UPDATE: In an excellent story in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, “No One Saw It Coming,” Henry K. Lee has Judith Williams described by ex-husband as “angry woman,” and by the landlord of her Walnut Creek home as “goofy,” and worth were it not for the fact that he was fond of her son, Adam.
“For whatever reason, it didn’t seem like she could ever give up her anger,” said Jim Williams, who works as a consultant for a laser-printer company. “She would want things to go a certain way, and with Judy, little things can be very, very big.”
He said he never fought for custody of Adam because he “didn’t want to provoke her.”
“It didn’t take a whole heck of a lot to make her really upset,” he said. “We picked our battles very judiciously.”
I’m also trying to see myself being in such a desperate, dark, narrow place that I would be absolutely convinced that I need to take my life—and my son with me.
It is hard to comprehend the logistics of being a mother killing her teen-age son. If you read up on cases of maternal filicide, which I did as part of a research project a few years ago, you’ll learn that most mothers who deliberately kill their children prey on infants or young children, children over whom these women have actual physical control. And, by the way, women who deliberately kill their children are a subset of all maternal killers, and belong in a separate category from mothers guilty of abuse or neglect.
I’m trying to imagine being a woman, like Judith Williams– professional, living in an affluent Walnut Creek neighborhood, outwardly happy, I assume–coaxing my son, a Las Lomas High junior, into taking a drive with me after dusk up to Mount Diablo. Our destination is a picnic area presumably with a view.
Last Friday—it was a warm night, wasn’t it?
I’ve armed myself with a .357 revolver, and already euthanized my boy’s dog and three cats. But he doesn’t know,according to accounts offered to the Contra Costa Times by Contra Costa Sheriff’s and coroner’s investigators and family.
I’ve written my note, presumably explaining why I must die, and why my boy, Adam, needs to die, too.
Now, we’re at the picnic area, with its view and the clear skies of a warm July night. He’s walking around the car. I fire into his chest. As he falls to his knees, I put the gun to his head and fire again.
And now, having done the worst thing a mother can do, I can kill myself.
I’m sorry if it hurts anyone for me to dwell on Adam Williams’ last horrifying moments. I’m so terribly sorry for Adam Williams–and Judith Williams–and their friends and family.
But I don’t think I am the only mother reading the details of his death—-or the only parent-—who, for even a second or two, is putting herself into Judith Williams’ place in order to understand “how,” “why,” “could I” and “under what circumstances”?
People on the message boards for theContra Costa Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and this blog are angry. They call Judith Williams evil, a monster. No decent loving parent would ever contemplate such an act, much less carry it out, they say.
Or there are some who are looking to others to blame: Adam Williams’ dad or other relatives, who perhaps didn’t pick up on warning signs, who didn’t see that she was getting stressed out about custody arrangements with Adams’ father, from whom she was divorced, or about her struggling nurse staffing business. Some will try to blame the recession, or our culture of achievement, in which people can feel like failures when believe they aren’t living up to to certain social or economic standards.
The anger and finger-pointing is understandable—when an innocent teen boy, full of promise and love for life—loses his life. Over an act that seems so evil, so insane.
So, perhaps it is right to hate Judith Williams, or to cast blame elsewhere. It’s also understandable to pick apart her actions, and of those close to her or Adam, and to see how anyone failed to pick up on the warning signs, the so-called red flags.
I can say I’ve had moments of wishing I didn’t have a son, when he’s pushed my buttons in a way only he can. This was especially true when he was younger. I’ve had times when I’ve wanted to make him magically vanish for a few minutes, an hour, a few days. I’ve also had moments when I’ve felt down about myself, when I’ve become convinced that I’m a failure, unlovable, a horrible person, wife, mother. I’ve had moments, not too long ago, actually, when I have awakened in the middle of the night, asking, with an almost cold, intellectual scrutiny, what’s the point?
I can’t say, though, that I’ve ever descended slowly or dropped suddenly into that desperate, narrow, dark place of someone who is suicidal. I’ve only thought of suicide in an abstract way. As in, if I ever become terminally ill or so incapacitated in a way that I believe life is no longer worth living. Then, I’ll consider ending my life. Maybe.
I know people who have been suicidal. My husband was suicidal, and I twice had to get him to an emergency room.
I can say that I’ve never been in the place he was, so I guess it’s ultimately impossible for me to understand where Judith Williams was coming from.
Still, it’s worth trying, and I’m focusing on suicide, because if you read up on the literature of mothers who kill, you will find that these women often are suicidal—with the exception, of course, of someone like Andrea Yates, who was desperately ill and delusional but not necessarily suicidal.
But to begin to understand the how and why of Adam Williams’ death, experts would say, you have to understand suicidal thinking—because Judith Williams’ act, which yes included the murder of her son, was ultimately a plunge into self-destruction.
For those women who kill their children, national experts on ths subject, such asPhilip Resnick, of the Department of Psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, say these women often have depresion, psychosis, prior mental health treatment, and suicidal thoughts. He puts their motives into several categories including:
–Altruism: a mother kills her child out of love; she believes death to be in the child’s best interest (for example, a suicidal mother may not wish to leave her motherless child to face an intolerable world; or a psychotic mother may believe that she is saving her child from a fate worse than death)
–Psychosis: a psychotic or delirious mother kills her child without any comprehensible motive (for example, a mother may follow command hallucinations to kill)
–In the most rare cases, a spouse revenge filicide occurs when a mother kills her child specifically to emotionally harm that child’s father.
Contra Costa County Sheriff’s investigators have Judith Wlliams’ note, which may shed light on how she viewed her self-destruction and Adam’s place in it. From various studies and articles I’ve read about maternal filicide, and from first-hand experience with someone who was in that desperate, dark, narrow place, I’m guessing that Judith Williams saw killing Adam as a necessary step to killing herself. She didn’t want to live anymore, and she, therefore, had to eliminate the one person who is most any mother’s reason to keep living: her child.Resources, other reading on suicide and maternal filicide: Contra Costa Crisis Center, (800) 263-TALK, (800) SUICIDE: Suicide Warning Signs and helping a suicidal person. Suicide Warning Signs, American Society of Suicidology
Cheryl Meyer, Kelly White, Jim Franz, Tara Proano, Michelle Oberman, othersMothers Who Kill Their Children: Understanding the Acts of Moms from Susan Smith to the “Prom Mom,” New York University Press, 2001
Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford, and Shanna L. Beasley, Floriday Atlantic University,An Exploratory Analysis of the Contexts and Circumstances of Filicide-Suicide in Chicago, 1965-1994.