Olive Woo Murphy 1/08/03 3/29/06

Despite the depth of the tragedy, there was a sense of relief associated with the aftermath to the recent asphyxiation death of three-year-old Olive Woo Murphy at the hands of her mother in a botched suicide attempt.

For one thing, Mayor Newsom didn't rush to tell television cameras how sickened he was, as he did the last time an unhinged mother made local news killing offspring. That was when Lashaun Harris threw her three little sons to their deaths off Pier 7 last October. Bloggers didn't find cause for comments such as "kill the bitch" as they did with Harris. Bill O'Reilly didn't weigh in, as he did twice regarding the murders. District Attorney Kamala Harris didn't gain toughness points for raising the specter of the death penalty, as was the case with Harris. With little Olive, anti-death-penalty opponents had no cause to rally around, like they have with Harris.

On March 29 Olive's mother, Linda Woo, brought her two children and a portable barbecue into a Subaru Outback at their Ingleside home. When a neighbor found them, Olive was dead from the barbecue's fumes. Her brother Carter, 4, was unconscious. Woo was still awake. She had reportedly been distraught over a recent separation from her husband. The resulting murder and attempted murder charges carry 25 years to life.

Instead of the spinnable narrative of the Lashaun Harris tragedy, we have an incident too prosaic for prime time: a dead little girl, her bewildered brother, a grieving father, family, and friends, and a sad, sad woman in General Hospital's jail ward who was somehow driven to do an incomprehensibly horrible thing.

It was just a banal casualty of mental illness, child-rearing stress, and personal isolation, in which the criminal justice system was the first to arrive at the scene. It was an extreme example of the desperation a lot of mothers face, feelings that the rest of us can do more to ease.

A jury will soon attempt to fathom what Linda Woo's demented thoughts were when she killed little Olive. So there's no point doing that now. We're merely left pondering whether, or when, there will be a next time, and if we're doing enough for children and their caregivers, and for people struggling, or who appear as if they might be struggling, with depression or other mental illness. We're left looking around us at a city that, despite its plethora of playgrounds, programs, and beautiful places for children to live, can be a lonely, stressful, even anguishing place for a mother. If you know one, this might be a good week to ask how she's doing, and listen. Ask if she needs any help. Then follow through if she does.

In advance of Mother's Day, which comes a month from now, perhaps we could honor Olive Murphy's death with a week in which we gently, helpfully, conscientiously, meddle in the affairs of a San Francisco mother.

"Telling someone you care, and that you're interested," said Alan Fox, director of Safe Start, the city's anti-child-abuse program. "That's the best intervention."

I first heard about Olive Murphy, a small, beautiful girl with dark, wavy hair, a few months ago, when my daughter Olivia mentioned her name in her nightly recounting of the day's adventures at preschool. I told Olivia her playmate had nearly the same name she did.

"No she doesn't," Olivia said, asserting a three-year-old's possessiveness.

I learned Olive was murdered the morning after she was asphyxiated, when my wife called sobbing from Olivia's preschool. I found myself resisting an urge to angrily bang the telephone receiver on the table. The idea of murdering children really isviscerally infuriating when you're made to digest it.

I had coincidentally flown into San Francisco four days earlier after visiting a loved one who'd recently attempted suicide. I'd spent a week of afternoons playing with that woman's four-year-old daughter, who is beautiful and petite, with short dark hair.

The morning after Olive died, a good portion of the 50 or so parents whose children attend our preschool stayed for a while, irrationally concerned that something bad might also happen to their children. Many, I was told, slept that night beside their three- and four-year-olds. Teachers pressed through the day near tears, finding it hard not to focus on memories of Olive.

That afternoon, when I picked up Olivia, the school had arranged to have a grief counselor waiting. I found this to be a helpful gesture, despite the fact it gave my daughter an opportunity to boast. Some adults had gone off with the counselor to the preschool's purple-walled room to talk and weep, "but I didn't cry," Olivia bragged, making me think how nice it is that three-year-olds needn't yet comprehend such horror.

A couple days later parents gathered at the preschool for a meeting with counselors. Many were of the same mind I was when I felt the urge to break the telephone receiver. One of the crisis counselors said that mothers who kill their children don't stop loving them, but instead enter a tunnel of twisted thinking that defines serious mental illness. "They feel they're doing the best thing for everybody when they do this," said Kathy Baxter, coordinator of San Francisco's Child Abuse Council, when I spoke with her later.

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