Commentary Magazine

The Deadly Innocents, by Muriel Gardiner

Introduction by Stephen Spender. Basic Books. 190 pp. $8.95.


In this discomforting little book, Muriel Gardiner, a practicing psychoanalyst, recounts eight true stories of murderous children, many of them killers of their parents or other family members.

Peter, a bright and attractive child, never knew his real father, who was killed in World War II. Peter’s mother, originally from the Baltic states, married a young American lieutenant named Field, who adopted the baby and brought mother and child to the United States. Although Mr. Field grew to be very proud of Peter and Peter was loved and admired by his younger siblings, the natural children of the Fields, Mrs. Field could not overcome a sense of guilt and resentment toward Peter. She beat Peter and often said the boy had “never given [her] a day’s joy.” Her resentment was manifested most explicitly in a morbid miserliness; once she refused to give Peter the money he had saved from his paper route for family Christmas presents.

After a long series of unhappy episodes, Peter’s schoolwork went into a decline and he joined the navy. Then, on a leave home, his mother insisted that he give her his leave money for “safekeeping.” When it came time for Peter to return to his ship, she refused to give him the money and accused him of irresponsibility. Peter threatened to take the money, his mother turned white with rage and called him a thief, and Peter in an uncontrollable fury struck her several times on the head with a hammer. Hearing the commotion his twin sisters came to the kitchen; Peter bludgeoned them to death. He then went to the police station, accompanied by his younger brother, and told the officer at the desk that he had just killed his mother and little sisters.

Tom, another of Dr. Gardiner’s subjects, was the third of eleven children. He was unattractive and sickly, suffering from rickets, eczema, and asthma. He was separated from the rest of the family children and forced to sleep alone in a shed adjoining the family house. He seldom saw his father and was beaten by his mother when he associated with the other children. Through a court arrangment, Tom was sent to live with his aunt, but her husband, a big, boisterous, hard-drinking man, often beat him; this was accepted and even approved by the aunt, who resented Tom as a burden on her time. Tom’s life took on “meaning” when he found a cat; thereafter he spent all his time after school playing with the animal. One night, Uncle Harry, drunk as usual, discovered the cat and over the little boy’s pleadings and protestations, strangled it. Tom dug a small grave for the cat and begged his uncle not to disturb it, but Harry kicked it apart and slapped Tom’s face. Tom returned to the house, picked up one of his uncle’s guns, went to the breakfast table where his aunt and uncle were sitting and shot them.



These stories, like the six other brief biographies in Dr. Gardiner’s book, are moving, depressing, pathetic. In an attempt to avoid an overly clinical or “social-science” approach to her subject, Dr. Gardiner has largely steered clear of psychoanalytic jargon—these are “portraits,” not case studies—and the layman is brought readily along. Except in an occasional summary, the stories, some of which follow their subjects into prison, reformatory, and rehabilitation, are told in the language of resentment, lovelessness, bitterness, fear, cruelty, and mindlessness, not in reference to complexes, neuroses, or syndromes.

Such an approach certainly has merit, but the author may go too far in neglecting possibly relevant facts. The stories partake a little too much of the timeless, and unravel in something of a vacuum. Thus, one wonders whether the children, who all appear as originally “normal,” may be patterned or differentiated by social, economic, mental, physical, or other factors. Apart from their common history of parental abuse and neglect, are there characterological similarities among the children? If Dr. Gardiner is working implicitly toward supporting or dispelling some generalization about the seeds of murder in character, her conclusion is not made known. These and other issues could have been discussed without losing the reader or diminishing the book’s impact.

In his preface to The Deadly Innocents, Stephen Spender says that the purpose of the book is “to persuade readers to agitate for changes in the family, the school, the law courts, the prisons, and the rehabilitation centers.” The portraits themselves do not support this interpretation. In some cases, school, prison, and reformatory do clearly contribute to the brutalizing of these children, but in others they do not. Thus, a school guidance counselor befriends Peter, works closely with him, and undertakes heroic but failing efforts to make Peter’s mother responsive to him. In Tom’s case, in his first two years in prison he keeps to himself, as before, but with the encouragement and support of fellow inmates and a prison psychologist, he eventually becomes a first-rate repairman of electric equipment and finds new self-confidence. Ultimately paroled, he becomes a bona-fide electronics technician; in our last “portrait” of him he is revealed as a capable person who has won self-esteem and a sense of purpose. For all their shortcomings, public institutions, in Tom’s case and that of others, offer a far better environment than home.

As for the family, these little narratives of desperation certainly call for the reform of many individual family members, but the overall message is the need to preserve traditional family values. In almost all the cases discussed by Dr. Gardiner, parents or relatives have priorities other than these children and regard them as excess baggage. In almost all the cases the children who become killers lack the continuing presence of a good exemplar at home. In almost all the cases at least one parent is completely inattentive to the child’s needs. An inescapable implication is that whatever the actual occasion for violence, that occasion has been led up to by a veritable program of neglect and irresponsibility, and could have been avoided by only minimal adherence to traditional values in the raising of children.

Far from arguing for change, then, this little book teaches certain old truths about the responsibilities of parents to children which are no less true because they are not novel. What it says is that there is no easy substitute for good parents, and practically no cure for bad ones.

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