Only a Mother Can Be a Monster

The 'monster' is not a monster in her own right. She has a role that made her a monster: she is a mother.

What does a monster look like? In the last two weeks, curious onlookers had several chances to find out, at least in part. A "monster," it seems, has no face, and when it comes to the most horrible of them all, the one from Beit Shemesh, sometimes her body cannot be seen, either.

Her image was broadcast over and over again these past two weeks, walking down the courthouse halls, bent over, her shape obscured by black fabric. She did not answer reporters' questions; the "monster" does not talk like other people do. She only whispers to women, and at most she waves her arms around in strange gestures. The three other "monsters" discovered in the last weeks were caught on camera with their faces hidden behind small volumes of Psalms, their hair tightly bound in a headdress.

The "monster" is not a monster in her own right. She has a role that made her a monster: she is a mother. Newspapers and television reporters seemed to compete with each other for the honor of spitting out the bluntest, most terrifying headline, one that could unequivocally capture the enormous hostility that "we" all feel for these mothers. "Monster mother" and "Taliban mother": These two headlines, which appeared in Yedioth Ahronoth and Maariv, respectively, are only two examples.

It is hard to defend these women, who are suspected of severely abusing their children and, in one case, of raping them. Nevertheless, every week, if not every day, fathers are arrested on suspicion that they abused their children or sexually assaulted them. It is hard to recall the last time one of these fathers was called a "monster" - a word used to describe something unusually frightening, inhuman, unnatural.

Why do mothers get an epithet that expresses such profound shock? In a country that funds fertility treatment for women up to a relatively late age, where talk of the "demographic threat" places the female uterus at the center of public debate, where a woman's decision not to have children is perceived as unnatural and infertility is regarded as an incurable disease - in such a country, the idea of a mother abusing her children, not to mention molesting them, is inconceivable.

Police investigators also have trouble coping with the phenomenon. According to police data, in 2007, 452 Israeli children were sexually assaulted by members of their families, and many more were violently abused. The police are not in the habit of analyzing these cases and performing a statistical analysis that might show how many of the children were attacked by their mothers - perhaps because the police, too, tend to treat maternal abuse as the most unusual of phenomena.

When such events are addressed, the police treat the mothers suspected of abuse in the same way it treats male suspects. No one asks questions of a different kind, which might in certain cases provide an explanation for a mother's violence.

And so, for example, three weeks ago, a mother from Or Yehuda was arrested on suspicion that she badly hurt her six-week-old son. The baby suffered from what the pathology report later described as "excessive shaking syndrome." No one in the police thought to check if the woman's utterly reprehensible behavior was the result of postpartum depression. Only later was the mother asked about it, and her answer was negative. But since she is not familiar with the syndrome, it is still not clear whether her answer can be deemed reliable. And yet the "exploration" of the possibility is now supposedly complete.

The recently exposed cases of children abused by their mother are not the only ones. The welfare services and the police are certain that many other cases remain undiscovered. Turning the mothers suspected of abuse into "monsters" has an estranging effect, and it strengthens the belief of the officials handling these cases, and of the public at large, that this is the most unusual and deviant of behaviors, committed by those who have no face, no name, and sometimes, as in the case of the mother from Beit Shemesh, not even a distinct shape. Monsters.

The right way to deal with the problem, however, is not to look at these women from afar and dismiss them with distasteful epithets, as though they had come from another planet. The phenomenon needs to be recognized, named, marked within the data collected by the police and welfare services. We need to learn how to diagnose it, and how to treat it in the particular way that is appropriate to it.