This weekend, the New York Times ran a long piece about a 79-year-old man named Richard Shaver who murdered his 80-year-old wife, Alma, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and then killed himself. In a storytelling decision that has infuriated disability-rights activists, the piece was written not as a violent-crime story, but as a poignant romance. As the story’s writer, Corina Knoll, tweeted: “A man shot his wife with Alzheimer’s, then killed himself. I wanted to understand their story. Turns out, it was one of love.”
The piece took readers through the Shavers’ love story, describing how their courtship began at a high-school dance in 1956 and lasted for over 60 years, during which time they raised three daughters. “They were absolutely soul mates — crazy about each other,” says a neighbor quoted in the piece. After Alma was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, their daughters tried to intervene, but, as they told the Times, Richard insisted he was “taking care of it” and refused to take their advice or assistance. This June, he crawled into bed while she was sleeping and shot her, then himself.
The Shavers’ children seem eager to read their father’s act as one of tenderness, which may have affected the way Knoll framed the story. “So common, yet so personally cruel — [dementia] comes with no road map for those tending to the afflicted,” she writes. The piece doesn’t make it clear whether Alma might have once made an end-of-life plan with her husband, and it could be impossible to know now that both parties are dead. But the critics who found fault with the piece say the way the story is told exemplifies everything wrong with how the media covers crimes against disabled people.
Keah Brown, a 28-year-old writer, disability-rights activist, and the author of The Pretty One, was one of the many voices who took to Twitter to protest the framing of the story. In choosing to position the Shavers’ story as a love story, she argues, the Times is effectively suggesting that murder is justifiable if the victim is enough of a “burden” to the perpetrator.
“This isn’t just about the Times piece; this happens all the time,” says Brown, citing estimates that a person with disabilities is killed by a family member or caregiver approximately once a week. “We don’t talk about it because there’s always this need to identify with the killers. We sweep aside the victim and say, ‘Oh this person was under so much stress because of the toll it takes to care for a disabled person.’ It tells people that all their lives boil down to is a burden.”
A paper by David Perry for the Ruderman Family Foundation compiled a number of examples of media stories where murders of disabled people were framed as “mercy killings,” or were otherwise written to elicit sympathy for the perpetrator and erase the victim. A man who murdered his sick wife and two disabled kids is described by a neighbor as having “loved that family very much,” a Waco man who killed his sick wife “ended [her] suffering,” while an Alameda man who killed his wife did so “to take her out of her pain.” According to Brown, this sort of coverage propagates the notion that the lives of disabled people are not worth living. “When you’re writing these pieces about disabled people being murdered, they’re saying to the people reading it, ‘It’s okay for you to get to the place where you murder a disabled person because they’re too much for you to handle,’” she says. “This kind of story does a disservice both to people who have end-of-life-care plans, and to the rest of us, who are desperate to live in a world where we’re seen as equals.”
For Brown, the Times story is not an isolated incident but a reflection of a broader tendency to erase disabled people as the subjects of their own stories. “When are we going to stop seeing disabled people as burdens? Because I’ve worked all my life not to see myself that way,” she says. “For me, as a disabled person, what this says to me is: Your life isn’t worthy. And people should kill you, if it becomes too much.”
We have reached out to Corina Knoll for comment and will update if we get a response.