Background, to the foreground.


“If you’re watching it, you’re part of it. If you’re close enough to see it, you’re in it. There’s no line drawn dividing the two.” —Tony Carey, in a spoken-word introduction to the last song of his most recent album, which is the first in a three-part series about learning from history

He is responding to the widespread belief that there are those who do things, and those who observe, and that those who observe, are separate, and apart, and not participants. He is saying this is an illusion, that everyone is a participant, and that seeming failure to act is — whether correct in that situation or not — an action in itself, with repercussions, for better or for worse, on everyone else involved. Not a non-action.

Zilari blogged recently that blogging in public entails a certain amount of responsibility. It is not an expression coming from nowhere, sent off into nowhere, but something that is read, affecting the thoughts and actions of other people to greater and lesser extents. The Autistic Bitch from Hell concurred. And I concurred privately, although it took me awhile to organize my thoughts into these words for this post.

There’s a sense in which inaction is perceived as background, not foreground. I’ve always thought that in those tests where they see how much a person looks at the background and how much at the foreground of pictures, I would look a lot at the background. There’s a lot of detail in there that people miss, a lot of things that are at least as significant as what people are trying to draw your attention to, that influence and are influenced by the foreground.

My ability to see the background gives me certain social skills that not everyone has. While people are busy trying to deceive me through facial expressions and hand gestures that they imagine are the focus of my attention, I have often caught subtle variations in movement, rhythm, and smell that they are not controlling and that may not even be on their faces or hands. In some cases I have missed the deceptive expression entirely and gone straight to what they were trying to hide.

Not that I am perfect at this, I am not a magician, just someone with an unusual social skill, although it is not as unusual as many would think among autistics. It’s not tested for because most people wouldn’t even think to test for it, and some of the tests of reading people explicitly confound it by restricting the range of correct answers, the aspects of other people that are supposed to be read, and the role of deliberate conscious effort in warping perception.

I believe this attention to only certain aspects of a person as “foreground” also account for the fact that I’m regarded as unreadable and potentially empty — or else read completely backwards — by a large number of people, but yet there are many people who can read several accurate levels of meaning in my so-called “background” aspects. It is not that I am inherently mysterious as a personal quality, but that people don’t know what to look for.

“Background” is often seen as some combination of taken for granted, static, passive, imperceptible, uninfluential, uninfluenced, devoid of accountability, empty, neutral, and non-existent. Since it is usually the opposite, and since everyone has something that they perceive as in this category without being aware of it, this is one thing that makes it so interesting and important. And overlooked.

If we do not perceive it, it is not there. If we do not perceive the origins, there are none. If we do not perceive the effects, there are none. That is how people tend to think.

When people wanted me to look at a very specific foreground on Autism Every Day, I spent most of my time exploring the “background”.

The questions that they wanted me to ask, and answer, were about the feelings of the mothers in the film, one or two specific things they viewed as causes of those feelings, and one or two specific things they wanted me as the viewer to do as a consequence of those feelings.

Instead, I looked at things like, what were the children, non-autistic and autistic, feeling and experiencing? What size, shape, color, and style were the rooms, houses, yards, schools, parks, clothing, and cars? What aspects of their personal and cultural backgrounds really caused those mothers’ emotions to be as they were? Who would be harmed by this particular usage of those emotional reactions as propaganda? Who was left out of or sidelined by this portrayal of things? Where were the fathers? What was everyone like when they weren’t on camera? What were the real consequences of this video for autistic people? What were the subtle reactions, and non-reactions, of the people in the video? Who looked the most oblivious, the auties or the non-auties? What was left out? What could I tell from what they chose to leave in, how they chose to edit it? What, off of the video, was the status and affiliations of the mothers in the video? What would happen if some of the mothers stopped spending oodles of money on probably-unuseful therapy and oodles of energy grieving and freaking out, and used that money and energy elsewhere? What caused the mothers to view their children as unresponsive when the children were clearly responding to their environment in a great deal of ways constantly?

And so on and so forth.

In other words, I was looking at everything I wasn’t “supposed” to look at and then some. I was not doing this entirely on purpose. I was doing this because this is what I do, the same way I can’t really help looking at the so-called “background” of people’s movements rather than the “foreground” image they are projecting.

Once, I was watching a Getting the Word Out video with a non-autistic person present. I grumbled a bit about it and the person said, “But what if she really feels that way?” She was very agitated that I would question someone’s “feelings”.

The Getting the Word Out video was of course a very carefully crafted piece of propaganda, which Kathleen Seidel dismantles beautifully in her blog post about it. It was not a person’s random expression of their feelings.

But even if it was her feelings.


It is many people’s honest feelings that women are inferior to men, that Jews or Muslims are inferior to Christians, that people of color are inferior to white people, and so forth. Some people will even go so far as to advocate killing people for being in any of those categories, or to have considered killing people for being in any of those categories. Some societies sanction such killing, either explicitly or tacitly.

The “feelings” that people have, do not spring out of nowhere, of course. They are learned, through countless little “background” attitudes that are not questioned. They are reinforced through several well-known cognitive loops, and through subtle and not-so-subtle propaganda (it is the nature of propaganda, like the Autism Speaks video, to be persuasive).

The “feelings” that people “express”, do not go nowhere, any more than they come from nowhere. They affect people, they affect other people’s attitudes, they may reinforce or contradict attitudes in the dominant culture. When they reinforce attitudes in the dominant culture, and the “feelings” stem from highly destructive attitudes to begin with, these are not innocent expressions of feelings. Particularly not when expressed in a method meant to be viewed or read by a national or international audience. Publishing is public, it is different from having feelings in private.

When someone publicly expresses a desire to kill someone based on a particular characteristic, uncritically, in a culture where the lives of that kind of person are already devalued, the technical term for this is hate speech. Hate speech is kind of like slander or libel, only instead of smearing the perception of the character of one person, it smears the perception of the value and worth of the lives of thousands or millions of people.

“What if a person really feels that way?” Well, then they feel that way. And? As I said before, feelings don’t come from nowhere, and they do not affect only the person having them. They do not go to nowhere either, when expressed. There is a cultural trend at the moment that says that everyone has the right to express any feeling anywhere. Rights usually go with responsibilities. If you publicly express the “feeling” of wanting to kill someone, you have a responsibility to express it in a way that won’t make it sound remotely okay, and that goes double or triple if the person you want to kill is part of an already-devalued group. Your “right” to express your despair or self-pity whenever and wherever and in whatever manner you feel like, does not trump other people’s right to be safe (which, regardless of group-therapy trends, is not the equivalent of “feeling emotionally safe”) and alive.

Nobody who is aware of something is truly a bystander. We are all part of the culture that currently contributes and responds to the devaluation of the very lives of disabled people, including autistic people. How we respond, especially publicly, to the notion of some kinds of people being more disposable than others, some murders of innocent people being more understandable than others, has a part in shaping these attitudes. Reinforcing them, or fighting them. Every one of us is part of this, whether we know it or not, whether we feel like it or not, and whether we want it or not. It’s not optional.

When someone publicly states, “I understand the despair that drove the mother to feel that way,” they have a responsibility not to simply leave it at that. There is a difference between despair and homicide. There is an enormous difference between despair, and wanting to kill one child with a devalued characteristic but staying alive only because you have another child without that characteristic. One less-worthy child, one worthy child. If you don’t point this or something like it out when you publicly identify with that mother’s “despair,” then you are effectively strengthening her voice. If you don’t heavily weight things so that your identification with that despair is drowned out by the wrongness of the act, then you are effectively strengthening her voice. It’s not enough to add a tiny sentence saying “But it was wrong,” in the midst of a flood of opposite sentences. It’s the overall tone that people will remember.

Identification with people’s feelings is a powerful thing. When you identify with certain feelings, you are less likely to view anything done by someone with those feelings as wrong. Your identification with those feelings might cause you to add your voice to the “expression” of those feelings without adding your voice to the condemnation of some of the ways those feelings are “expressed”. Your identification with those feelings might leave you more susceptible than average to clever, calculated propaganda that plays on those feelings. Your identification with those feelings might even make you hostile to anyone who says there are wrong ways and times of expressing those feelings. I don’t know how many people have claimed that I hate parents or attack parents, merely because I don’t think it is ever okay for someone to publicly, without heavy qualification, say things like “I’ve wanted to kill my child because of who she is.”

I should note, by the way, that for many of us, mere expression of the intent to kill someone “valuable” is enough for involuntary commitment as a “danger to others”. In one case, a man in South Africa was jailed for eight years merely for planning the murder of his son. I am not advocating involuntary commitment, but there is an enormous disparity when people can say these things for national or international audiences without someone at least calling Child Protective Services.

It should be noted that public dehumanization of this nature is considered the third stage of a potential genocide. “Dehumanization overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder.” -Gregory H. Stanton.

We have a responsibility to combat that dehumanization wherever possible, and that responsibility overrides any individual “right” to express one’s “feelings” all over the place. It also interests me that so many people who have had these “feelings” are so hurt by the concept that they shouldn’t “express” them everywhere, view themselves almost as being oppressed by the notion that they shouldn’t.

To anyone who feels that way, take a serious look around you. Look at how often “feelings” like yours are “expressed” right and left, with near-total impunity, while people who say “Hey, murder is wrong” are more likely in these instances to be castigated for disagreeing with these “feelings”. Look at how often the murder of a disabled person is considered okay, and the murder of a non-disabled person is not. Look at how safe non-disabled people are in these circumstances, even at times from punishment for murder, and how totally unsafe disabled people are, even from murder. And then come back and try to look all “oppressed” for us again. A lot of us won’t buy it, although I’m sure the majority of the surrounding culture will, and will give you all the sympathy and pity you ever asked for, while condemning those of us who speak out against it as trampling on your ever-important feelings. Between our lives and your feelings, I know which I’d choose.

Mark Puddington“Did she just say what I think she said? On national television?”

My staff nodded grimly.

I was at her house, watching The Mayor of the West Side, a movie about Mark Puddington, a teen with Cornelia de Lange syndrome, and his entangled and disturbing family dynamics.

His mother was overprotective, believed she was the only person in the world who cared about him, couldn’t imagine him living without her, frequently prevented others from helping him become independent of her, and had just announced to the world that she still thinks that maybe she’d have to “take him with her” when she dies rather than allowing him to live without her.

In other words, she’d announced intent to possibly kill her son in the future. Throughout the rest of the movie, she never retracted her statement, and nobody seemed to be saying anything to her about it. I saw no involvement of Child or Adult Protective Services, nothing. I still worry about her son.

There’s love between them, but on her side of the relationship there’s something else that’s more disturbing than plain old ordinary parental love. There’s the mentality shared by animal hoarders, who believe nobody could care better for animals than they could, nobody could love animals like they do, and who consequently have too many animals to take care of, so the animals start dying. Some collectors go on to keep the corpses of the animals around, either preserved or rotting.

I am not saying that “disabled people are like non-human animals,” there. That is not my intent. What I mean is that there’s a kind of attachment that goes beyond love into a complete detachment from reality where the object of said love is concerned, whether that object is disabled, non-disabled, human, non-human, etc. I saw that kind of reality-warped attachment so strongly in the mother in that video that I still fear for her son’s safety.

In 1983, Adam Benjamin Clark was murdered. (Corrected to say: His mother’s boyfriend was convicted of the murder, not his mother. See comments for more on this.) His older sister Amber has a memorial page called Remembering Adam, which includes her account of what happened, newspaper accounts, and their father’s photo essay. I have to warn you that I’ve never been able to read it without crying.

Adam Clark’s mother tried to blame her son’s death on Cornelia de Lange Syndrome making his body fall apart. (Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, even when aspects of it become fatal, does not cause the kind of injuries Adam Clark had. The potentially fatal aspects usually have to do with internal organs like the heart or digestive system not functioning properly. Adam Clark died of crush injuries.)

I’d known about Adam Clark since long before I’d seen The Mayor of the West Side. That was one of the things that made the mother’s statement so horrifying. I knew that this sort of thing was something that really happened, and that happens to disabled people more often and with more impunity than it happens to non-disabled people. I knew that for many people, the mother on the screen would have words that went unquestioned: “It’s just her feelings. Harmless. At least she talks about them.” And I would know that were her son not disabled or some other devalued category of person, nearly everyone would question her words. She did say this. On national television. And who besides me commented? Did anyone notice?

Allison Tepper Singer and her daughter“She’s saying it for an international audience.” This time I was not so shocked. I was watching Autism Every Day. And by now anyone who’s read the Autism Hub blogs for long knows what was said. Again, no sign of Child Protective Services.

CdLS can cause a person to be autistic, and usually has definite visible physical signs. Nobody thinks of people being cured by it, except by the usual eugenic elimination procedures. Some forms of it can kill though. Like the Rett community that Autism Diva describes in the post I just linked, the CdLS community mostly focuses on their love for their beautiful children and on how to identify them, teach them, and keep them healthy and happy. The disturbing stuff is still out there, as I mentioned above, but it is not as dominant as in the autism community. Parents of autistic children without identifiable things like CdLS or Rett’s, still hold out hope of a cure and hold massive pity-parties for their children’s mere existence, even though most of their children are not facing the potentially life-threatening consequences that children with CdLS or Rett’s are. Although some of their children do undoubtedly have things like CdLS or Rett’s that is undiagnosed, and like Autism Diva I wonder how they would have to change their approach if they found that out.

At any rate, Allison Tepper Singer also described, in a high-profile video distributed internationally, wanting to kill her daughter for being autistic, but only stopping herself because her other daughter was non-autistic. If anything ever happens to her non-autistic daughter, I fear for the autistic daughter’s safety just as I fear for Mark Puddington’s.

On May 13, just before Mother’s Day this year, three-year-old Katherine McCarron’s mother murdered her by putting a plastic bag over her head and suffocating her, for being autistic. Instead of people writing to the newspapers and the district attorney to say that autistic children need to be protected from this, most people I’ve seen have been writing to the newspapers and the district attorney have been writing to support the mother.

On May 14, Mother’s Day, in Albany, Oregon, 19-year-old Christopher DeGroot’s parents locked him inside their apartment and then set the apartment on fire. He died in the hospital. He, also, was autistic. Someone on a closed mailing list I am on, said basically, “Expect more sympathy for the two cats who survived the fire than the autistic man who didn’t.”

These are two people who will never, ever experience life on this earth, or any feelings, good or bad, again. They are gone. Everything they were or could have been has either vanished or been sent to the afterlife, but it is not here right now. These are two human beings who have been murdered. That these facts are going to be shoved into the background, to focus on the feelings of the murderers as foreground, is appalling.

The majority of support, anywhere, is going to go to the “feelings” of their murderers. I have a friend who runs the Murder of Autistics webpage, and he gets angry letters from the families of the murdered autistic people, not angry because they were murdered, but angry because he steps on the families’ “feelings” by portraying it as just as horrible as the murder of anyone else. How about showing some support for the feelings and lives that Katherine McCarron, Christopher DeGroot, and Adam Clark, will never have? Our reactions are not merely those of uninfluential, uninfluenced bystanders, we are people within a society, and our action, or inaction, will affect a lot of people. I know what my reaction will be: To bring the “background” that these people’s lives and futures have appallingly become, into the foreground of the discussion. These are innocent people, some murdered, some always in danger of murder, and the not-so-innocent are the ones most people are going to want to sympathize with here.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

32 responses »

  1. I still find it hard to accept that most people would not see murder for what it is. I’d like to be present at once of those trials. I just don’t see how the defense would argue that murders of certain kinds of people are really only unintentional manslaughter – and I don’t see how the prosecutor could not argue the opposite effectively. I know some of this goes on. For example, the murder of a black person is perceived to be different than the murder of a white person. But to get to the point where a clear murder is portrayed as not being a murder at all is something I’m finding difficult to grasp.

  2. Hard to accept, yes I do too. But it happens.

    A quote from an article about one such case:

    The autistic community of parents and affected people throughout the world keeps closely in touch, using the internet extensively to exchange information and provide encouragement. Janine Albury Thomson in New Zealand was one parent who lacked this support. She strangled her daughter in 1997 after the pressure became too much for her to bear. The killing of 17-year-old Casey Albury is regarded as a crucial case by the autistic community because the evidence clearly articulated the mother’s state of mind. It was not reported in the British press.

    Casey was on holiday from her special boarding school. On the day she died, her mother recalled how she wouldn’t stop repeating: “The sun is rising”.

    Weary from stress and lack of sleep, Albury Thomson cracked. She told the jury that she took Casey to a bridge. She “foolishly expected her to climb up and throw herself off” [the parapet]. Casey, with the reduced ability to communicate of a low-functioning autistic, refused saying: “cold”. Albury Thomson drove Casey to a quiet street and used the girl’s dressing-gown belt as a ligature. “I wrapped it round her neck and pulled. Then I wrapped it around and pulled again and then again, all in different directions and kept thinking this isn’t happening quickly enough.

    “She was a misfit. People were scared of her because she was different… I wish it could have been quicker. I’d wanted to kill her for a long time. She didn’t die quickly, and I held on tight . . . saying ‘Let go, for God’s sake, let go’… and telling her that I loved her. I wanted her to be happy in another life, because she certainly wasn’t happy here.”

    Judge McGechan said that Casey was entitled to a life, and the court could not allow “some sort of open season” on the disabled. Albury Thomson was tried for murder, convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to four years’ jail.

    Following a public outcry, the New Zealand Court of Appeal reduced her sentence to 18 months. She was released in December 1998 after serving five months of her sentence, and returned home to her two remaining children, Hannah, four, and Shannon, three.

    That ‘public outcry’ is what we can’t afford to be assumed to be part of (and which either silence or vague comments about “lack of support” or “understanding that feeling of despair” will get us assumed to be part of). I wish I could say I can’t imagine being that girl, but on second thought I can.

  3. This is a stunning piece of writing; it needs to be ‘published’. I would like to comment more, but I cannot even put my thoughts into sentences at this point (as I am too choked-up emotionally). Thank-you, thank-you, Amanda, for every single word you wrote here — thank-you.

  4. ballastexistenz: When someone publicly expresses a desire to kill someone based on a particular characteristic, uncritically, in a culture where the lives of that kind of person are already devalued, the technical term for this is hate speech.

    ABSOLUTELY!! Hate speech pure and simple. Thanks you for saying so eloquently.

    re: background.
    I saw a slide presentation the other night and while I assume everyone else in the room was looking at the person in the foreground of each slide, I was busy scanning the background for details.

    What books, catalogs, statues or trophies are on the shelves, what music do they listen to, what art do they have on the walls, what color are the walls, what is on their computer monitor, etc.

    You can tell a lot more about a person by looking at the details in the background.

  5. He is saying this is an illusion, that everyone is a participant, and that seeming failure to act is — whether correct in that situation or not — an action in itself, with repercussions, for better or for worse, on everyone else involved.

    I wrote about this sort of thing in this post. It’s on my God-blog, and the first half of the post isn’t totally applicable, so I’ll just copy & paste the pertinent bit:

    Is a life without action truly life?

    I can’t sit idle. It’s not a part of who I am. Perhaps God created me as this (as Bethany put it earlier today) “‘pursues distraction’ personality type” so that I would refuse to sit idly by and watch things happen. I need to be involved. I need to do. I have to be a part of things.

    I have been a watcher for far too long.

    In the Marvel Universe, the Watcher is a being who is forbidden to act on events; he merely watches them (and all possibilities in alternate universes) unfold, and he documents them. In the Highlander series, the watchers observe and document, but do not interfere in, the affairs of the Immortals; in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and spinoffs), a watcher is a person appointed to teach and train the new Slayer, and to keep a journal relating the events of the Slayer’s life.

    In all three of these (yes, fictional and demonstrably geeky examples), the watchers eventually cease their inactive observation. They get involved. They step up, and they do something.

    There are consequences for this action. Marvel’s Watcher gets killed. Joe (Duncan MacLeod’s watcher) almost dies. Giles (Buffy’s watcher) gets hurt several times in the course of the series, and his supposed successor, Wesley, actually becomes one of the “bad guys” for a while (during Angel).

    But at least they did something. And because they did, lives were saved. People were able to have a real future.

    So act. Don’t worry about the consequences. If you are doing as you are called to do, then only good will come of it. Even if you are killed.

  6. I just came here on the link from AFF, I just have to say I agree with you, and also compliment you on taking the time to write such a quality post on the subject, this really is the sort of material which needs a newspaper or magazine to publish it, although with the way alot of people act I could see people turning around and getting all angry with their “but what about the feelings” stuff you meantioned in your post, I really do wish this could be published in a place with alot more exposure though, maybe a few people would actually use their heads and realise that you are dead right.

  7. “Your “right” to express your despair or self-pity whenever and wherever and in whatever manner you feel like, does not trump other people’s right to be safe (which, regardless of group-therapy trends, is not the equivalent of “feeling emotionally safe”) and alive.”

    Am I misreading you or are you suggesting that your “right” to be protected and safe from certain types of speech you disagree with trumps the speaker’s First Amendment right to free speech?

  8. Re: Kevin… where do I begin on that comment?

    One, no, people have a right to free speech, but they also have a responsibility in what kind of free speech they exercise. Not all these responsibilities are specified under law, but they’re still there. I probably could run around talking about, for instance something like, “Having a fag in the family makes me so stressed out that I sometimes think about killing him,” but I don’t.

    Two, not all countries involved in this kind of thing have a “First Amendment right to free speech” to begin with, this is not a USA-specific affair.

    Three, in the USA not all speech is even protected under the First Amendment as “free speech”. (This is where the “responsibilities” that come with “rights” come in: There are all kinds of speech that are not protected, such as slander, libel, certain kinds of conspiracy, inciting people to commit crimes against people or groups of people, etc.) But, I was not talking about First Amendment rights in this post to begin with.

    Four, the safety I am speaking of is not from “opinions that differ from my own” but from being killed. I was very specific that the safety I was talking about was genuine safety for the physical integrity of our bodies, not the false “emotional safety” that people cry when they get their feelings hurt. Surely you can see a difference?

  9. How can they say that lack of support was the issue when the girl *didn’t even live at home*?! How is it that they think her mother got so overwhelmed that murder was understandable *during a school break*?! I don’t see how that’s supposed to make sense.

  10. Kevin, am I misreading you, or are suggesting that Amanda was advocating for some type of legislation? If so, I missed that. I don’t see how the First Amendment is implicated at all.

    This post was about personal responsibility, and societal responsibility, I thought.

  11. Yes, Anne that’s exactly what I was talking about, was personal and societal responsibility not to do and say certain things, even if those things are perfectly legal. There’s all kinds of ways I could really hurt people (I don’t mean emotionally), even contribute to people’s deaths, that are totally legal. I don’t.

  12. Janna: I don’t think that only good comes of any action, even a correct action. Even doing the right thing will cause harm to some people. The question is what kind of harm, in what way, what kind of good is going to happen, etc.

  13. Pingback: Autism Vox » Violence: GED, SIBIS, and other weapons

  14. Amanda: True. I think that the qualifying statement of “if you are doing as you are called to do” helps with that, but it is a bit of an oversimplification, regardless.

    It’s the ripple effect that we need to be aware of – that everything we do affects someone else, and it’s important to consider the possibilities inherent in that.

    *ponders a post on that topic for Friday*

  15. Well, CPS has been called now. It made me sick, thinking of that beautiful girl with such a genocidal mother.

    I’ve also been contacting everyone I can to make something of a riot re: the McCarron murder, and unfortunately there’s 2 more. *sighs*

  16. Pingback: Ballastexistenz » Blog Archive » Memorial to Katherine (Katie) McCarron

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  18. A hate crime is still a crime. That video is giving cultural permission to parents to kill their children. Not very long ago, it was okay, legally and culturally, to kill Afro-Americans. The photographs show a relaxed, party atmosphere among the participants. There are some places where this still occurs, without consequence.

    How can public sympathy be turned away from the murderers and toward the victims? Action, and media attention to that action, is one of the answers. Many people are completely unaware of the fact that there is any reality other than the mainstream. That’s like looking at the line dividing the back of the bus from the white-only section in front as if that line were an immutable reality, and saying “But it has always been that way. What could be done to change it?” To tell them it can be changed is not enough; they must be shown, repeatedly, that change is possible.

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  22. I’m not sure, but I think that (even legally) people’s safety to not be murdered (for ex.) DOES trump other people’s free speech.

    If not, it should.

  23. Hi, I was doing a search on my brother’s name, Adam Clark. Unfortunately I have lost the password/login info on the Remembering Adam site. In November 2002 Adam’s killer, Harley Debbs Spencer III (aka Eugene Columbaro) was finally convicted and is now sentenced to 19 years in prison. He was the boyfriend of my mother. Eugene Columbaro has a record of violence with children that was uncovered during this time but was not allowed to be entered into evidence during the trial. The trial occured in Phoenix, Arizona. It only took the jury a couple of hours to convict him after a two week long trial. My mother stood by the whole time. Perhaps she was not guilty, but she was in such a state of denial about the whole thing that she never doubted it was Adam’s syndrome that caused his death. I still cannot imagine how a nursing student (she was at that time, now she’s an RN) could see past those crushing injuries that convinced the jurors of murder within a very short time. Adam’s injuries included bleeding on the brain due to his head being knocked against a wall at least three times, and a liver that was crushed in half by force. Many people asked why my mother was not on trial. The fact is that she left Adam in his care and drove home that night. When she got home Eugene had called to say he wasn’t breathing. She rushed back to his apartment to find him in the process of being loaded onto an ambulance. So technically she did not murder Adam and I do not believe she should have been put on trial. The arrest and trial came about because the first officier on the scene, Campbell, was unable to let this go all these years. He passed Adam’s file onto his friend Bruce Foremney who is a (now retired) detective. Using new technology and more efficient methods they were able to prove the case. Adam was a victim of the system. I feel that if he had been a normal child and not one with CdLS his murder would have been taken more seriously. They chould not have blamed his syndrome for his death. I dearly miss my brother and think of him daily. I am now happily married and the mother of two daughters. My mother and I are still not on speaking terms. You may contact me at if you wish. I have changed my name after marrying a man from India and have made a fresh start with my life.

  24. Added to my other comment, here’s the text to an article from The Arizona Republic about the arrest of Adam’s killer. I am not able to find the article on-line anymore but I copied it when it was in the local news. Nor was I able to find the article that appeared after the conviction. Maybe you can get it from the newspaper archives if you wanted to.


    Man held in connection with 20-year-old slaying
    David Madrid
    The Arizona Republic
    March 27, 2002

    Diligent detective work and the refusal of a Glendale police sergeant to let a case go led to the arrest last week of a murder suspect in a death that occurred almost 19 years ago.

    Harley Spencer, 59, formerly known as Eugene Colomvaro, lives in Clinton, Utah, and was arrested by that city’s police after Glendale police determined he was responsible for the death of a 6-year-old boy.

    The death occurred Sept. 27, 1983, at a Glendale apartment complex. Police investigated a call that a child, Adam Clark, wasn’t breathing. Adam had been left in the care of Spencer, a friend of Adam’s mother’s.

    Additional evidence and new medical science allowed Glendale Detective Bruce Foremny to link Spencer to the homicide. Police would not give specifics about what evidence had changed to implicate Spender.

    Adam was born with Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, which left him severely retarded. He faced numerous medical challenges and had a short life expectancy.

    When he died, it was assumed the death was due to his illness, Detective Brian Wilkins of the Glendale police said.

    In the past, he said, a lot of children’s deaths were chalked up to reasons such as sudden infant death syndrome or natural causes, but now, with medical science improving all the time, those deaths are being looked at more closely.

    Wilkins said Sgt. Mark Campbell, the first officer on the scene, didn’t believe Adam’s death was due to natural causes, and he never gave up on the case.

    “He just had one of those feelings,” Wilkins said. “Something just didn’t seem right to him.”

    When detectives were looking over old, unsolved cases, Campbell suggested they look at this one again.

    Foremny, who has extensive child-abuse investigative experience, followed through on the case and with the help of the medical examiner and new technology, police now believe Spencer was responsible for the death.

  25. Just a couple of corrections to the case of Adam Clark. The man guilty of his murder was Harley Debbs Spencer II, not the III. Also, his name given at birth was Eugene Anthony Colombaro, not Columbaro or Colomvaro. I should know. I am one of his children.

  26. Hello, Anna-Maria. How amazing it is to hear from you, if only briefly and in this awful forum. I’ll never forget how sparkly your eyes were and how pretty you looked … one Easter Sunday morning … in one of the three matching dresses I once made for you: pink and blue for you and your little sister, lavender for my daughter …

    How quickly time passes … how full of angst and agony it has been … the horror of being accused of murdering my own child … and having the other one stolen away from me without a fair trial in a court of law … in 1983 … and watching, helpless, as she was turned against me… but also tiny moments of suspended glory … and joy … and some healing eventually, though the scars, the twists and knots of past sorrows … and the continuing loss of my daughter … are as a heavy brand of pride and honor that continue to remind me, “I survived a holocaust!” And each day I arise, every day I’m alive, I battle against the darkness of possible depression from old fears and haunts of past struggles, tucked deep inside of me … though I did then and do now … function as productive member of society.

    And if you’re doing anything similar, though for different/familiar reasons, my heart and prayers go out to you.

    For her graciousness, courage and inner strength, please say a, “Thank you,” to your mother the next time you see her. She gave me comfort at a time when I so greatly needed it. I imagine you might be a lot like her. Writing those letters to the judge took courage and guts beyond normal ability.

    Live in peace and dignity. And may the Heavenly Father bless you, your mother and your sisters both now and in the hereafter. I give everything I have to Him for, “yea, though I walk though the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. It’s by His grace I’m saved and by no other’s.

    Thank you,
    Adam’s mother

  27. This “awful forum” is a self-advocacy site run by a person with a disability (me), that unfortunately deals with situations like this because they affect all of us, not just the ones they happen to. I’ll change the post though so that it doesn’t say you did this. I was only going by what was on Adam’s site at the time, and I’m sorry. I do know what it’s like to be accused of crimes you didn’t commit. Although it seems like not enough to say this, God bless you and your family.

  28. Pingback: Sweet Perdition - Jack Hill’s Happy Accident: Spider Baby Essay

  29. Pingback: Jack Hill’s Happy Accident: Spider Baby Essay « Sweet Perdition

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