Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Aimee Louise Sword and the Press: "Rape" vs. a "Summer Romance"

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

Try googling “Aimee Louise Sword.” The top hit is a compilation of news stories and commentaries about Sword pleading guilty this week to having sex with her 14-year-old birth son. At the moment, there are "533 related articles.

Yet one of the other top hits will be a ten-month-old story from the Huffington Post, complete with an embedded Fox News video: “Aimee Louise Sword Raped Son She Gave Up For Adoption.” A hit of the same vintage from ABC News opens this way: “A Michigan mother is facing a trial after being accused of having a summer romance with the teenage son she gave up for adoption.”

Unusual and disturbing as this story was when it broke in September 2009, there’s a big leap between rape and summer romance.

Let me be clear: Sexual abuse is never OK. Because parents have the power in a relationship, they are always at fault. Yet there are tricky angles on this story. Sword was not raising this boy in the caregiving sense. She claims to have initiated contact with him through Facebook only after she stopped hearing from his adoptive parents. What happened is repellant; it also pushes all the wrong buttons, just as so many stories about adoptions gone terribly awry do.

Last year, I wrote about the online response to Sword's arrest (click here). The story swirled through the blogosphere with a wild array of facts; some reports said her son was only 10 years old. Most said little about his adoptive parents. While the original news story from the Oakland Press in the Detroit area was a standard journalistic account, almost none of the subsequent commentaries paused to question why Sword might have done what she did.

A "MILF" in her mid-thirties, Sword has become both a pariah and an object of prurient interest. Her MySpace photos still appear all over the Internet. She's also been married and has five other children.

Advocates for birth mothers—or adoption in general—are not shaping this discussion, and that's a bad thing. Some recent media commentaries, like Tracy Clark-Flory's piece in Salon, have at least addressed the fact that reunions between birth parents and children can be fraught with all sorts of intense emotions. The UPI account includes a quote from Sword at her sentencing: "I am remorseful for everything that occurred."

But then we get all the ugliness oozing up through the cracks. A quick review of recent online headlines gives us, among others "INCEST MUM" and "Yummy Mummy Heads for Jaily Waily."

Now she's been sentenced to jail for at least nine years. More facts are on the record, although Sword herself admitted in court that she still doesn't know how it happened. It's not at all clear that she "tracked" or "stalked" her son on the Internet. The UPI story notes in passing that the prosecutor (not Sword's lawyer) said "it was the son who got in touch with her."

Last September, the site You Can't Make This Up did stick up for Sword, noting that a social worker representing her son's adoptive family “asked his permission to find her, because he was getting unmanageable at home….” In this version, he’s a “gangbanger” who may have coerced his birth mother into having sex. She supposedly complied “partly due to guilt, partly out of fear of losing contact with her son forever and last but not least, partly because she was asked by his adoptive parents…[to help].”

Again, we don't know. Some of this doesn't square with reports from her sentencing this week. Although this story is one of the top hits for Aimee Louise Sword, its sources aren't clear.

So we are left with all the scary stereotypes about what happens to adoptees: the son is either a victim raped by a depraved, sexually loose birth mother or an irredeemable gangbanger. There's way too much heat and no light.

We humans will always be compelled by this kind of sensationalism. But the first kneejerk responses linger online in a way they didn't used to. They continue to float before readers' eyes, courtesy of Google, all those 530-plus headlines that trumpet some variation of "guilt" and "sex" and "mom."

I hate it all—what Aimee Sword did and the feeding frenzy that's followed.

This piece also appears in Martha's blog on Open Salon.


Morris Hagerman said...

As Martha Nichols states at the opening, there is no rational reason this should have happen. But, adoption can be filled with confusion and mystery on both sides.

In some things that happen, the observer may look at the incident and wonder how anyone could have done something so horrible. Their own personality would not allow them to take such action. But, it is clear that it was wrong and we move on.

But, this case, being raised by adoptive parents and filled my entire life with the questions I have about who my mother and father were, raised my curiosity. I am the birth father of two wonderful children and could never have done this to them. Not because it is wrong, which of course it is and as it should be, but because of the clear emotional understanding of the relationship that has developed over all the years that I raised them.

But, I ask myself, with personalities that may not have been that strong in the first place (perhaps the mother agreed to give up the child because she wasn’t strong enough to stand her ground and perhaps the child felt anger over being abandon) there was confusion over what healthy relationships are and how to respond to others. This would set up a collision of personal confusion and cultural norms. As a result, we have something that very few would understand personally.

So given all of this, is it any wonder that detail and background stories were not published or that most of the coverage by all sources were shallow in its coverage? If the people involved didn’t understand their own action how is it we would expect others to understand it.

Morris Hagerman

Martha Nichols said...

Thanks, Morris. If only the media discussion were led by such nuanced responses as your own. You're also right that we can't expect journalists to get at complex motivations when the people involved don't understand themselves.

But I think (foolishly, probably) that I expect more from commentators. I ended up writing another post about Sword, in which I tried to explore my own response with more depth or self-honesty. I posted it on Open Salon, and here's a link:

"The Adoption Post I Should Have Written"