Were it not for the genuinely sad nature of the case, the last few hours of Lynn Gilderdale’s life could almost have about it the air of a grotesque Benny Hill sketch. In a surreal speeded up video, complete with that memorable theme tune, one might see Kay Gilderdale rushing around their home, searching out pills and potions, furious grinding in pestle and mortar, frantic googling, over-size syringes full of air…
…and all in very bad taste, Dr No fully agrees. But sometimes he wonders whether it isn’t necessary to look a little harder at the current wave of mother-love hysteria that has risen on the back of the Inglis and Gilderdale trials for murder and attempted murder of their respective children.
Frances Inglis may well have had ‘love in her heart’, but she also unilaterally decided to – and did – kill her son; Kay Gilderdale may well have been a devoted and loving mother, but she also undoubtedly tried to kill her daughter. She may even have killed her, but we shall never know, because the morphine that killed the daughter was administered by both, and it impossible to say which was the hand that killed.
Inglis’s jury returned a verdict of guilty (of murder), and got heckled in court and damned in the press for their pains; Gilderdale’s jury acquitted her (of attempted murder), and were hailed as heroes. And in each case, the underlying popular sentiment was an overwhelming swell of mother-love.
In the ensuing coverage, media mums competed to write ever more purple prose. No word of praise for the loving mums was too great. Inglis – in an echo to Mother Theresa – was promoted to Mother Courage by The Mirror. Not to be outdone, The Sun wheeled out Esther Rantzen to ‘salute the courage’ of suicide mum Gilderdale.
Dr No is nonplussed. It seems to him that the appeal to the virtue of mother-love – that somehow a mother killing her child is courageous when it is done with love in the heart – risks a triumph of a vulgarity over a broader sensibility. The dark and difficult moral question is smothered under a pillow of maternal hubris, and the moral tone descends to that of the soap opera. How long, he wonders, before Simon Cowell launches The XX Factor, in which ‘courageous mums’ with ‘love in their hearts’ compete to reveal ever-more ‘heroic’ acts of maternal love?
Vulgarity is one thing. The other, and more sinister, aspect of the mother-love love-in is that it is a cop-out. By focusing on the mothers, and their ‘gracious’ and ‘courageous’ acts, a diversion is created in which society can once again slip away into the shadows, and so avoid facing questions of immense and overwhelming difficulty. For the fact remains, these mothers killed, or attempted to kill, their children. No amount of purple prose praising their devotion and courage can alter that painful and awkward fact.