You’ve probably heard about Christy Sheats, 42, the Texas mother who recently killed her 17- and 22-year-old daughters in front of their father, citing as her motivation a desire to punish him (she committed the murders on his birthday). The daughters and husband managed to escape to the street, but the mother shot the girls again. The mother was then killed by police when she refused to drop the gun—a case, I believe, of suicide-by-cop.
There are many especially horrific and chilling elements to this crime, including 9-11 tapes that record the young women’s pleas, and the fact that the older daughter was due to be married in just a few days.
The husband survived, but only by running to a neighbor’s house and being let in while his wife went back into the family home to reload. Of course, the word “survive” is relative. Although he was not wounded at all, physically, the psychological scars will almost certainly be intense and lifelong.
Which may have been what Christ Sheats wanted, if you can believe the newspaper reports. The fact that the shooting happened in front of him and he was not injured suggests as much, as well. The couple had been estranged for some time and had recently reconciled (although there are also reports that he had just announced his decision to get a divorce), and although we don’t know what caused the separation, it’s reported that Christy had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts and/or threats.
That’s easy to believe.
When I heard the story I almost immediately thought of Medea, the legendary figure of Greek tragedy who killed her two sons to get revenge on a husband who had left her for another woman. In a strange coincidence, Medea’s husband’s name—Jason, of Jason and the Argonauts—was the same as that of Jason Sheats, Christy Sheat’s husband.
Medea’s name has become a symbol for almost unimaginable hatred and desire for revenge on a spouse, through the act of a mother killing the people the spouse loves most dearly (and the people the mother should love most dearly, too), their shared children. It is a revenge so twisted and so deep, so killing in every sense of the word, that the story has lasted for millennia.
There have been many artistic renditions of the crime, but here is one by Mucha, a poster for Sarah Bernhardt in the role:
Because of my dance background I also thought of one of the greatest of all modern dance choreographers, Martha Graham, who choreographed a piece called “Cave of the Heart” in 1946-7 that was roughly based on the Medea legend. There’s a spectacular solo passage that portrays Medea’s decision to murder her children. “Frightening” is not usually a word associated with dance, but this is one of the most frightening dance sequences you’ll ever see—maybe even the most frightening—and it is almost overwhelming in its intensity:
…as shaking movements begin, [Medea] is revealed to be possessed by something…As Medea pulls a red scarf from the top of her leotard, she reveals that this red scarf and the evil decision it represents is what is causing her turmoil; the fact that it symbolically comes from within, from the place of her heart, embodies the emotional and painstaking nature of her inner struggle…Medea holds the scarf over her head, showing it off with pride to depict her sense of strength and the glory of revenge…She wrestles with it, literally wrestling with her decision. Toward the end of the solo, Medea pulls the scarf tight between her hands and holds it above her head once again, revealing her final control and security with her plan…
The red scarf itself can be interpreted to symbolize various things. An initial interpretation is that it represents the actual decision of Medea having to kill her children…It could also represent her revenge on Jason for abandoning her and marrying a new wife in a more general sense, because of the smirk on her face during the climactic parts of the solo and the sense of satisfaction it suggests…A co-creator of Cave of the Heart, Isamu Noguchi, said that for her “Medea dances with a red cloth in her mouth. She is dancing with [a] snake in her mouth. Then she spews it out of her mouth like blood” (De Milles 279). This suggests that the scarf embodies evil itself, in regards to the Judeo-Christian biblical symbol of the snake as corruption and sin. The reference to blood also suggests the symbolism of the blood of Medea’s children, their life and death which are both in the hands of their mother.
And here is the solo in rehearsal. Even the studio version, with this petite dancer, conveys some of the force of it. The word “possessed” really does come to mind (you might want to watch it full screen):