When Ms. B. Monaghan’s American Thought & Language class began, my fellow Michigan State University students and I were directed to obtain a three-ring presentation binder. On the cover of the binder we were to write the title “My Power In My Hand.” Inside the binder, on page 2, we were to type the general objective of our class: “To become intelligent and compassionate observers of, and participate in, the great human drama going on around us and within us.”
Ms. B. Monaghan’s class met three days a week, and she made us write papers three days a week. Here were some of the questions we were to answer in those papers:
Would you kill your father for freedom?
Who should die in times of crisis?
Who should get an education when spaces are limited?
“I’m 17 years old,” I remember thinking. “I’m a freshman in college. I have no idea why you’re asking me these questions. What kind of class is this?”
Ms. B. Monaghan never took no or “I’m not sure” for an answer. She didn’t care if we were teenagers who’d never even begun to consider such issues. She required us to answer what she called her “terrible questions.” To pick a side and defend it. What did we think? What would we do? What was our reasoning?
At first, I couldn’t stand her. I thought her questions were ridiculous and impractical. I needed to graduate and get a job, for goodness sake, not pretend I’m the commander-in-chief of ancient Carthage’s defense force and decide whether to sacrifice 300 young children in order to save my city. I thought having to write three papers a week was unfair. I felt sure she was trying to indoctrinate me somehow, but in what I couldn’t tell. Not only that, but she insisted on calling me Katie. My name is now, and has always been, Katherine. Not Kathy, Kathleen or Kate, and certainly not Katie.
Reluctantly, I wrote. American Thought & Language was a prerequisite so I had no other choice. I took stances that I wasn’t sure I had the wisdom or life experience to back up. As an imaginary college admissions advisor, I decided that those who worked the hardest were the most deserving of a college education, regardless of all other circumstance. I wrote things like “error must have the same rights as truth” and that I didn’t believe in existentialism. And, on my paper entitled “Human Dignity or Human Sacrifice,” I decided I wouldn’t sacrifice the children in Carthage, writing:
“There is no way I can condone infanticide. There is absolutely no way.”
I’m looking at those words now, as I sit here, written in my youthful cursive with a blue pen. I cannot believe, among the few papers I saved from college — among every paper I ever wrote in college, in fact — that I would find those two sentences among them. Just now. Today. How much has changed. Now I’m an advocate for women with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, including postpartum psychosis. I actually work in an arena where infanticide can happen.
Infanticide is never okay with me. I grieve for every child lost. Still I believe there are some people who are not guilty by reason of insanity. There are women who have a real illness called postpartum psychosis. Is that condoning? The dictionary says to condone means to regard or treat something bad or blameworthy as acceptable, forgivable, or harmless. Infanticide is never acceptable and terribly harmful, but if a mother is incapacitated by postpartum psychosis, how can I not forgive?
There are sick people in the world. I heard someone recently divide them, fairly or not, into two camps: “crazy-sick” and “crazy-mean.” Ms. B. Monaghan might be disappointed in me because I don’t know where to draw the line between them. What makes one murder forgivable because a person is not in their right mind versus another that is a cold-blooded killing, deserving of the harshest punishment possible? What’s the exact difference between Andrea Yates and Susan Smith? I don’t know. Not precisely, other than that the facts of each case are different. What I do know, with full certainty, is that there are mothers who have an illness that prevents them from being who they really are. Postpartum psychosis twists their brain, confuses them, and can sometimes lead them down a deadly path that they would never otherwise travel.
It’s not their fault. It’s ours for not protecting them. That’s my position, Ms. B. Monaghan.
When I write about infanticide, I notice how many friends don’t comment. They don’t retweet the story like they do my others. I wonder if it’s because they think I’m wrong even to discuss it. This is dangerous territory, Katherine. We can’t support you on this one. Don’t go there.
I have to.
I’ve been thinking of my professor today. How she meant so much to me by the end of the term and I couldn’t understand why, so much that I kept my “My Power in My Hand” binder for more than 20 years, through many moves, just so I could climb around in my garage today, find it and open it up right when I needed it. The world is complicated. Experience can change belief. She was preparing me to tackle difficult and painful questions. Terrible questions. To be willing to defend people who others consider unworthy of defense.
On the very last paper I wrote for her class, Ms. B. Monaghan wrote, “Your words touch even this weary heart most deeply, Katie. To be educated is to be aware, painfully aware, of that human drama, its paradoxes, its dilemmas, its cruelty and joy. To be so keenly aware is often distressing, but not to be aware is to be dead, mentally and emotionally.”
I am keenly aware, Ms. B. Monaghan.
Photo credit: © Robert Mizerek – Fotolia.com