Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Last night, I re-read Gene Weingarten‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning feature on parents who accidentally forget their infants in the backseats of their cars, leaving them to swelter to death in the heat. And since I can make connections to rape culture out of practically anything, I was struck by this section in Weingarten’s story, about the public’s reaction to parents who make this fatal mistake:

“This is a case of pure evil negligence of the worse kind . . . He deserves the death sentence.”

“I wonder if this was his way of telling his wife that he didn’t really want a kid.”

“He was too busy chasing after real estate commissions. This shows how morally corrupt people in real estate-related professions are.”

These were readers’ online comments to The Washington Post news article of July 10, 2008, reporting the circumstances of the death of Miles Harrison‘s son. These comments were typical of many others, and they are typical of what happens again and again, year after year in community after community, when these cases arise. A substantial proportion of the public reacts not merely with anger, but with frothing vitriol.

Ed Hickling believes he knows why. Hickling is a clinical psychologist from Albany, N.Y., who has studied the effects of fatal auto accidents on the drivers who survive them. He says these people are often judged with disproportionate harshness by the public, even when it was clearly an accident, and even when it was indisputably not their fault.

Humans, Hickling said, have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.

In hyperthermia cases, he believes, the parents are demonized for much the same reasons. “We are vulnerable, but we don’t want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we’ll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don’t want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters.”

Sound familiar? The comparison to victims of rape doesn’t end there. One mother whose baby died after she forgot him in the backseat of her car was—-strangely—-explicitly slut-shamed by an online commenter:

After Lyn Balfour‘s acquittal, this comment appeared on the Charlottesville News Web site:

“If she had too many things on her mind then she should have kept her legs closed and not had any kids. They should lock her in a car during a hot day and see what happens.”

The idea of addressing parents who accidentally kill their children by putting them “in a different category” functions a bit differently when applied to the victims and perpetrators of rape. When we are confronted with victims of rape, we put them in a different category (“irresponsible sluts”) in order to avoid believing that rape could ever happen to us; when we are confronted with rapists, we put them in a different category (“evil monsters”) in order to avoid believing that our classmates, friends, brothers, and sons are actually capable of such a heinous crime. Parents who accidentally kill their children are both victims and perpetrators—-they’re our evil monsters and irresponsible sluts all wrapped into one.

Photo via spaceodissey, Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0