Awards > Essay Award Winner 2001
"Madness, Violence, and the Myth of the "Good" Mother:
Media Representations of Dr. Suzanne Killinger-Johnson"
"Infant dies in mother's suicide bid. Leaps
in front of subway carrying six-month-old boy: 37-year-old psychotherapist
from affluent district in critical condition" (Brown). This
was the headline in the National Post on Saturday, August 12, 2000,
one day after Dr. Suzanne Killinger-Johnson attempted suicide with
her baby son, Cuyler, in her arms. Cuyler died instantly, while
Killinger-Johnson lingered on life support for ten days before she
finally succumbed to her injuries. Her actions provoked a nation-wide
response: grief, anger, and above all, disbelief. People asked,
"How could she do it? She had the perfect life." By conventional
standards, Killinger-Johnson appeared to be living the North American
dream - well educated and attractive, she had a thriving medical
practice, a successful husband, a healthy baby, a mortgage-free
home, and a brand new Mercedes SUV. Many people found it very difficult
to understand what motivated Killinger-Johnson to throw herself
and her son in front of a speeding subway train. We will never have
a precise answer to that question. Killinger-Johnson did not leave
a suicide note and even those closest to her have no way of knowing
what was running through her mind as she prepared to end her life
and that of her son.
It is not my intention to attempt to decipher
the reasons behind Killinger-Johnson's actions. Rather, I am more
concerned with our reactions to what she did, and how our perceptions
of feminine beauty, the myths of motherhood and our assumptions
about female violence interact to negate the possibility of calculated
maternal anger in the case of Suzanne Killinger-Johnson. Motherhood
is not simply a fact of life for the majority of the world's women.
It is an institution with political implications and it affects
how we perceive women and how they perceive themselves. The myth
of the "good" mother inhibits our ability to register
violence on the spectrum of maternal emotions - a "good"
mother would never deliberately harm her child. Women's violence
is a threat to the institution of motherhood. We attempt to defuse
that threat through our representations of mothers who commit violent
acts. By employing the various strands of feminist theory related
to motherhood and women's violence, I will explore that threat and
how it relates to the media representations of Suzanne Killinger-Johnson
in the aftermath of her fatal decision.
The Killinger-Johnson story was front-page news
in all of Canada's major newspapers. Press coverage of the tragedy
continued for nearly three weeks after Killinger-Johnson leapt in
front of an oncoming train with her son in her arms. What made this
story so newsworthy? The extensive media coverage would lead one
to believe that this was a grisly but isolated incident, worthy
of press coverage by virtue of its grim novelty. Yet the Killinger-Johnson
case was not unique. The Toronto Transit Commission deals with an
average of two suicide attempts each month, "one of which generally
succeeds" (Philp). One year before Killinger-Johnson killed
her son and fatally injured herself, Jeyabalan Balasingam killed
himself and his three-year-old son Sajanthan when he jumped onto
the tracks of Toronto's Victoria Park subway station. Unlike the
Killinger-Johnson case, however, "the sad tale lasted but a
day in the city's newspapers before fading from our attention"
(Mandel). Why did the death of Suzanne Killinger-Johnson captivate
us for weeks? The macabre appeal of her story is largely due to
our perception that she was living the "perfect" life,
as indicated by the following quotes from newspaper articles published
immediately after her suicide attempt:
By all accounts, Dr. Killinger-Johnson would
be one of the last people to be pegged as a candidate for a suicide
attempt....In their leafy, upscale neighbourhood, the Johnsons seemed
the perfect family (Philp).
She was a woman who seemed to have the picture-perfect
From the outside, it appeared as though Suzanne
Killinger- Johnson lived a most charmed life (Simmons).
At 37, Killinger-Johnson appeared to have it
Suzanne Killinger-Johnson, to put it bluntly,
was one of the most unlikely people to jump in front of a train
In the aftermath of her subway leap, reporters all asked the same
question: "Why?" There was no obvious explanation for
her actions. The incredulous articles in the days immediately after
the incident were filled with the damaging - and erroneous - assumption
that Suzanne Killinger-Johnson lived the "perfect" life,
and people who live perfect lives are never unhappy.
Without a conscious, living woman there to attest
to her happiness, how were the media able to appraise the quality
of Suzanne Killinger-Johnson's life? The same articles that glorified
her "perfect" life provided an inventory of her possessions
as evidence of the happiness that she must - or should - have felt:
She lives in a charming corner house in tony
North Toronto that she and her husband bought nearly three years
ago for $635,000 clear of a mortgage. She drove around town in a
1999 Mercedes-Benz (Philp).
She lived in a half-million-dollar home on a
tree-lined street where neighbours welcomed new residents with garden
parties. She would stroll with her healthy 6-month-old baby boy
and entertain friends with her husband in her manicured backyard
Shocked residents on tree-lined Hillhurst Boulevard,
where Killinger-Johnson lived, recalled seeing her and her husband,
Douglas Johnson, 34, relaxing on the rear patio or gardening in
the front of the fashionable, single-storey brick home they bought
for $635,000 in 1997....The $60,000 1999 Mercedes Benz SUV that
Killinger-Johnson used in the fatal drive to the subway station
was leased last year (Sher).
Killinger-Johnson's Mercedes SUV was emblematic of her status, and
the vehicle's make, model, and often, price, were mentioned in almost
every account of her suicide attempt. Anyone who followed the story
soon learned when she and her husband bought their house, how much
they paid for it, and that they did so clear of a mortgage. Beyond
the simple fact that it is wrong to equate a person's possessions
or level of financial security with their happiness, a question
looms: why is the price of Killinger-Johnson's house - or her car,
for that matter - relevant, let alone newsworthy? If she lived in
a rented apartment and drove a beaten up car, would accounts of
her suicide attempt tell us her monthly rent payments and the approximate
value of her vehicle? I think not. In fact, I am willing to wager
that if Killinger-Johnson had been of more modest financial means,
her story would not have received such extensive media coverage.
In keeping with their superficial appraisal
of her material possessions, most newspaper accounts of her violent
actions also highlighted Killinger-Johnson's physical appearance.
She was, by all accounts, a beautiful woman, and it was likely her
beauty that made her story so appealing to the press. What better
to sell papers than the story of a beautiful woman's tragic and
mysterious death? Articles about Killinger-Johnson were often accompanied
by her 1988 medical school graduation picture. Although the photograph
is a professional portrait, rigidly posed and probably airbrushed,
not to mention twelve years out of date, it became the visual reference
point for Killinger-Johnson's present-day appearance. "Aging
rested lightly on her," (Valpy) after all, so her beauty could
not have matured or changed, let alone waned. Representations of
the "subway mom" often stressed her blonde good looks,
and the following sort of commentary usually accompanied her photograph:
She is known to jog and walk her chocolate Labrador
retriever frequently. "She's so beautiful, so classy,"
said a neighbour who lives two doors away (Brown).
Friend and neighbour Barb Steief, 49, described
the doctor as a beautiful woman who carried herself elegantly. "The
couple was gorgeous...the most beautiful couple with the most beautiful
baby," she said (Sher).
The Suzanne Killinger I knew was smart and beautiful....Women
wanted to emulate her. Guys just wanted to get to know her (Sims).
Aging rested lightly on her. Friends remarked,
when the newspapers last Saturday published her medical-school graduation
photograph, how little she had changed in 12 years. She carried
no excess weight after Cuyler was born (Valpy).
A physician and a psychotherapist who often
counselled depressed and suicidal people, she was pretty and fit
"I remember thinking she was a very attractive
woman, very fit, but she was not a neighbourly neighbour,"
[a neighbour] said (Philp)
"She was not a neighbourly neighbour"
- the only indication that something might not be right behind the
façade. How could a "fit," "classy" and
"beautiful" woman commit such a violent act?
Just as a rich person should never be sad, a
beautiful woman could never make the conscious decision to harm
or kill her baby. Our culture provides us with two possible explanations:
she was either 'mad' or 'bad' (Wight xiii). Wealthy, blonde, and
beautiful, Killinger-Johnson was obviously not bad, so she must
have been crazy. More precisely, she was suffering from postpartum
depression (PPD). It was widely reported that Killinger-Johnson
was suffering from PPD but, true to the picture of the self-sacrificing
mother, she had gone off her medication because she didn't want
it to harm her still breastfeeding son. While I don't deny the very
real effects of PPD on new mothers, I am uncomfortable with the
rapidity with which we - that is, the media and the general public
- attributed Killinger-Johnson's actions to post-natal psychological
distress. Is PPD a sufficient answer, or is it just a means by which
to skirt the disturbing possibility that a mother - and a beautiful,
wealthy one, at that - may have deliberately wanted to harm herself
and her child? Why are we so afraid to consider the possibility
that Killinger-Johnson made the rational choice to end her life
and that of her son? Our easy diagnosis of PPD makes me uncomfortable
not because I refuse to acknowledge the psychological distress that
it caused Suzanne Killinger-Johnson, but because I think that we
willingly accepted that diagnosis for the wrong reasons - namely
because she was rich, beautiful, and a mother.
The myth of motherhood wields great power in
our culture. More than just a state of being for many of the world's
women, "motherhood is central to the ways in which [women]
are defined by others and to their perceptions of themselves"
(Phoenix 13). Motherhood is an institution. It sanctions certain
activities and forbids others. To challenge the myth is to challenge
an essential part of the cultural matrix, for we have very precise
expectations of women who become mothers. Each woman is counted
upon to conform to the stereotype of the "good" mother:
She is, of course, always married and it goes
without saying she is a good wife to her husband, as defined by
him. This is perhaps the most powerful of all the stereotypes. A
mother who is seen as a bad mother can expect vilification. It's
natural for women to be good at caring; they are designed for motherhood
- it comes naturally to them. So when a woman is being a bad mother
she is being perverse, unnatural, defying her own instincts: truly
wicked (Lloyd 47).
To be a "bad" mother is to deny one's
instincts, one's very nature. "Bad" mothers should expect
to be penalized, either by institutions or by their communities.
To be a "good" mother is a woman's highest calling. We
value the idealized image of the "good" mother accordingly.
In such a cultural climate, the maternal ideal often eclipses women's
reality as mothers: "A sentimentalized image of the perfect
mother casts a long, guilt-inducing shadow over real mothers' lives"
The stereotype of the "good" mother
is just that: a construct, a cultural yardstick against which women
are measured. It is powerful and unattainable, or perhaps powerful
in its unattainability. There is no comparable stereotype of the
"good father," for we do not hold men to such exacting
cultural standards in the domestic sphere. It is only women who
are judged according to an ever-changing (and always unachievable)
parental ideal. The image of the "good" mother is not
static. It shifts over time, for "motherhood - the way we perform
mothering - is culturally derived" (Thurer xv). What remains
consistent is the disjuncture between the image of the "good"
mother and women's reality as mothers. If it differs so greatly
from women's reality, why does this construct exist? Why does it
wield such power over women's lives? To put it simply, "what
is widely accepted as 'good mothering' by 'good mothers' _is_ socially_constructed_and_has_political_implications_and_
consequences_" [emphasis mine] (Phoenix 25). Yuval-Davis has
shown that woman-as-mother is a powerful cultural and political
figure, for she embodies the nation and facilitates its reproduction
in both a literal and figurative sense (29-31). Furthermore, the
institution of motherhood imposes constraints on women and serves
to replicate relations of domination and subjugation. It ensures
that women do not deviate from their socially defined position and
imposes punishments on those who do. Socially, culturally, and politically,
society has a huge stake in "upholding the mythical status
of motherhood" (Lloyd 69).
The mythical status of motherhood is causally
linked to our unwillingness to acknowledge women's - especially
mothers' - anger: "Mother-love is supposed to be continuous,
unconditional. Love and anger cannot coexist. Female anger threatens
the institution of motherhood" (Rich 46). "Good"
mothers do not get angry. They are peacekeepers and providers of
comfort, dispensers of unconditional love. They are not permitted
to express fatigue or frustration and must cheerfully endure the
challenges presented by husbands and children. We construct the
"good" mother in such a way that her characteristics serve
to reinforce notions of feminine docility and emotional instability.
These characteristics work together to deny the possibility that
a mother could deliberately harm her child:
The belief that women are inherently unstable
because of their reproductive cycle combines with the pull of the
'women are naturally good mothers, that's their primary function
in life' belief to produce lenient attitudes toward mothers who
kill their children. The two myths combine…and render it virtually
impossible to see a mother as being both rational/responsible and
capable of harming her child (Lloyd 67).
Implicit in the construction of the "good mother" are
characteristics designed to negate the possibility of rational,
calculated maternal violence. The interplay of these myths works
in tandem with our perception that violence is the "province
of men. Violence is masculine" (Pearson 7). We are reluctant
to acknowledge women's capacity for violence, a capacity that is
no less powerful than men's, though it may manifest itself differently.
When violent women do challenge the boundaries of motherhood, we
judge them - and in doing so, defuse their behaviour - according
to the following categories:
When a woman transgresses the bounds of her prescribed gender role,
her actions are translated in less threatening terms. The 'abnormality'
of her 'unwomanly' behaviour is explained away: she is either mad
(hysterical, suffering from pre- menstrual tension or Battered Woman
Syndrome) or bad (the inadequate mother, the lesbian, the just plain
evil). These 'justifications' recur in representations of women
who commit violence....While the hysteric suffers from an excess
of femininity, the 'bad' woman is unnatural in her lack of it....Violent
women are treated more leniently by the courts if they can be represented
as mad, since their alleged pathology separates them safely from
ordinary womanhood. Madness relieves women of responsibility for
their actions, denying them moral agency. As for those violent women
who are dubbed evil and unnatural, they are doubly vilified since
their transgression doesn't just threaten individuals, but the whole
edifice of 'womanhood' (Wight xiii).
Violence and the "good" mother cannot
coexist. Mothers who commit violence are 'mad' (as in the case of
Suzanne Killinger-Johnson) or 'bad'. In this way, they are prevented
from making a legitimate challenge to the institution of motherhood,
"for they are not mothers in a culturally understood and celebrated
way" (Pearson 74).
The story of Suzanne Killinger-Johnson is tragic.
It is violent. It is also rife with cultural assumptions about wealth,
beauty, gender, motherhood, and violence. The media serves as a
conduit for those assumptions. Yet I have not intended this paper
to be solely an indictment of the media, for it is but one conduit
for such assumptions, and it can be self-correcting. After the initial
fervour over the Killinger-Johnson story had subsided, much of the
press coverage became far more self-referential. Many reporters
rejected the image of Killinger-Johnson's so-called "perfect
life" and the assumption that wealth equals happiness. There
were insightful commentaries on depression as the great leveler
of rich and poor. Some even attempted to unpack the cultural significance
of Killinger-Johnson's fatal decision:
Why? For many, the question is particularly
vexing because of the 37-year-old's outwardly successful life. She
is a physician, a psychotherapist, and was - until very recently
- the mother of a six-month-old boy. Not only is she a mental health
professional, we were told, but she's got a nice home, drives a
nice car, has accomplished parents. All the trappings, it seemed,
of the kind of life many aspire to. Several stories suggested that
she "had it all," implying Killinger-Johnson was the last
person from whom one would expect such a desperate act. Suicide,
however, knows no such stereotypes (Simmie).
[T]he case of the suicidal doctor has spilled
endless newspaper inches of armchair analysis and outrage. Some
believe it is her status, her wealth and profession that has struck
such a venomous cord. Perhaps. But I believe it has much more to
do with the nature of her maternal role. She was a mom. No matter
her sickness, many cannot forgive a mother doing such a horrific
deed. There is a universal strain of mother worship that exists
in all societies. As William Ross Wallace wrote, "For the hand
that rocks the cradle, is the hand that rules the world" (Mandel).
Nevertheless, I am more concerned with the media's
immediate reaction to the deaths of Suzanne Killinger-Johnson and
her baby son than I am with their second thoughts. The initial news
reports function as a sort of cultural litmus test, a test that
reveals the archaic assumptions about motherhood, violence, and
femininity that predominate in our culture. Through my analysis
of the newspaper coverage of the Killinger-Johnson story, I have
attempted to examine how some of the most potent and politically
charged myths of our culture manifest themselves in the representation
of a woman who deviates from our ideal of the "good" mother.
Suzanne Killinger-Johnson's final - and fatal
- decision saddened me greatly, as much on behalf of her family
as for women and children in general. It is a tragedy that I do
not want to see repeated. We must take steps as individuals and
as citizens to prevent such a thing from happening again. To do
so, we must commit ourselves to political, intellectual, and cultural
change. As such, I would like to conclude this paper with three
objectives that I believe are central to combating the destructive
myth of the "good mother" - and that may help to save
lives: First, we must offer more support to mothers in crisis. Women
suffering from PPD or other forms of psychological distress cannot
simply be medicated and sent home. With the help of family, friends,
and health professionals, they can learn that their feelings of
helplessness, rage, and depression are natural - and not "unfeminine"
or "unmotherly" - and that there are healthy ways to deal
with them. Second, we must combat the cultural myths that attempt
to obscure or deny the reality of women's violent or aggressive
nature. Until we do this, violence will continue to proliferate
and patriarchal power will retain its grip on society:
The consequences of our refusal to concede female
contributions to violence are manifold. It affects our capacity
to promote ourselves as autonomous and responsible beings. It affects
our ability to develop a literature about ourselves that encompasses
the full array of human emotion and experience. It demeans the right
our victims have to be valued. And it radically impedes our ability
to recognize dimensions of power that have nothing to do with formal
structures of patriarchy. Perhaps above all, the denial of women's
aggression profoundly undermines our attempt as a culture to understand
violence, to trace its causes and to quell them (Pearson 243).
Finally, we must break down the institution of motherhood and acknowledge
that the "good" mother is a culturally constructed ideal
with a political function. It is an image that no woman can realistically
imitate; nor should she have to. This will require great ideological
work, but the consequences for women and children will be profound:
The changes required to make this possible reverberate
into every part of the patriarchal system. To destroy the institution
is not to abolish motherhood. It is to release the creation and
sustenance of life into the same realm of decision, struggle, surprise,
imagination, and conscious intelligence, as any other difficult,
but freely chosen, work (Rich 280).
Motherhood is not an inevitability, it is a choice, and we should
reward women as individuals for making - or not making - that choice.
We must give women the right to choose which path they want to take,
a path free of damaging maternal stereotypes, and we must teach
them to embrace the full spectrum of human emotions. It is in repression
and denial that the most damage is done. In the memory of Suzanne
Killinger-Johnson and her baby son Cuyler, as well as in the memory
of Jeyabalan and Sajanathan Balasingam, we must work to reform a
culture that limits people's ability to constructively express anger,
pain, helplessness, and grief.
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of subway carrying six-month-old boy: 37-year-old psychotherapist
from affluent district in critical condition." _The National
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