came as a hair-raising surprise.
Ellwood’s bemusement is evident on September 12, 1989, in a videotaped statement taken by the Suffolk County district attorney’s office after her friend Cheryl tipped off the police about who the Laurel Lake baby’s mother might be.
Assistant District Attorney Randall Hinrichs interrogates Amy politely. She responds in kind; neither is remotely overheated. They could be going through a theft complaint. Amy peers at Hinrichs through her bangs, a poised young woman whose expression suggests she’s just found herself on Mars and is trying to avoid sudden movements lest she aggravate the aliens.
Her story, as it unfurls through this interview and at her subsequent trial, began in August 1988, when she met nineteen-year-old Chris Wilshusen. He was a maverick, a pretty cool guy who had recently been expelled from the high school where Amy’s father served as principal. That lent their romance a Romeo and Juliet quality; it had to be kept secret from her family. They began dating, she said, "four days before my seventeenth birthday"—the sort of detail so treasured by young women in love they consider it a date to celebrate as an anniversary.
Amy’s revelation came on New Year’s Eve, at a party cluttered with beer and wine coolers and most of her girlfriends, a group who dubbed themselves "the Circle of Women." But it was a boy to whom she turned. Randy Sigurdson was in the kitchen when Amy came in, crying. She’d just had a fight with Chris, and she blurted out the news. "It was after midnight," he told the jury at Amy’s trial, "and I don’t remember [what] led to it, but we were just talking and she said that she had a couple of problems and that she was pregnant." Randy was sympathetic. But this wasn’t the era of the Scarlet Letter, when pregnancy out of wedlock was catastrophic, leading to social ostracism; nor even a time when immediate marriage was called for lest the girl slip away in shame to a special home. "I said there’s lots of things you can do; there’s adoption, or abortion."
Amy Ellwood was intelligent, aware; she knew what her options were. But they were such unexpected options to confront. "You see, when I was studying biology," she would testify, weary and defensive, "I was in tenth grade. I wasn’t exactly planning on having a baby. It wasn’t like I was learning the stuff for my own use." Yet she understood that her decision had a deadline, less than three months to opt for "termination," and a few months after that, the body announcing itself, and then a baby, bawling and clinging to her life forever.
For a time, she convinced herself that she wasn’t pregnant after all. Then, toward the end of February, when Amy’s parents went on a holiday cruise, her friend Dawn Swiatocha spent the week sleeping over at her house. One night they decided to drive to the drugstore and pick up a home pregnancy test. The timing was strikingly adolescent, like filching from the liquor cabinet or smoking a joint and raiding the fridge, things to do when parents are away. The test was positive, and that abruptly changed the mood. "I asked her if she was going to have an abortion," Dawn said, "and she said she wasn’t sure." Mostly, she didn’t want to think about it. "I did not want to believe I was pregnant," Amy testified.
Nevertheless, she discussed it with Chris. His response was typical of young men in these times: to become awkwardly solemn, respectful of a woman’s "right to choose," tell you they’ll stand by you, help you with the money, drive you to the clinic, whatever. They won’t break up with you, they promise, they ask if you’re okay; they even evince shy pleasure at the fact that you’ve conceived their child. But they don’t offer to marry you, and you don’t expect them to, and they don’t stake a claim to the baby, and you wouldn’t expect that, either. At some point, after this is all over, the odds are very good that they’ll vanish from your life. Not because you spawned an incipient family together and lost it, and the relationship was strained by the trauma, but because love itself is disposable.
For the post-sexual revolution generation, raised on a rhetoric that celebrated sexual freedom but had no memory of what the revolution was for, there are no links between intimacy and commitment, pregnancy and childbirth, sex and the beginning of a bright, constructive love. AIDS may have made them more fearful, ushering in a fad of celibacy, but it hasn’t taught them how to take care of their hearts. For Ellwood, the decision to have her child or not had to be made in a vacuum. "We talked about it, I guess, the decision we had to make," she said at trial, "and at some point the most sensible thing to do was get an abortion." But "sensible" was pure abstraction. "It didn’t feel like the right thing for me to do. Just the fact that it was Chris’ and my baby and I—I couldn’t do it."
Without being able to articulate what she’d found, Ellwood held on. She held on the way that a child, discovering something of uncertain value, a beautiful shell on the beach, carries it in the palm of her hand until, unable to grasp any further purpose for it, she lets it fall to the sand. "At the very beginning, after I decided that I wasn’t going to get the abortion, it still didn’t seem real that I was pregnant." She quit smoking for about three weeks, then resumed, perhaps because to quit was to acknowledge the baby. "Later on, when I started to gain weight, I realized that it wasn’t going to go away, and it was real, and I was pregnant."
There is a late-June high school graduation photograph of Ellwood, smiling through a bouquet of flowers on the steps of the school, surrounded by family and school chums. She is about seven months pregnant, blooming outward from her gown, her smooth, pale face still baby-round. In July, after observing her in a bathing suit, Amy’s parents gingerly asked her to take "a test." Instead, she took off for several days with Chris.
"My parents and I were pretty close," she would later say, defending them against insinuations about the "frightened seventeen-year-old girl" who conceals a pregnancy from parents to evade their wrath. "They just basically let me make my own decisions and they trusted me. They felt I was responsible, [but] I never really had any problems that I would have to go to them with." This, as the first problem, was far too disastrous to confess. Ellwood’s father said, "We goofed, that’s true, we knew she was pregnant…but we were scared if we pushed it she would end up on the road with her boyfriend." Plus, her mother Patricia added, "We thought there was more time….We’re both trained educators. But that doesn’t make us experts."
Left to their own devices and running out of time, Chris and Amy began tossing around ideas. "I was going to go down to North Carolina to a friend of his. There’s a house down there. And I was going to put the baby up for adoption….I kept putting it off. I just—I didn’t want to deal with it, and I just figured I would do it someday." As the summer progressed, her friends grew increasingly worried. "In August, we were in my car," Dawn Swiatocha told the jury, "and I said that it was getting kind of close to, you know, her pregnancy being over, and I asked what she was going to do, and she said that she had talked to someone about adoption—that she had spoken to a lady and the lady was going to take care of everything."
But at 3:30 in the morning on September 8, when Amy sat up in her Raggedy Ann sheets, awoken by contractions, and began to pace back and forth between her bedroom and the bathroom, there wasn’t any lady to take care of everything. "I knew I was in labor," she said. But when her mother knocked on the bathroom door around six—"Amy, are you all right?"—Amy said, "I’m fine." She wasn’t. "I was scared." But she’d made a decision. The baby was going to go away now. The problem was going to end. This was not going to be a live birth, it was going to be a miscarriage; that happens, doesn’t it, and it isn’t the mother’s fault, is it?
The video camera rolls in the district attorney’s office. A pack of cigarettes, a cup of coffee, and a tin foil ashtray have been placed before Amy Ellwood, but she touches none of them, not even to fidget. Instead, she leans forward, shoulders slightly slouched, resting her elbows on the table, and interlocks her fine-boned hands. She is concentrating hard, watchful and compliant. Because Randall Hinrichs has asked her, she says, "My water broke around five, five-thirty." He keeps asking, and she keeps answering, detail by detail. "I went into the bathroom, into the shower….uh, that’s when I started giving birth….my brother Brian probably left around six and my parents left around seven or seven-fifteen….it [came out] around six-thirty, seven….I pulled on the umbilical cord and pulled out the afterbirth, I heard it make a noise, twice, I saw its legs jerk….I put a towel around the baby and I picked it up out of the bathtub and I put it into a bucket. I added another towel around it and I brought it into my room….I fell asleep."
At some point in this account, Hinrichs needs to clarify an issue: Was Amy Ellwood intending to be a good mother, but didn’t know enough, when she wrapped her boy in towels and placed him in a bucket?
"I just decided I could—"
"You thought you could—"
Their words overlap.
"I don’t want to put words in your mouth—"
"Get away with it?" She fixes him with a grim half-smile.
"Get rid of the baby right after it was born?"
"Yeah." She adds, "Well, that’s not what I planned all along. You know, I planned to tell my parents eventually, but I never—I never could."
"And you decided you weren’t going to help the baby once it was born?"
"I don’t know what I was thinking. I just—I thought my parents wouldn’t find out that way."
On September 12, the Suffolk County district attorney’s office charged Ellwood with one count of murder in the second degree. A grand jury then reduced the charge to manslaughter.
In 1988, more than four thousand teenagers between the ages of ten and nineteen became pregnant in Suffolk County. Some had abortions, others gave their newborns up for adoption, others kept them. A handful, as Amy Ellwood did in 1989, gave birth to them and gave them back to God.
A colleague of Ellwood’s father watched his daughter, Loretta Campbell, plead innocent in hempstead to charges of second-degree manslaughter for smothering a boy she’d given birth to on January 1, 1991, at a friend’s house in affluent Hewlett and leaving him in a garbage bag. Two weeks earlier, a C.W. Post College sophomore had been charged with first-degree manslaughter for killing her newborn boy. A twenty-year-old Brentwood woman threw her baby out a window, and an East Northport woman left her infant to drown in a tub. Other babies in Suffolk County were found by the police but never connected to those who destroyed them. Still others were probably never found.
Across the country, according to the National Center on Health Statistics, the killing of infant children climbed fifty-five percent between 1985 and 1988, until it was several times the rate at which adult women were murdered. Nearly half of the child maltreatment fatalities between 1985 and 1992 in the United States involved infants up to a year old. According to data compiled by the World Health organization, infanticide was (as recently as the mid-1970s) as common as or more common than the killing of adults in most of the industrialized nations, from Canada to Austria to Japan. In the United States, more infant boys are killed than girls. An American one-year-old is as likely to be attacked by a woman as a man, while the vast majority of murdered newborns are victims of women. A wide consensus exists within the community of academicians who try to track neonaticide that many "neonates are discarded but not found, making the overall rate…considerably higher than the data suggest."
Ever alert to the possibilities of a new trend, the media turned their short attention span to this issue in the early part of the decade. In April 1991, for example, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a story headlined, "Infanticide Increasing, Experts Fear." The story cited more than a dozen cases in Missouri and southern Illinois in the previous five years and commented, "Authorities have no idea how many have gone undetected." The cases reported by the Post-Dispatch echoed those in Long Island—babies born in dorm rooms and disposed of in trash cans. A forensic psychiatrist at the Menninger Clinic told the newspaper, "Most of the young women who kill their newborns are quite young, single, uneducated, and desperate. The child is obviously a burden to them, and they get rid of the burden the only way they can think of, by killing it."
Amy Ellwood’s parents retained a lawyer for her, Eric Naiburg, who told the media that he planned to launch an "unwed-mother syndrome" defense. He explained that women who deny their pregnancy and neglect their newborns suffer mental derangement caused by being young and single. "In the mind of a frightened seventeen-year-old," Naiburg said, "the realization of pregnancy is not like flicking on a switch." Amy was troubled, he explained, because her parents didn’t approve of her boyfriend. "She tried to please her parents a lot." Her father thought of her as his "good little girl." The suggestion of a wrathful father lurking behind the scenes added a frisson of drama.
What Ellwood did on the day that her son lived and died was as follows: "I went and got garbage bags from my garage so I could put the baby in them. Then I…got a Styrofoam cooler and put another garbage bag inside of it and then I put the other garbage bag inside of that one. I put the cooler in the hatchback of my car. Then I took a shower, and I washed my sheets. Then I went to my friend Cheryl’s house. I told her I had a miscarriage and that I’d been to the hospital the night before. We went to 7-Eleven and got something to drink and then we went back to her house and watched TV for a while. She wanted to go swimming and so we went down to Laurel Lake.
We only stayed there for about a half hour. Then we went and she got ice cream and then I went and dropped her off and then I went home."
Having driven around all afternoon with a dead or dying infant in the car, Amy decided to call Chris. "I told him the same thing that I’d told Cheryl because I didn’t want them to know, you know. He asked if I was okay and he asked why they didn’t make me stay in the hospital." A couple of hours later, she met him at the A&P parking lot. "[Then] he went to Greenport to a friend’s house, and I went to Riverhead with my friend Cheryl." Emotion momentarily flushes into Ellwood’s voice, triggered, seemingly, by the memory of Chris going off with his friends—the revelation that the intimate links are, indeed, so eroded that a man makes no connection to the child he’s just lost and cannot rearrange his social schedule to console the mother, any more than she could connect with the child or reveal his fate to the man. The parents went their separate ways along the Main Road, leaving their son behind in a two-dollar cooler in Amy’s parked Toyota.
Around 10:00 p.m., Ellwood re-turned from Riverhead where she’d been hanging out with friends at a place they called "The Circle," a traffic round-about with a rock in the middle. She picked up her car, drove around for about ten minutes, and made her way through darkness to the lake. "I parked my car and, uh, shut my lights off and I opened the back and I took the cooler out and…I waded into the water and I dumped the cooler." Later, in her defense, the pastor at Amy Ellwood’s family church wrote a letter to her judge describing what she’d done in the lake as "a baptism."
At the end of his interrogation, Hinrichs holds up a police photo of a dead infant for the video camera to zoom carefully in upon. Across the bottom, written in Ellwood’s flowery hand: "This is the baby I gave birth to." She will not look at her son.
Newsday ran an editorial at the time of Ellwood’s trial that was sympathetic to her refusal to face what she’d done. "Almost everyone practices denial at one time or another. We may put off calling the plumber in hope that the leak will go away; or avoid breast self-examination because we don’t want to find cancer….Amy Ellwood is troubled, not malicious." The view is shared by Suffolk County detective lieutenant John Gierasch, who investigates the babies abandoned in his county. "It’s like having a simple problem—your car doesn’t work, and you’re not a car person, so you just let it go, and the next thing you know you’re broken down on the side of the road. You’re procrastinating; you just defer and defer and pretty soon you have a mess on your hands. [These girls] must make some half-assed attempt to determine that they are pregnant, just to confirm in their own minds, so it’s not like they’re denying that they’re pregnant to themselves. They’re denying it to the world. They’re just not going to deal with it, which maybe young females are more inclined to do than other people. I don’t know if you can call that aggression. But if you shove toilet paper down its throat because it’s crying to shut it up, that crosses another line, that’s aggression. I mean Ellwood just wrapped it up, put it in a bag, and disposed of it. there was no overt homicidal act."
The community perspective on Ellwood’s act of neonaticide raises some important questions about who is in denial here. Our myths about maternal grace—under pressure, pure as nature—are so deeply ingrained that infanticide is the one crime to be all but ignored in discussions of violence. Murdered infants have been showing up lately on the evening news with surprising frequency. But to most of us, they aren’t reflective, somehow, of female aggression. We only prick up our ears to what, as French historian Michel Foucault once said, is "in the truth." Another young offender on a shooting spree? Look at what’s going on with kids today! Another woman raped in Central Park? A new serial attacker! It is as if the killing of newborns and infants fails to compute. As a result, every time a new case compels our attention, we are left to grasp at a few clichés, to point fingers and to invent syndromes, as the moral ground shifts beneath our feet.
When women like Amy Ellwood commit neonaticide, they tend not to be considered women, exactly. They are "young" and "unwed." They are "uneducated." They can’t think what else to do with newborn children except stuff them in dumpsters. In other words, they are not mothers in a culturally understood and celebrated way. Mothers are strong, long-suffering, altruistic, and resourceful. mothers are never callous; they are not indifferent.
Ellwood seemed to understand this distinction and to play to it when she testified in her own defense on March 5, 1991. She brought tears to the eyes of Suffolk County jurors when she told them she thought she had miscarried, thought her baby was premature and stillborn when it arrived. She knew nothing of biology. She had imagined that her baby "had gills in the back of its neck and that’s how it breathed in the fluid." Had she known that her son was alive, she told the jury, when he made his plaintive sounds and kicked his feet, "I would have picked the baby up and loved it like any mother would."
Research on maternal aggression is stunningly scant. Most of it is lumped into a single category of madness, linked directly to female hormones. "Postpartum depression," also known as "new-mother syndrome," has been advanced for well over a century to explain why good women would turn inexplicably violent. About half of all women who give birth do experience a hormonal shift within three to eight days that makes them disconsolate, weepy, or irritable. Sometimes called the "baby blues," this passing storm is loosely comparable to how one feels in early pregnancy or premenstrually. It isn’t a springboard for serious aggression. It comes, it goes. The body resolves itself.
About one in five hundred women, however, get more unhinged when they have a baby, to the point of becoming suicidal or homicidal. Some enter a frightening realm of the mind known as postpartum psychosis. They become delusional, they hallucinate, their babies fall from bridges, are suffocated, drown. Within the medical community, there are those who insist that postpartum psychosis is purely hormonal—that if women are treated with hormone supplements while still in the hospital after giving birth, they’ll remain grounded and content in their new maternal role. internationally, the most prominent advocates of this view are members of the Marce Society, a research organization devoted to isolating the biological underpinnings of postpartum disorders. The implicit logic of this view is that hormonal insanity is something to which all women are automatically susceptible as soon as they get wheeled out of the delivery room.
It only tends to be women who dupe the public into pitying them for a lost or kidnapped baby who receive severe punishment when the truth comes out, as happened to Susan Smith. Most women aren’t incarcerated for infanticide. Of those who are even convicted, about two thirds avoid prison, and the rest receive an average sentence of seven years. In England between 1982 and 1989, fewer than ten percent of mothers convicted of manslaughter for killing their children (at any age) were imprisoned; only two of the mothers who’d committed infanticide were. British fathers were more likely to be charged with murder than manslaughter. More than half of the fathers convicted of manslaughter went to jail. Three times as many mothers as fathers are deemed to be mentally ill for killing their children.
We seem to permit a maternal sphere of influence over our youngest citizens, which recedes as children grow and enter the public domain. A woman who is acquitted of infanticide will not so easily escape censure for killing a child. Our collective sense of what is aggressive, of what we deem to be acceptable or unacceptable violence, is reflected in the comments of Detective Gierasch: "To me, when girls have babies without anyone else effectively knowing—I don’t view it as aggression in the classic sense. My feelings aren’t so strong, personally, with respect to that. But young toddlers, children, if they’re the victims of outright homicide, is about as outrageous as I deal with." The child, as opposed to the baby, is the most cherished of all potential victims in our society. This is why a postpartum mother may not, in her "hormonally induced" psychosis, attack an older child and still be considered "more victim than victimizer."
Yet juries frequently cry when delivering verdicts in infanticide cases—as they did at Amy Ellwood’s trial—regardless of whether their decision is innocence or guilt. According to Phillip Resnick, a professor at Case Western Reserve University in cleveland, these juries are sympathetic because, "they view the mothers as having lost their most valuable possession already, in terms of the infant." It is curious that Resnick should say "possession." If children are regarded as citizens worthy of our protection, infants are perceived, on some level, as mere extensions of women.
Suffolk County Court Judge Stuart Namm, known in legal circles on Long Island as a progressive who generally sympathizes with the poor and downtrodden, was not at all sympathetic to Amy Ellwood. He sensed a moral vacuum at the heart of the trial, an absence of cultural wisdom to sustain the overwhelming support for his defendant. A long-faced, gray-haired judge with thick, dark glasses, Namm gazed at Ellwood as she leaned into the protective arm of her lawyer.
"This, Amy, was no miscarriage," he began, urging her to give up the satisfying lie she’d told herself. "It was no abortion. It was no baptism. This was purely and simply an act of selfish and reckless manslaughter." He turned his attention to her supporters, including Long Island’s most tireless victims’ rights advocates, who’d broken ranks in this instance to embrace Ellwood. "All of you believe that you are the real victims," Namm said. "Well, I’m sorry, but I don’t agree."
He lectured Ellwood’s parents for failing to intervene when they knew she was pregnant. He criticized her lawyer for promising the "unwed- mother syndrome" defense, which never materialized. He chastised the district attorney’s office for trying to plea-bargain the sentence down to probation, and he expressed anger at the probation department for offering a sixteen-page personal evaluation with extensive psychological analysis, which Namm had not requested.
Judge Namm didn’t see any evidence that Michael James Ellwood had been valued. Sentiments about motherhood and young womanhood had together usurped a respect for the child. "It is my firm belief," he told Ellwood, "that you have yet to come to grips with the tragedy." No one, he said, "can callously take someone else’s life and walk away with a slap on the wrist." He sentenced her to two-and-a-half years to seven-and-a-half years in prison. Eric Naiburg appealed, and a New York State appellate judge permitted Ellwood to postpone prison until February 8, 1995 so that she could go to college. u
This article is adapted from Patricia Pearson’s recent book, When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence. © Patricia Pearson 1997. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.