On December 29, 2019, the New York Times published a story titled “Sweethearts Forever. Then Came Alzheimer’s, Murder and Suicide” that explored Richard and Alma, a longtime married couple whose relationship ended beyond tragically. Richard fatally shot Alma and then shot himself because his wife had Alzheimer’s. The Times framed Richard’s violent act as a form of love, drawing immediate pushback from disability justice activists online about the idea that there’s room for murder in love—and to the NYT’s misguided idea that ableism didn’t play a role in Alma’s murder.
It’s not unheard of for the publications to misstep when it comes to ableism; it’s less of a rarity, and it’s not at all an isolated incident in publishing or elsewhere. The simple fact that the writer spends more time on the page humanizing a murderer than prioritizing the story of Alma (a woman who trusted her husband to take care of her) illustrates the larger issue of ableism, who we humanize and who we don’t. I spoke with disabled activist and podcast Alice Wong, disabled writer Cade Leebron, and The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me author Keah Brown, about the impact of a legacy publication treating an ableist-fueled murder-suicide as a love story.
When the article was published in late December, first came enthusiasm (largely, I’m assuming, from people without disabilities), and then came the pushback. Tell me about your experience as a reader. How did you come across the piece?
Alice Wong, disabled activist and podcaster: I paused, gave a long sigh, felt my heart ache, and expected to read an all-too familiar narrative of another disabled person killed by a family member with the primary focus and sympathy on the killer.
Cade Leebron, disabled writer: A disabled activist friend told me about the article the day it came out, and they warned me it was upsetting. So I went in forewarned, luckily.
Keah Brown, journalist and author of The Pretty One: I [first] saw it on Twitter. People were praising it and the headline alone gave me pause but I read and digested in and then tweeted.
After reading the piece in full, what did you think about how the story was framed and about the response to the piece?
AW: A now-deleted tweet by the author of the piece calling it a love story set me off. This framing was praised and shared uncritically on social media by lots of nondisabled people. Disabled people were once again placed in the unfair position [of having] to call this ableist shit out and explain why this kind of reporting and language is harmful. These are the kinds of attitudes that perpetuate murder, abuse, and violence. I was heartened to see the collective pushback by disabled folks but felt so deflated by the expenditure of our labor and wisdom.
CL: Ableism maybe shouldn’t still surprise me, but this piece [left] me a bit astounded. I immediately saved a PDF of it because I thought there was a chance the NYT would redact or edit the online version of the piece, and I wanted to have a record of their original version. (I’ve observed other situations where something offensive was published and the outlet later removed it.) Usually I’m responsive to things like this on Twitter, but this piece left me too sad to discuss it on social media. I didn’t want some stranger online telling me that murdering a disabled person was the correct or loving choice since the NYT had already told me that. It was quite hurtful.
KB: Frustration. The fact of the matter is [this is] not the first instance of [our culture] treating murder like [an act of] love because of disability, and, unfortunately, it won’t be the last. My frustration lies in the fact that the NYT, given its reach, prestige, platform, and importance to me as a journalist, would be peddling such a harmful narrative without even stopping to think who it might impact and what they’re saying to readers like me. After the frustration came outright anger: I, too, could be murdered and someone will ignore the fact that it was ruled as such to call it love because they, in their own way, whether they recognize it or not, feel the killer did the right thing because of the inherent societal belief that disabled and ill people are burdens.
The story’s reporter Corina Knoll promoted their piece on Twitter with “A man shot his wife with Alzheimer’s, then killed himself. I wanted to understand their story. Turns out, it was one of love.” How does it shape our cultural understanding of disability when writers and editors promote stories in a way that warps what truly happened?
AW: Love, and acts done in the name of love, can be weaponized. Within the context of disability, it places us as the ones in need of help and the love of an intimate partner who’s a “saint” for being with us. The power dynamic is asymmetrical with disabled people having to be grateful to be cared for, wanted, and loved. Our agency as desirable people with autonomy and power is taken away in these kinds of stories.
CL: We’re often trying to find a hook or a new hot take, the so-called story behind the story. In this case, the writer didn’t realize that the story behind the story was ableism [not] love. It’s telling that Knoll perceived love, and it shows that as a culture, we’re always working to find excuses for people in power. White people, men, nondisabled people, straight people, cis people. We’re giving them the benefit of the doubt and finding a “logical” or “good” reason for their (objectively bad) actions. Framing it this way promotes the supposed inherent goodness of the nondisabled murderer. It offers the implicit message that the nondisabled person’s good intentions will be privileged above the disabled person’s literal life and death.
KB: Stories like these shape the way we see the world and the people in it, which, in turn, shapes [our] policies, [our] ideals, [and our] attitudes toward certain people. Stories like these effectively hold the harmful and stifling view of who disabled and ill people can and should be in our larger cultural landscape. We must never forget that the framing of these stories is a deliberate choice, the act of playing judge and jury when a disabled person is killed because we are not seen as people first. The choice to do as much is why we’re killed weekly and our deaths turned into fodder for trauma porn that is “just so sad, it’s beautiful.” If that is love, I don’t want it.
It’s striking to me that the story’s writer seemingly wanted readers to buy into the idea that Richard had no choice but to murder his wife. Taking care of his wife was too much work and her Alzheimer’s was harming him as much as it was harming her. But their daughters offered to step in—and Richard refused their help. What is the impact of the NYT presenting Richard’s decision to kill his wife rather than accept help from his children as neutral, or even sad, rather than cruel?
AW: This was a major aspect [of the] story [that] the reporter could’ve delved into more deeply. [In] cases like this, many people cite caregiver “burden” as an explanation, [but that] assumes that [one] spouse is solely responsible for care and decision-making. This may be the case legally, but who gave Richard all the power [in the first place]? Toxic masculinity cultivates shame and fear of vulnerability—needing and asking for help is discouraged, which leads to these kinds of situations where one [spouse] thinks there are no options left. Also, no amount of money, resources, and social support can fix a situation [where] you no longer see a family member as a person.
CL: This story bought into a narrative that when someone’s perceived quality of life has declined or when they’re no longer “themselves,” others are justified in] acting violently toward them and those acts of violence are now “loving.” [That] brings up a false dichotomy: a person was once “themselves” when they were nondisabled, and they’re “someone else” now that they’ve become disabled. This allows for the conclusion that they don’t need to be treated as if they’re the same family member/partner/person they once were, and that violence toward the new “someone else” is an act of kindness on behalf of their nondisabled past self, who is different from the new “someone else” persona. This is philosophically bizarre and difficult to describe.
If that narrative didn’t exist, if there wasn’t this idea of putting someone “out of their misery,” (based on “misery” as perceived/invented by the nondisabled partners/family members), [then] this option wouldn’t be on the table. The question would [instead] be: How do we access support for our loved one? Maybe support would come through their adult children, other extended family, a government program, a nonprofit, etc. But instead, this violent option is on the table, and it’s [being] justified in the NYT!
KB: I can’t presume to know the full nature of the couple’s relationship, but that wasn’t sad to me; it was controlling. I saw others cite the time period in which he was raised as an excuse for not accepting help, but that’s not an excuse. The framing of the refusal to accept help goes beyond this couple, and the writer’s eager to make us forgive him in the way she seemed to while reporting, but the fact is their kids are now without both parents because it was [“too much” for their father to take care of their mother], and [it was] “too much” because he refused the help he was offered. If this was truly the neutral or sad story the reporter wanted us to believe it was, the woman’s death would’ve been an accident and the product of the fact that we need better comprehensive care for disabled and ill people and worthy strides in research about Alzheimer’s. What’s sad is that murder was turned into some love story.
Listen and believe disabled people. Period.
What impact does it have on readers when legacy publications publish stories like this one where a disabled person is murdered?
AW: The New York Times is complicit in perpetuating eugenics and ableism. With all the ongoing hand-wringing and lip service about diversity in newsrooms, I wonder what a difference it would make if disabled writers and editors were involved in this story and others across all their departments. Like most publications, their newsroom doesn’t reflect society.
CL: For nondisabled and/or ableist readers, it validates their ableism as well as any violence toward disabled people they choose to engage in. For disabled readers, at least for me, it’s scary. Here, the murderer committed suicide and there wasn’t a trial, so it’s not like this is a case that’s setting a legal precedent. But if someone wants to murder their disabled partner or family member, this very reputable publication just gave them permission.
KB: It allows readers who secretly believe they would do the same to feel justified if the time comes. It says to me, a Black, bisexual, disabled woman that my life boils down to being burdensome and worthy of murder and then to be effectively erased from my own story in favor of servicing the redemption of the person who pulled the trigger.
I’d be remiss to ignore the systemic impact this piece passively highlights. There aren’t many resources and support for people as we age, become disabled, and/or need assistance. What would a better healthcare system look like? What is the impact of so many people treating caretaking as a solitary endeavor instead of a communal effort?
AW: As a child of immigrants, my attitude toward social support and interdependence is markedly different from the individualistic culture in the United States. I’m an adult who lives with my parents who’s not embarrassed by it, even if people don’t perceive me as “independent” in the typical sense. It’s not easy asking and accepting help! We need a culture shift where weakness and receiving care are seen as strengths, and [where we better understand] that everyone has the capacity to support one another in big and small ways. [We need] fewer bureaucratic hurdles [like those] our state places on services and support … along with a broader movement toward embracing our fears about aging, disability, and mortality.
CL: Currently, we have to go to doctor’s offices, hospitals, pharmacies, [and] assisted living facilities, to get treatment/care or even just to speak to a healthcare provider. This puts every burden on disabled/sick people—to miss work if we work, to travel to and from the institution, to live in the institution, to pay money for every interaction. A lot of treatment/care could happen at our homes, online, or over the phone. If we integrated healthcare, we might not imagine or experience care as being this lonely and desperate thing. If a healthcare provider is stopping by regularly and providing advice, support, and care, I’d bet the situation [would] seem less frightening and unmanageable. (This proposed change would work best with healthcare providers who are trustworthy and not ableist!)
KB: A better healthcare system looks like affordable and accessible places to care for and support us all as we age and/or see fit. A better healthcare system starts with seeing healthcare as a right, not a privilege.
What should we take away from this story, and the response to it?
AW: Listen and believe disabled people. Period.
CL: If you (readers) encounter a similar situation—someone who seems to be abusing and/or isolating a disabled person—I would encourage you to gather more information about the situation and intervene if appropriate. (Respect disabled people’s boundaries! But don’t assume good intentions simply because someone is nondisabled and/or in a caregiver role.)
KB: End of life care plans are important, [but] the ease in which people pretended that this was an end-of-life care plan the couple made (with zero evidence to support their claim), is harmful and ableist. This was murder, not end of life care.
This roundtable has been edited for length and clarity.