The martyrdom of Tania Clarence: when will the press stop conveying disability as worse than death?

Ignoring the history of mental illness of the mother who smothered her three disabled children to death feeds the wider cultural claim that disability is a nightmarish circumstance.

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Last year, Tania Clarence admitted the manslaughter of her three severely disabled children on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The details were widely reported at the time: that she smothered her three-year-old twin sons Ben and Max, and daughter Olivia, aged four, in a “major depressive episode”, and then took painkiller tablets and drank a bottle of wine in an attempt to take her own life. She was discovered at home bleeding and crying.

The judge in the trial said Clarence, who had a history of mental illness, was “vulnerable” and detained her under a hospital order. This week, the Mail on Sunday waited for her to be on temporary psychiatric release, stood outside the family home, and took photos of her and her young daughter. Or, as the sub-heading in yesterday’s paper put it: got the exclusive “first picture of banker's wife at centre of tragedy with her only surviving child”.

I won’t provide a link to the piece. Despite the fact the online version of the story invites readers to “share the pictures” on Twitter or Facebook, even providing helpful one-click icons. The internet age characterises the tone of tragedy. We can stare at a mentally ill, grieving mother, nestled between Kim Kardashian’s newly bleached hair and Amber Rose’s lingerie-clad breasts. This is pain as entertainment. Fallible women and pitiable disability. The comment function below allows instant, public commentary.

The level of intrusion in all of this is sickening. The headline, ‘‘Home again: Just four months after admitting killing her three terminally ill children at her £1.2m family house”, is dehumanisation in a way that practically aims to titillate.

That the home in which the children died cost over a million pounds, we’re told, is a vital detail. I suppose we should be grateful the family is from leafy west London with a father who works in “investment banking”. Imagine the headlines if they had dared face illness while living in a council house and on Jobseeker’s Allowance. Poverty has a habit of making tragedy damning. Wealth seemingly makes the story of three dead toddlers glamorous.

That they were disabled children adds another, disturbing layer to this. We can tell ourselves that how the Mail treated Tania Clarence exists in a vacuum, that readers will resist clicking on stories depicting the “unbearable pressure” of raising disabled children, and that media outlets don’t systematically paint an image of disability that means such a thing is normalised. But that would be a lie.

Clarence – white, rich, and sympathetic – provides a safe character in an ongoing story; a tragi-porn symbol of life with disability who can be pitied while being hounded. Powerless and pale, she serves her purpose as part of a wider narrative: disability is painful, pitiable, and something that (luckily) happens to other people.

Clarence’s mental illness is crucial legally and morally, but is entirely unnecessary in this message; a hurried add-on to the inference no one wants to mention: “If you were her, you’d have wanted to do the same, surely?” We recoil but speak as if, when it comes to disability, such a consequence is practically inevitable.

That feeling is to such an extent part of what surrounds us daily that perhaps we don’t even recognise it. Scan websites, newspapers, and glossy mags and each week there are new features on parents – almost always mothers – used to feed our fears about disability. Here, women can be called “brave” for wishing they’d aborted their disabled child, and vilified for not wanting to raise one.

We pick over the details without actually seeing anything. Having a disabled child is simultaneously sanitised and voyeuristically scrutinised. It is both martyrdom and a nightmare. It is something to fear and inspire.  

The media are not the only ones complicit in this. The BBC schedule gives primetime slots to shows like DIY SOS: the Big Build, handing out new bathrooms to families with disabled children as cameras zoom in to watch the mother crying. Strictly Come Dancing: The People’s Strictly searches the country for the most “deserving” cases and finds not people enduring homelessness or isolation, but loved women who happen to live with disability. London’s hottest new play, meanwhile, depicts life with a disabled child. Its title? Kill Me Now.

The Mail’s grotesque display is about more than bad journalism. It is not only papers or ad spaces Tania Clarence was used to sell. It is the wider cultural claim that disability is worse than death.  The lives of three children are worth more than that.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.