Motherhood is one of those marmite areas of life, you either love it, or hate it, and you don’t have to be a mother to feel strongly about it. While some girls plan and look forward to becoming mothers, many don’t and are censored for their lack of “maternal instinct.” So over time the concept of motherhood, and the assumption that it is part of the natural order becomes a straight jacket to them. For those who willingly embrace motherhood, although they love their children deeply, they also find that the advert perfect mother and newborn is very far from the reality of cracked nipples and not sleeping for years, all the while strangers feel that it is their job, nae, their duty to tell her everything she is doing wrong. The concept of motherhood in contemporary society is one so strong that it can end up defining a woman’s life, even if she rejects it.
Motherhood is an idea that permeates If You Tell by Greg Olsen by it’s absence. Olsen recounts the life of Shelly Knotek, who killed three, and abused countless others, including her own children. Knotek could easily be cast in the role of femme fatal, her good looks attracting many unsuspecting men into her orbit, but that would be too surface a reading of what is a clearly aberant pshycology. Instead Olsen makes his readers the proverbial frog in water slowly begining to boil, as he trace the development of Knotek from a troubled and difficult child and teen into a fully fledged murderer.
While, of course, murder is the worst crime that could be committed, what settles just as uneasily in the reader is the treatment of her three daughters, who collaborated with Olsen on the book. Her behaviour goes far beyond favouritisim, or undly harsh rules, but instead swings widely between neglect and abuse, all the while putting on the face of a concerned friend and parent to the outside world. As we see in many other cases of mothers who are controlling and abusive, fathers are either absent or too cowardly to protect their children.
One of the things that is so amazing about the Knotek story is that it is interweaved with the story of her daughters – and their ability to survive, leave and come to thrive, is fantastic. I suspect the long-term and highly sustained natured of the verbal, physical and sexual abuse they faced could crush some. However they appeared to have something that has sustained them through the toment of their early years, and after reflection the thing they had was exactly what their mother could not give them, something she relied on, feed off and exploited – their love. For their parents, their family, each other and themselves, ultimately love was what made them strong, and it was Knotek’s inability to love which made her appear to be dominant and in control, but ultimately meant that she was irrevocably lost.
For more true crime about motherhood check out Lemonata’s Believe Her.