Twelve years ago this month, the nation was riveted, the pundits and politicians were spinning, and the media was in paroxysms over Susan Smith.
You remember Susan Smith, the young mother who drowned her two small sons in a lake in Union County, S.C., then claimed to local authorities and to the world that they had been kidnapped by a black man. For days the nation followed the story like a favorite soap opera as Susan and her estranged husband appeared on television to plead for the return of her boys and to ask the nation to pray for her children. Gradually, facts and fatigue took their toll until she broke down and confessed what she had done. The media and public turned on her and she was transformed from grieving mother to bloody Medea. Today she is serving a life sentence in a Columbia women's prison.
The public, with its insatiable appetite for sensation, has long since moved on to new scandals and horrors — Laci Peterson, JonBenet Ramsey, whatever. But one scholar is still sorting through the detritus of that infamous event, trying to understand how it affected our culture and our politics.
Keira Williams is a North Carolina native and student of Southern history. She recently completed her Masters program at Tulane University with a thesis on the female victims of lynching. She is now finishing her doctoral dissertation on Susan Smith at the University of Georgia and serving as an adjunct professor at the College of Charleston. She recently addressed a small group of students and faculty on campus, and I was lucky enough to be present.
The interesting thing about the Susan Smith drama was how different groups tried to use it, spin it, ignore it to their own advantage, starting with the national news media. In the first days after the reported abduction, the media descended on Union like locusts, drawn by the irresistible story of this attractive young couple plunged into the "middle-class mother's nightmare." She and her husband David made their press appearances from her stepfather's large, fashionable suburban house, which the public was encouraged to think was their home. He was described vaguely as a manager or businessman. She was famously pictured on magazine covers and newspapers with a white ribbon in her hair. They were always seen together in their grief and mutual support. She was never pictured without her husband or her children.
The world the media created around Susan Smith was the world of the "Mommy Myth," Williams said, in which the mother does not work, and there is perfect domestic tranquility around the children.
As the days wore on, doubts began to arise about Susan Smith's story. At the same time, the media — who were camped out around her parents' house and filling the local hotels and restaurants — began to hear other stories in the community. Several days into the story, the media — as if on cue — turned against her, starting with NBC, which reported that the Smiths were, in fact, engaged in an acrimonious divorce. They were revealed to be a working-class couple and Susan was a working mother. They lived in a modest ranch house on the edge of town, paid for by her parents. David Smith was lower management in the local grocery store. Suddenly, she was only pictured alone, never with her husband or kids.
"Susan Smith's fall from madonna to whore was dizzyingly swift," Williams said, accelerated by the disclosure that she had been having an affair with the son of her wealthy employer, and had stated that her children were the reason he was not willing to marry her.
Even Newt Gingrich jumped into the act. Three days before the historic elections of 1994, in which Republicans took control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, the Georgia congressman intoned to the national media that the tragedy in Union — along with everything else that was "wrong with America" — was the result of a permissive society dominated by Democrats. He even managed to link Susan Smith to President Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society. (Last week the same Newt Gingrich blamed the Mark Foley scandal on Democrats and the "liberal media.")
Never mind that Susan came from a very conservative and Republican household. Her stepfather — the one later revealed to have molested her as a child — was on the state Republican executive committee and a member of the advisory board of the Christian Coalition.
Feminists, conservatives, mothers, and others all had to come to terms with the Susan Smith saga and determine how to frame it to their best advantage. Williams said that she hopes her research will someday be a book. I will certainly be on the watch for it.