Judging Vanessa: Norm Setting and Deviance in the Law of Motherhood

25 Pages Posted: 20 Mar 2009 Last revised: 25 Mar 2009

See all articles by Michelle Oberman

Michelle Oberman

Santa Clara University - School of Law


This article undertakes an ethnographic approach to the study of legal and societal norms surrounding motherhood in the U.S. It builds upon my more conventional legal and epidemiological work on maternal filicide by telling the stories, both legal and personal, of Vanessa, a woman I interviewed in the course of writing my most recent book, When Mothers Kill: Interviews from Prison. (NYU Press, 2008). In re-telling Vanessa's story, the current article exposes the limitations in the current binary classification of mothers as either good or bad. Of broader interest, I have elected to re-tell Vanessa's story by placing myself in the frame, in a style long utilized by anthropologists, yet largely ignored by legal academics. As such, the article juxtaposes Vanessa's stories with my own thoughts, feelings and stories, both as an academic and as a mother. In the end, the article offers a broader moral lens through which one might judge not only Vanessa, but also mothers in general. This article is part of a series of creative endeavors (essays and articles) in which I adopt an ethnographic or quasi-ethnographic approach to considering the nexus of criminal law and women's lives.

Suggested Citation

Oberman, Michelle, Judging Vanessa: Norm Setting and Deviance in the Law of Motherhood. William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law, Vol. 15, 2009, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1366025

Michelle Oberman (Contact Author)

Santa Clara University - School of Law ( email )

500 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, CA 95053
United States

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