Facebook and Lashanda Armstrong: When hatred silences meaningful communication

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Last month when New York mom La’Shanda Armstrong deliberately drove her van into the Hudson River she and three of her four children died. Her oldest son, La’Shaun, survived after he escaped from the sinking vehicle and swam to shore. I connected with Armstrong because my book, Sister of Silence, tells how I came so close to what she did that it still scares me today, 26 years later.

The Armstrong tragedy is still fresh in our minds, so perhaps the public backlash is to be expected. But having hate mongers come out of the woodwork probably wasn’t what the deceased mom would have wanted. It’s what she should have expected, though—because the act of mothers killing their children polarizes our nation almost more than any other issue.

I wrote Sister of Silence to help other equally overwhelmed mothers learn what to do differently—so they don’t reach the breaking point Armstrong did. That’s why, one week later, I decided to discuss her case during my book signing at Main Street Books in Frostburg, Md. When I edited the Facebook event I had already created to reflect that, I never dreamed that the world would weigh in so hatefully and viciously as it has.
One comment came from Lisa Yonta-Staccio, who described herself as a mother: “I wish she survived so they could hang that (expletive)!”
Another commenter, Felicia Ferguson-Bundy, described Armstrong’s actions as “a disgusting, horrific act of selfishness.” This shows what a lot of work we have to do as a society before we can wake up to the problem of abused, depressed and overwhelmed mothers who will one day implode. It’s only a matter of what their weapon of choice will be: drugs or alcohol, family abandonment, or murder-suicide.
But the comment on my event page that I found most unsettling came from another reader—one among many—who expressed sympathy for Armstrong’s children. Eric L. Rothstein then said he hoped Armstrong “rots in hell.” Apparently he had none for her.

And yet, many comments serve as a powerful reinforcement for me, in my belief that my story can empower other mothers like Armstrong. “What Lashanda did was not right. Even though it is not right . . . Sometimes people hurt you so bad . . . you think about carrying out things like that. She took those kids because as a mother u wouldnt want them to depend on anyone in this world,” wrote a woman named Tashie Terrell.
Jeanne Giordano Boughton, a particularly intuitive Facebook user wrote: “Unless you’ve been a victim of domestic violence, you can never understand what this young woman must have gone through . . . All the blame is placed on the mother, but God only knows what went on behind closed doors to drive her to this act of desperation . . . Please keep this in mind as you judge her, you did not know her situation.”
From commenter Demi Leathers came this, after I felt I had no choice but to urge people to stop being so hateful: “Thank you Ms. Berry for creating such a wall and for expressing to those that insensitive comments does no one any good! That is what is wrong with this world today, people are so quick to condemn . . .”

Another Facebook user, Bernadette Price, said Armstrong “was troubled . . . its a hard job and having kids early is no joke . . . if only she could have been helped.”
The comments show the serious disconnect between what people think they know about these cases—and what really happens in these women’s lives, and to their psyche, before they reach this point. More than 200 people said they wanted to “attend” my event, but 36 hours after I edited it, there were so many hateful comments directed at Armstrong that Facebook removed it. An email I received said it had been deleted because the comments violated Facebook’s terms of use. Events that are “hateful, threatening, or obscene are not allowed.” The attitudes expressed on my event page explain why it took me 20 years to tell the world my story, and why I suffered in silence for so long.

Naturally, my heart goes out to Armstrong’s children, who had no choice in whether they lived or died. And if you’ve never experienced the life forces that led Armstrong and me to feel that death was our only option, then I’m happy for you.

The collective anger directed at Armstrong reflects how most people feel about suicide—especially when it comes on the heels of murdering one’s own offspring. But that anger also does something else—it prevents us from having a meaningful dialogue about the forces that cause people to reach this point.

If we really want to help mothers like Armstrong, I hardly think calling them names and condemning them to a fiery afterlife is going to cause them to want to come forward, when they begin thinking about murder-suicide or—God forbid—plan to carry it out.

* * * *

In one month my next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, will be released. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!

~Daleen

Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”


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