Juliet Guichon and Ian Mitchell comment on the role of self-identity in the inquest surrounding the tragic death of Ashley Smith.
The Ontario inquest into the prison death of teenager Ashley Smith raises the question whether the Coroner will have enough information to help prevent future tragedies.
Born on January 29, 1988, Ashley Smith was adopted at 5 days of age by Coralee Smith and Herbert Gober. They stated that she had a normal childhood in Moncton, New Brunswick. When Ashley entered puberty, however, they noted distinct behavioural changes. By age 15, Ashley had often been suspended from school and had appeared before juvenile court 14 times. When remanded to the New Brunswick Youth Centre, she was involved in more than 800 reported incidents and at least 150 self-harm attempts.
On October 19, 2007 in a segregation cell at a Kitchener, Ontario prison, Ashley Smith tied a ligature around her neck as she had many times before. This time she asphyxiated while the guards were outside, under orders not to intervene unless she stopped breathing.
Ashley Smith’s behaviour in tying ligatures around her neck and the prison system’s response are shocking. The purpose of the publicly funded Coroner’s Inquest is not to lay blame, but rather to learn lessons that might help prevent future similar tragedies.
The Inquest has heard testimony that Ashley had been diagnosed with mental illness. It also revealed that Ashley might have been confused about her identity. Inquiry into the identity aspect of Ashley’s case might illuminate both her behaviour and the prison system’s response to help prevent future tragedies.
Journalist Christie Blatchford reported the testimony of three guards: Ashley told them each that she had questions about her family. Ashley told one guard, “who she thought was her mother wasn’t her mother.” Blatchford also reported that hours before Ashley died, she told a guard about “her confusion as to who was her biological mother, her confusion about her biological nephew, [that] her sister was her biological mother.”
When the five jurors were invited to question these guards on February 21, 2013, two of them attempted to learn more about Ashley’s alleged confusion about her identity and how it might have affected her state of mind. Yet, the coroner, Dr. John R. Carlisle, who is both a medical doctor and a lawyer, stopped them. Dr. Carlisle said, “What was in Ashley’s mind, what she knew, is relevant, but the fact of it is not. We must not ask [Ashley’s mother] what the fact of that matter is.”
In effect, the coroner ruled that the identity of Ashley’s biological parents and siblings is a private family matter and should not be subject to public scrutiny in an inquest. Yet, 40% of the jurors asked the question, and other jurors might have wanted to know the answer so that they could effectively and fairly discharge their public duty.
Four weeks later, a juror made the same inquiry. She asked a psychiatrist who had seen Ashley to evaluate the extent to which Ashley’s struggles with her identity might have affected her illness. The psychiatrist replied, “it would have contributed.” But, he said, much of the background information he received was redacted: “So I had to read between the lines. To me, it was a giant black box.”
Clearly, no one wants to add to the grief of Ashley’s family. It might cause them great pain to reveal their knowledge of how Ashley came into being. Yet, truth of one’s conception and the anonymity of one’s genetic parents are not small matters, especially for the person concerned. Indeed, secrecy and anonymity present serious obstacles to the creation of one’s personal identity.
People form their identities by finding answers to the fundamental question, “Who am I?” Identity provides a sense of self, purpose, and place in the larger community. If Ashley did not know who she was, then this fact might be significant to an inquest that has deliberately adopted a broad scope to determine “by what means the deceased came to her death.”
The loss of knowledge of one’s personal history denies an individual an important means by which to create a sense of wellbeing, belonging and self-mastery. Those who experience such a loss might find that others do not recognize their suffering because many people believe that the truth about the conception concerns adults more than the resulting child. Lack of recognition of the child’s loss can result in an invisible and disenfranchised grief. This is grief about a loss negated by society and viewed as a non-loss.
People whose grief is not recognized can be cut off from social supports and have few opportunities to express and resolve their feelings. They can live in a state of chronic sorrow. This chronic sorrow might lead to pain and isolation. The very subject of sorrow might seem shameful and the unrecognized loss can be compounded by powerlessness.
As expert Jean Benward writes, people coping with secrecy about their personal history probably find it difficult to tell people about themselves. Lack of self-disclosure can limit the choice of interpersonal coping strategies. Social isolation reduces the possibility of forming social support networks.
Knowledge of one’s origins is a fact of life that most of us take for granted. It is the very psychological ground we walk upon. For someone who has other mental health challenges, the lack of this foundation could have been significant.
If Ashley lacked knowledge of her identity, then did that lack contribute to the means by which “the deceased came to her death”? If inquiry into relevant matters is blocked, then will the public money have been well spent?
Juliet Guichon is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences and Ian Mitchell is a Professor of Pediatrics, Faculty of Medicine, University of Calgary. They are co-editors of The Right to Know One’s Origins.