So I didn’t park and lock my car and head into my office that morning, as Murphy did last June 17. Instead, after steadying my nerves against the knowledge of what I’d almost done, I drove my daughter to day care, as I’d meant to do before I somehow — inexplicably, inexcusably — forgot that she was sitting in the back seat.
For her grievous mistake, Murphy faced a possible 40 years in prison on a charge of felony murder. Just before her trial this past week, as she quietly wept in court, the 41-year-old veterinarian was permitted to plead guilty to reduced charges of misdemeanor child neglect. She won’t go to prison. She won’t lose her medical license. All she faces is 400 hours of community service, six years of probation, and a lifetime of grief and shame that will sabotage joy whenever that emotion dares to surface. That is what happens in these cases. I know. I have studied them.
These seemingly unimaginable tragedies happen with grisly regularity in the United States — 15 to 30 a year, mostly during the spring and summer months, when temperatures are high enough to kill. The facts tend to be remarkably similar: The parent is usually an ordinary, responsible person who was under unusual stress — stress that neuroscientists have found can trigger a hiccup in the memory system of the brain. On the morning that Murphy’s inattention killed Ryan, she’d already made a round-trip, pre-dawn visit to her clinic to tend to a critically ill patient.
The compassion that was eventually shown to Murphy in court led — as it almost inevitably does in these cases — to an ugly spasm of online denunciation, in the form of anonymous reader “comments” on news stories reporting the plea deal. “Mommy Dearest will be popping open the bubbly tonight,” predicted TommyMcGuire on The Washington Post’s Web site. On WJLA’s site, Lucre3 thundered: “SHE NEEDS TO BE LOCKED UP AN [sic] FORGOTTEN. HONESTLY SHE DOESN’T DESERVE TO LIVE.” Many suggested forced sterilization. Said RJM: “Maybe she should get one of her vet friends to spay her.”
If the ugliness seems puzzling to you, it doesn’t to psychologists who have examined this phenomenon. It’s a form of denial, they say: Deep down, people understand that all lives are fragile, that we are all capable of momentary mistakes or misjudgments that could destroy us. We don’t want to face this terrifying fact. So we must convince ourselves that the people to whom it happens are unlike us. To sustain our delusion of safety, we must make them monsters.
To get a measure of the monster that is Karen Murphy, I recommend a short video clip from January 2009. Murphy is being interviewed at a veterinary convention in Orlando. At the time, Ryan was 6 months old, the youngest in a family of five. Murphy proudly discusses some new, patient-friendly technologies she’s added to her animal hospital. She is cheerful, buoyant, filled with hope.