Deaths, Kids, Pregnancy / Paternity, Suicide

In Defense of the Suicidal Columbia Law Mother

Cynthia Wachenheim

Elie’s story earlier today about Cynthia Wachenheim, a Columbia Law School graduate and New York court attorney who took her own life and almost killed her infant son, has generated a lot of controversy. See, for example, the more than 100 comments on the original story.

Here at Above the Law, we believe in providing a wide range of viewpoints on different issues. Keep reading for a detailed and heartfelt message from a friend of Wachenheim who provides a counterpoint to Elie’s point of view….

In his post, Elie criticized Cindy Wachenheim for almost killing her own son. Elie called Wachenheim “selfish” and argued that, even if she had mental health issues, she should have sought treatment for them.

In the message below, which we reprint with the author’s permission, a friend of Cindy’s comes to her defense. We thank Professor Elizabeth Nowicki, who grew up together with Cindy in upstate New York, for sharing her insights and her memories of Cindy.

Dear Elie and David,

I was friends with Cindy Wachenheim, the lawyer who jumped to her death with her baby strapped to her chest…. The story on “Above the Law” is, with all due respect, gravely inaccurate in the impression it conveys, and I urge you (again, with much respect) to consider an update.

My older sister (a psychiatrist) graduated from high school with Cindy — Cindy was #1 in the class, my sister was #2. They were good friends, and Cindy was later in my sister’s wedding. Cindy and I both went to Columbia Law School; I kept in touch with her every five or so years since, although I had not spoken with her very recently. My parents and hers were well-acquainted, as we all lived in a relatively small town outside Albany. (Both of Cindy’s parents have died, and my father recently died, but my mother remembers Cindy’s parents well.)

Cindy was by FAR the “anti-lawyer,” one of those true public servant folks. She had a Columbia Law degree — she could have made millions — but serving the public in her own quiet way is where her heart was, just like her parents. She was a very gentle, quiet, loving, kind woman. She was both brilliant and rational. I told the media last night there is nobody who was LESS likely to kill herself and try to harm her baby, in my mind. My family cannot stop crying, nor can the other families in our community who knew her.

My impression is that she likely had post-partum PSYCHOSIS, not post-partum depression, and, if I were a betting woman, I’d bet her doc missed it, and treated it with anti-depressants, which are known (by mental health experts) to make this type of psychosis WORSE. PSYCHOSIS, Elie. Not depression, not anxiety, not sadness. PSYCHOSIS. But it wasn’t easy to recognize (if I am right about it), because she wasn’t hallucinating unicorns and spirits — she was hallucinating about her baby perhaps having something like cerebral palsy… due to her allowing the baby to trip (like every other baby in the world has done). So it *seemed* that she was rational and was just obsessive about taking her baby to doctors. But she wasn’t, as best I can tell. If I am correct, she was far, far, far more ill than was realized, with the tragic result that ensued.

Be clear: this woman NEVER would have harmed herself, much less her infant or *anyone* else, in her right mind. Never. Moreover, her 13-page missive is described as “incoherent” — INCOHERENT. She wrote for judges for a living. If she were in her right mind, the missive would not be “incoherent.”

This is not a crime, not an act of a selfish woman, not an act of evil — it is an act of grave, grave mental illness that appears to have been woefully missed.

Some things that Above the Law writes, like the Tulane Mr. Rogers’s Shoe or Racist Student Party stories, are painfully accurate. This story about Cindy is not, and it is damaging, because it fails to recognize the grave mental illness (if not likely psychosis) issue.

I urge you to update the story…. I apologize if I sound inappropriately critical of you — it was only after I researched the psychosis issue that any of this fit together for me, so I am sure the situation is likely mind-blowing for you, too.

Please do the right thing for Cindy’s memory, for those in the community with mental illness, and to raise awareness regarding serious mental illness, to avoid this type of tragedy in the future (assuming I am correct about the postpartum psychosis point).

Elizabeth Nowicki

Earlier: Attorney Jumps To Her Death Cradling Her Baby; The Baby Is Fine

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