Content Notices: filicide, murder, functioning labels, Disability Day of Mourning.
This post is my opinions and thoughts alone, not those of my employer or anyone else.
Ten years ago, George Hodgins was murdered by his mother in Sunnyvale, California. He was 22. His mother killed him, then herself, because George was autistic. It is difficult to know much about George’s life because coverage of his murder portrayed him in dehumanizing terms. The coverage portrayed his mother, his murderer, as a good person. They focused on her, not her dead child.
Ten years ago, I was an autistic 13-year-old in Sunnyvale, California. I do not remember any of the coverage of George Hodgins’ death (not that there was much to begin with – all I can find now in the historical record is a few newspaper articles and letters to the editor). I would not learn about George Hodgins and what came of his death until years later, when I was in college and received an email asking me to be a Disability Day of Mourning vigil coordinator.
I feel inextricably tied to George’s death. A friend once asked me where I was from. I told them “Sunnyvale, it’s near Cupertino” because everyone with an Apple product knows of Cupertino. They shook their head. “I don’t know where Cupertino is, but I know of Sunnyvale and I can’t think of why.” Then, a few moments later, “Oh, I know of Sunnyvale because of George Hodgins, because of the Day of Mourning.” My city is tied to death and mourning in my community.
Disability Day of Mourning is an annual event to mourn the deaths of disabled people killed by family members and caregivers. These acts of filicide often go unnoticed and unreported. When they are reported, the coverage too often slants in favor of the perpetrator. The same quotes that populated the coverage of George Hodgins’ murder – that of calling him “low functioning” and “high maintenance” – often crop up in coverage. Disabled people do not even deserve the old adage “never speak ill of the dead,” apparently.
The most complete record of filicides of disabled people is at disability-memorial.org. Here, the names of the dead are endless. They come from every country on earth. They are of every age, from babies to elders. The deaths stretch back to 1980, although the official deaths lists I have seen on Day of Mourning vigils stretch back further. And of course, filicide on the basis of disability is eternal, ancient. Just because we do not have statistics further back than 1980 does not mean this practice suddenly sprang into being in the ’80s. It just means that we do not have records prior to that.
This year marks the 10th Disability Day of Mourning. The list of names of the dead has grown so long that many vigils, for the sake of time, do not read the full list any longer, instead opting for only reading the list of names added in the past year. (This is not the same as the list of people killed in the last year; old cases, sometimes stretching back decades, are often discovered.) Having run several vigils, I cannot blame anyone who opts for the abbreviated list. The full list is over a thousand names long now; with the recommended way to read the list being to read full name and age at death, it can take over an hour to complete the list.
Ten years on, the killings have not slowed, much less stopped completely. I struggle to think of a metaphor that would be appropriate here; I guess there isn’t one. To stop these killings would be to radically shift society to include all disabled people; to value all disabled lives. It would mean recognizing that disabled people, and particularly multiply marginalized disabled people, are vulnerable to abuse in ways that non-disabled people are not. It would mean reconciling with the fact that relying on family members to be unpaid caregivers can put disabled people in a place of being unable to escape people who sometimes harbor deadly violence against us. It would mean realizing that violence against disabled people (just like violence against any marginalized group) is not a set of discrete events. Anti-disabled violence is systematic. Filicides of disabled people happen in part because we as a society do not condone ableist violence. And if a person considering filicide sees that someone just like them can get away with the same violence against a disabled person, well, that sends a message. It sends a message that filicide will not be punished harshly and that society as a whole will look the other way when it happens.
I struggle, as someone who believes in a world without police or prisons, how we should deal with people who commit filicide. There is no justice after a murder – no action, reaction, judgment, or punishment can bring someone back from the dead. I certainly do not support eye-for-an-eye, life-for-a-life so-called “justice”; I do not believe in the death penalty. But if we are to have a criminal legal system, I want those who commit filicide to stand trial, even though I know it is not a perfect solution. More than that, though, I want social attitudes to change. Because it is not enough for someone to stand trial for filicide if they can talk their way into an acquittal through a “they did it out because they had no other option” defense. And yes, this defense gets trotted out every time there is a filicide. If not in the courts, then in the media.
We must change social attitudes if we are to achieve a world without filicide. We must have more people understand that disability is not worse than death. We must have more people understand that disabled lives are worth living. We must have more people understand that filicide is never the answer. And we must be willing to have tough conversations about this, because we must counter the ableist narrative that is predominant in society.
I end, now, with a poem I wrote. It is short. The lists on Day of Mourning are long. I cannot do anything but cry.
and the list goes on and on how many names written in blood how many names whispered like the seal of a casket how many names recited, prayer beads on a chain, how many names the list goes on and on. --- how many lives snuffed out like candles how many lives clawed away like a monster creature how many lives clung to like a child to a parent until the end how many lives the list goes on and on --- how many deaths reported as accidents how many deaths portrayed as acts of mercy how many deaths written in blood how many deaths the list goes on and on and the list goes on and on.