January 11, 2016

Bricks in the Wall: A kid experiences the story of Susan Smith

[content note: discussion of the violent death of children]

I was seven years old and in second grade when my mom started locking the car doors when she ran my sister in to daycare in the mornings.

It was an overnight change. Usually, she would walk my sisters in, and I would wait in the car. It was just a quick drop off, never more than five minutes. That morning, though, she was adamant about making sure that I locked the doors behind them and didn't open them for anyone.

The evening news showed why: a few counties away, a man had carjacked a woman and taken off with her two children--a three year old and a fourteen month old--still in the backseat. They were still missing. My mother was terrified.

For nine days, that was the story. In hindsight, it's pretty apparent that the police knew early on that the mother, Susan Smith, was lying--but to keep her trust, they played along, all the while trying to get the truth out of her as to what happened to her children.

For nine days, my parents prayed for those boys. My church prayed for those boys. I prayed for those boys. They were almost the same ages as my little sisters at the time, Daniel just a little younger than my middle sister by a matter of months, Alexander younger than the youngest by a matter of days.

The next week, on Thursday, November 3, 1994, Susan Smith finally told the truth. She led authorities to the shore of John D. Long Lake, a lake they had searched before but not far enough out. Sixty yards into the lake, authorities found her car. She'd let it roll into the waters with both children still strapped into their car seats. They'd drowned.

As a mom, this story is still heart-wrenching, but as a child--as a child it positively turned my world upside down.

There were all kinds of thoughts I'd never considered before. How could a mother kill her children? Could my mother kill hers? I'd always felt safe with my mother, and I pretty quickly dismissed the notion that she could harm me or my sisters. But I also connected heavily with the two murdered children. I empathized with how those last moments must have felt, and I wondered if they understood what was happening to them.

And I questioned: why hadn't God saved them?

I knew the story of Abraham and Isaac, called to the mountaintop to make a sacrifice, only to have God step in at the last moment to substitute a ram. Why couldn't God have stepped in? Why couldn't he have changed their mother's mind? Why couldn't he have stepped in and caused there to be a witness, someone who could stop it, who could rescue them?

Why did Isaac matter and not Daniel and Alexander?

In some ways, I was caught between stages of moral development. As a small child, I was looking at the consequences. What are the consequences for a god who falls asleep on the job? Who decides whether he's doing a good job?

And then the idea of fairness: that was, naturally, a serious offense. How was it fair for me to be alive and happy, loved by my family, while these children died in a final, violent failure of their own?

It was, needless to say, a complicated situation, but I feel like it had an undeniable impact on my thought life over the years. At the least, it gave me a good deal of reason to question God and wonder why he intervenes sometimes and doesn't in others.

I also wonder sometimes if this event had a significant impact on my family. It wasn't long after Susan Smith's case that my family began to move towards a more conservative Christian faith. That certainly shifted the course of my life.

Looking back, it's quite easy to see the rocks in the stream, so to speak, of my life that created ripples and rapids in my belief, eventually changing the course of it irrevocably. Susan Smith was definitely one of those rocks for me.

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