Let me start with the following caveats:
First, I read this book in one day, after I spent an entire week with my four children during Christmas. It was the first time I had ever, and I do mean ever in my entire work history, taken a week off of work voluntarily. For reasons that involve overexertion of myself and two years of foster parenting additional kids, our Christmases the past few years have been dark and not exactly holly and jolly. The first year of fostering we ended up with a foster child in a local mental hospital on Christmas after a failed suicide attempt. It wasn’t ideal and it took a lot of time away from our kids, who were still relatively young at that point, and put a huge damper on the Christmas spirit for everyone. Don’t misunderstand me, our family adjusted the ways we needed to and everyone was more concerned about a kiddo in our care getting the help she needed, but my four kids did, unfortunately, get pushed to the side, a lot, that holiday season. The second year the same foster child, who had come a long way with her mental health, got arrested on Christmas Eve for smoking pot in the car we bought her, under a street light, with a guy more than 5 years older than her. She was supposed to be spending the night with her family, and instead she was out running the streets and we got a call at 4 a.m. from local police that she had been picked up and one of us had to come and sign for her. I also need to point out that this was not a state placement so we didn’t have a caseworker or anything like that, she was with us through a voluntary placement by her dad and all we had over her was a POA so we were definitely flying blind. Needless to say, Christmas that year was not exactly a banner year in our household. She didn’t last much longer in our house after that, by her own choice. She had reactive attachment disorder, inhibited. We had another foster child at the same time, also a teenager, also RAD, but disinhibited, who was violent and aggressive. She was actually a state placement and lasted 6 months. Needless to say a lot of our holidays were challenging with these two and as a result, we decided Christmas this year needed to be special.
Second, not only had our family gone through the changes I just mentioned, but my 9 year old admitted this year that she no longer believed in Santa Claus. Nothing in the world takes the fun out of Christmas quite like knowing that the Elf on the Shelf and Santa’s reindeer food wasn’t going to have any real effect. My husband was bummed, my kids were listless and I was up to my armpits in flour and sugar trying to make cookies to capture at least some of the holiday cheer I remembered from a child. I am also very flighty and sometimes lack the wherewithal to pay attention to small tasks, so let’s just say the cookies were not exactly ideal. Baking has never been my strong suit.
Nonetheless, I was determined that this year we would have the most amazing Christmas ever, complete with making cookies, watching movies, drinking hot cocoa and making up for the previous two years and all the holidays that were affected by outside forces beyond my children’s control. Christmas was a Wednesday. My vacation started on Monday. By Tuesday at noon I had started day drinking. Thankfully, my husband took off Thursday and Friday of the same week so we were able to divide and conquer, which essentially meant I retreated to my room and he dealt with the squabbles over Christmas gifts and who was allowed to do what. I had just gotten Hoopla through my library and somehow this book ended up as the top match for me with my interests. I devoured it in one day.
Sleep My Children, Forever, is the twisted and tragic story of Ellen Boehm and her three children, Stacy, Steven and David. Ellen Boehm was 18 when she met her husband, Paul, and though he was quite a bit older, and had several children of his own that he had walked away from, he was her bus driver and the two started a relationship. From the outset, it’s clear that Ellen was desperate to escape her home life with her mother, even though it’s not clear throughout the entirety of the book why she had such a problem with her mom. Ellen, like many young women from broken homes, had father figure issues as well as a longing to develop her own family. Her father had when she was a young woman, due to issues with alcohol, and her mother
Ellen’s marriage to Paul didn’t last but the two of them had three children as a result. In short order, Paul soon walked away from Ellen and the children and moved on to a new woman, whom he had also met on his bus route, leaving Ellen to raise the three young Boehm children on her own. You should probably know that Paul, while painted as a victim a lot in the book, is himself a scandalous character. It’s not as if Paul, who was old enough to be Ellen’s dad when they met, came to her and simply told her he was leaving. Instead, he lied to Ellen, telling her that he was receiving treatment for an illness he had contracted during the Vietnam War, when he ran off with a much younger woman.
The result of Paul leaving was Ellen lost her home, her second income from him and her financial stability. What followed was years of Ellen hustling from one thing to another trying to provide for her kids and her fantasy of meeting and marrying a wrestling giant. Things start going off the rails around the time her youngest turns 4 and after the first child dies of mysterious circumstances, chocked up to crib death at the time (itself a specious cause of death given the child’s age) it just goes haywire from there. What follows is a long string of insurance policies and financial windfall as a second child dies as mysteriously as the first. The third child escaped death, but only because a hairdryer in the bathtub incident didn’t prove to be fatal.
The book itself is an easy, if not totally one-sided read, of the history of Ellen’s lies and manipulations to law enforcement, friends, colleagues and extended family. Ellen is not a mastermind and you can see her defense start to unravel almost immediately. It’s a fascinating read because honestly, there isn’t any Munchausen by proxy here, it’s simple greed that led to the death of two young children and the attempted murder of a third. And yet, as a defense attorney, I couldn’t help but read the entire book thinking that there was evidence missing, things that were explainable by non-nefarious motivations, and even the possibility that this woman did not get a fair trial.
But beyond the legal complications, is where I can understand what she was going through, which makes me just a little worried as a parent. Parenting is hard work y’all. Two days of being with my kids, by myself, and I was ready to start shopping adoption agencies. And I make decent money. So does my husband. And my kids are old enough to be, essentially, independent of need from me. Yet, there was something, I don’t know what it was, that made me decide by Tuesday afternoon that if my husband wasn’t off for the next three days, they would all be attending boarding school in Switzerland. I can’t imagine being a single mother with three young children, and trying to make ends meet while still being able to have a life of your own. Paul, the ex-husband, was no help either, and failed to ever pay his child support. Ellen Boehm, who by herself is a monster for her choices, may have been a different parent/person had some services been in place to help her through that time. As a parent, I can understand that desperation, wondering where the rent was coming from or how food was going to be put on the table (we certainly struggled in the first few years of our marriage) but luckily (at least not yet) I have never felt the need to resort to the wholesale termination of my children. If nothing else, it reminded me that, we as a society, can and should do better. It also reminded me that as a mother, making it look like an accident rarely works. So, I guess it’s Switzerland for my kids.