“Death by hyperthermia” is the official designation. When it happens to young children, the facts are often the same: An otherwise loving and attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just… forgets a child is in the car.
This is one of the most disturbing, eye-opening articles I’ve ever read, not because those parents are monsters, but because it could potentially happen to any of us.
Quoting David Diamond, a professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida:
“The quality of prior parental care seems to be irrelevant,” he said. “The important factors that keep showing up involve a combination of stress, emotion, lack of sleep and change in routine, where the basal ganglia is trying to do what it’s supposed to do, and the conscious mind is too weakened to resist. What happens is that the memory circuits in a vulnerable hippocampus literally get overwritten, like with a computer program. Unless the memory circuit is rebooted – such as if the child cries, or, you know, if the wife mentions the child in the back – it can entirely disappear.”
I think these cases also say a lot about how innocent people, like rape victims, are sometimes blamed by others in order for them to cope with the harsh reality that the world is not inherently fair:
Humans, Hickling said, have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.
In hyperthermia cases, he believes, the parents are demonized for much the same reasons. “We are vulnerable, but we don’t want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we’ll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don’t want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters.”
Jeff Atwood wrote a great piece on this behavior in relation to internet harassment, so please check it out.