Atonement for a Murdered Child

I was at the kitchen counter when it occurred to me that I might soon be hated.

“Um,” I said to my husband, who kept rinsing the coffee pot.

I pressed on. “Do you think people are going to hate me for writing about Amanda and the children?”

My husband turned from the sink. He said he needed a little more information. I said that writing about the murder of a child could be seen as trafficking in the misery of others. I thought but did not say that people might see the book I was about to publish as a cheap disseminator of pain.

I had been writing about Amanda Stott-Smith for seven years, since the day after she dropped her son Eldon, age four, and his seven-year old sister Trinity from a bridge in Portland, Oregon. Eldon drowned. Trinity survived. Amanda was caught and eventually sentenced to a minimum thirty-five years in prison.

No, my husband said that morning. He did not think it possible that everyone would hate me, and that wasn’t up to me anyway, and maybe what I needed to do was relax.

I later posed the same inquiry to my daughter, who discounted the idea that what I had written would incite hatred because, she said, “That is not how you wrote the book. That is not what you were doing.”

What is the writer doing, showing up in people’s lives at the worst moments, bearing witness or claiming to bear witness? Why do I have a file on my laptop entitled grief photos, nearly all of them of mothers having lost or about to lose a child, to murder, to illness, the lines on her temples etched in a way I do not see on other people, a tension from gripping the child they know will soon die, or, in the case of sudden death, spontaneously imprinted. I cannot save their children, but I can know, they are imploring me to know, that their children were taken from them.

Amanda had her children taken from her. She lost custody of Eldon and Trinity three months before she dropped them from the bridge. Some people saw Amanda as a longtime user of her children, a means by which she gained status and money. Losing them meant a concomitant loss of security, of identity, things Amanda on her own might have reacquired. Amanda did not see it this way. She would acquire a new identity by dropping her children from a bridge at 1:18 in the morning. The ninety-foot fall took less than three seconds. By the time Trinity was screaming for her life, and Eldon had drowned or was drowning, Amanda was driving away. She was making phone calls. Later that day she would order a foot-long Subway sandwich, extra peppers, extra Dijon.

Which made me think, a month after talking to my husband at the sink, that my writing about Amanda and the children might be about atonement. The idea came as I drove to the supermarket: I could not deliver the boy back, but in some way I could. I could stand in for his mother. I could transubstantiate her sins and see her children over the next thresholds.

This sounds self-reverential, as in, why are you trying on this woman’s skin? But I don’t think it unusual or without utility. In the months after the children fell from the bridge, a former classmate of Amanda’s experienced such a feeling of transference she worried she might do something terrible to her own children, a fear dispelled only after her husband said, “Get over it. It’s awful but you don’t have anything else in common with her.” I asked this woman, whose daughter had been in the same preschool class as Eldon, how she would have reacted had Amanda said to her, take these kids right now or I am going to throw them off a bridge.

“We would have taken them right away,” she said.

I thought we all would have; that we hear stories like this and want to pull the children to safety, to say, leave them with me, I will take them from here.

I have been told that anything I write about Amanda and the children will only extend the suffering of the living. Also, that I am out to make money off the pain of others; that I am writing in children’s blood. I likely cannot convince anyone who believes I am here to exploit the anguish of others that I am not here to do this. I will likely further not convince them of what I believe to be true: that what you lock away and deny transit will not be converted into something that hurts less.

It becomes a question of how we metabolize the murder of children, and here I qualify, other people’s children. I have not experienced the loss of a child and pray I never do, but I stand close to it and have for a long time. I have written about other murdered children. Writing organizes and reframes. We get to work out what our responsibilities are. Earlier this year I envisioned someone asking a room, “Who will accompany these children?” and saw that I raised my hand.

During the years I was worked on the book, I dreamed twice about the children. In the first dream, Trinity was eight years old and wearing a velvet party dress. We sat in front of a Christmas tree. She asked if she could sit in my lap. I pulled her to me and she asked if I would come see her again the next day. In the second dream, I walked into a kindergarten classroom. Eldon was alone at a children’s table. I sat next to him and asked, “Can you write your name for me?” He took a pad and pen and wrote his name in precise beautiful lettering. Together we looked at his name. I took the dream to be Eldon saying: “Remember me.”