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The Grim Nativity of an Inconvenient Infant

[Religion News Service, December 9, 1996] 

The story has become familiar: Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson were high school sweethearts in a New York City suburb usually described as "affluent." They went off to separate colleges as freshmen this fall, but met in mid‑November at a motel outside Newark, Del. There she delivered their firstborn son, and Peterson swaddled him in bloody motel linens and laid him in a gray garbage bag. The corpse was later recovered from the motel trash bin.

Infanticide of an inconvenient newborn is an old, old story; we’re just not used to hearing of it among the upper class who, presumably, have access to more sanitary means of smoothing out life’s little difficulties.

A hundred years ago, feminists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton opposed both abortion and infanticide, characterizing them as flip sides of the same evil they termed "child murder." Many commentators on this case have wondered why Amy and Brian didn’t have a "safe, legal" third‑trimester abortion instead.

Thirty years ago, top‑40 radio stations buzzed with "Ode to Billy Joe," an eerie little ditty about how a young woman and Billy Joe were seen throwing something ‑‑ one assumes it was a baby ‑‑ off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Infants were abandoned in ancient Rome and modern‑day China, and here in the United States, it seems a baby is found in a trash bin every few weeks. But we expect these cases to be among those who are poor, hopeless and abandoned themselves. We don’t expect it among our neighbors or, even more strange, the folks who live in the big house on the hill. Grossberg and Peterson have shiny hair. They smile out from a high school yearbook photo looking well‑tended and vigorous, displaying perfect teeth.

Somebody loved those children, little newborn Amy and bouncing baby Brian. It takes love for a baby to survive. Somebody paid for Brian’s snappy haircut and Amy’s orthodontics. Someone told Amy she had great potential as an artist, and coached Brian into soccer stardom. Someone stressed to them the importance of college, of career plans and making something of yourself. We can only guess that it was that urgent need to "make something important of your life" that made the life of their son look so comparatively unimportant. The ability to love a newborn was not passed on to the next generation.

Someone who loves Brian Peterson got him a lawyer gifted at scheming, though he’d be wiser to shut up about it. The lawyer, Joseph Hurley, boasted to reporters that he succeeded in shifting the focus of the story from "the horror of the crime" to "Brian, the individual, the human being, the nice, normal kid."

His strategy is to confiscate and redistribute public sympathy. If he can shift our attention from the battered baby to the "nice, normal kid," we’ll identify with their parents, who want to protect their kids from the battering of the cruel state. Hurley explained that Brian had "executed bad judgement," and was justified in hiding from the police for several days because, "Who in hell doesn’t deserve a hundred hours to get themselves together?" As for Amy, she "apparently had real problems in communicating this situation to her mother because of the way she was valued by her mother."

That’s what too much love will do to a kid, I guess. We used to read of horrifying stories and figure that the teens wreaking violence had been deprived of a parent’s love. Now the reverse seems true: Someone pampered and valued by a parent can use that as an excuse for bad behavior. Pretty soon no one will have to be responsible for anything.

Except for that feeling deep‑rooted in most parents’ hearts: I am responsible for my child. Most parents ‑‑ though not Amy and Brian ‑‑ feel an inexplicable, unreasonable compulsion to protect and defend their offspring. Joseph Hurley played the grief of Brian’s mother to good effect; he informed reporters that he told her, "If you don’t mind, the state of Delaware wants to murder your son," and that she told him, "How can I give my only boy to the state to die?"

How can a parent bear to see a child die? How could Amy and Brian bear it that night? And if they had gotten away with it, would those bright lives, rescued at such cost, have tarnished in the long years ahead? Did they really think they could forget their baby’s face? The ties that bind parent to child may be submerged for one terrified night, but re‑emerge in haunting ways.

The girl in "Ode to Billy Joe" described the aimlessness of her own life since that dreadful night ‑‑ no big‑time artist’s life for her. She wound up spending most of her time in a way she never anticipated: "Me, I spend a lot of time picking flowers up on Choctaw Ridge, and throw them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge."

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