At Large

Sympathy for the Devil

A French court is mired in moral confusion.

By 6.24.09

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The recent guilty verdict in the infamous "Freezer Baby" murder case shows how ambivalent we in the West remain when it comes to the question of evil.

Last week a French jury found Véronique Courjault, 41, guilty of the murders of her three newborn children. Yet despite her confession and statements that undermined her psychological disorder defense, Madame Courjault will serve only 8 years -- less than 3 years per murder -- instead of the life sentence she might have received.

The story began in 2006 when South Korean police announced they'd found the bodies of two frozen newborns in the deep freezer of French expatriate couple Jean-Louis and Véronique Courjault. For months afterward Véronique Courjault denied that she was the mother of the murdered infants. After DNA testing confirmed her maternity, Madame Courjault confessed to having suffocated the children, the first in 2002, and the second in 2003. She also told police she had killed and burned the body of a third baby in a fireplace in France some time in 1999.

The French public's initial response was naturally disgust and horror, but for many that reaction quickly gave way to feelings of compassion and empathy, especially after a succession of doctors suggested Madame Courjault likely suffered from a psychological disorder called pregnancy denial. One comment on a website tracking the case was representative:  

"Personally I am sad, really sad for this lady. Yes, what she did could be qualified as cruel or some other adjective. But first, what I would like to understand is why this woman went ahead with her pregnancies, what she believed in, what her hopes were." 

The author of a celebrated book on the case noted how sympathetically the French public related to the "Freezer Baby" murderer: "It helped that the public could relate. [Here] you had a middle-class, bourgeois family, educated people. It made people think, 'This could be me.'" (Interestingly the Web comments of Europeans were markedly different from those of Americans, who were not so quick to think "this could be me," and whose comments usually ran more toward the sinfulness of the deeds and demands for vengeance.)

The court, however, seemed to accept that pregnancy denial -- where a woman is so mentally opposed to having a child she seems to show no physical symptoms of pregnancy -- is a legitimate disorder, so the question came down to whether hers was a case of mental illness or premeditated murder. Or a little of both.

A few of Madame Courjault's early comments threw the denial defense into doubt, as when she said: "I decided straight away not to keep the baby I was carrying." And "[I know it sounds absurd], but I was conscious of being pregnant, but not of being pregnant with babies." What's more, Courjault admitted she and her husband had agreed that they did not want any more children and that she wore loose fitting clothing to hide the pregnancies from her husband and others.

So why was the court so lenient? After all, with the three years already served, Madame Courjault will be out in a mere five years.  

ACCORDING TO many media reports, the court's leniency was due to the fact that Madame Courjault retains the affection of her husband Jean-Louis and their two children. Said Jean-Louis: "[I have] no doubt about Veronique's potential as a wife and as a mother. We must free that potential." Very sweet, but for the sake of any future newborns, let us hope Jean-Louis wears a condom from now on.

I suspect the reason for the court's extraordinary leniency was more philosophical and had to do with a post-Christian nation's refusal to accept the existence of evil in the world, a startling fact considering the hell France has been through the past century. If evil does not exist, there must be some other explanation for Madame Courjault's actions. A dubious psychological disorder like pregnancy denial seems tailor-made for the purpose.

In earlier Christian times there could be no doubt about the existence of evil. It was literally an article of faith that man had two natures, one good, one evil, and one must constantly struggle to keep the bad in check. Today, especially in Europe, that duality is considered a quaint superstition. With each successive generation we are thought to progress morally and ethically. There is no evil, just disorders, and those disorders are hardly the sufferer's fault, but often the fault of society, which puts too much pressure on…women, children, fill in the blank.

In the end the court seemed as morally confused as Madame Courjault when she repeatedly made puzzling statements like:

"What I did is so monstrous, without explanation. For me, those children did not have a real existence."

"The pre-trial investigation allowed me to become aware of many things, to ask myself questions. But I still don't have any answer. I hope to find some."  

The French public and the court in its sentencing seemed to support Madame Courjault in her search for answers, as if to say: hopefully, some day, she will find the answers she seeks and she finally will be at peace. Meanwhile the overall impression from the media is that such murders are inexplicable, that, while such crimes occur more than one would think, they can never be satisfactorily explained. If nothing else the trial and its outcome did support one of my many contentions. What else explains the court's excessive leniency and the outpouring of sympathy for Madame Courjault, but society's profound moral confusion when it comes to questions of unspeakable evil?   

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.