On the face of it, expat Canadians Felicia and Jeff Boots were the sort of shiny, privileged couple many Londoners are pre-programmed to envy. They had two beautiful young children (Lily Skye, 14 months, and 10-week-old Mason) and had just moved into a $1.9-million five-bedroom house on a quiet street in a part of south London known as “Nappy Valley”—named for its upper-middle-class café culture of stay-home mummies pushing prams while their husbands rake in bonuses in the city. They had emigrated from the Toronto area so Mr. Boots could pursue his high-finance career in London. They were the last sort of family who would be classified as “at risk.” And yet they most certainly were.
When Jeff Boots came home from the office one evening last May, he found his wife sitting in the dark on the staircase rocking and hugging herself. She asked him not to go upstairs but he did. There, on the floor of a walk-in closet he found the tiny bodies of his suffocated children and a handwritten note from their mother.
Before the paramedics arrived, Jeff Boots was heard wailing in the street. “My lovely son, my beautiful daughter,” his raw anguish shattering the evening air. Felicia Boots was led from the house. She was later charged with their murders.
But last week the charges against Felicia Boots were dropped. In what the presiding judge described as “an almost indescribably sad case,” the court at London’s Old Bailey heard how Felicia Boots had suffered from postpartum depression ever since the birth of her daughter.
Properly medicated, her symptoms abated and she felt much better, but when she became pregnant again she was concerned about the side effects on her unborn child and after Mason was born and she was breastfeeding, she became “irrationally worried about the consequences for him.” In her own statement to the court, Mrs. Boots said: “I was a good mum and I never meant this to happen.”
In the months since Felicia Boots was taken into custody, the British tabloids dug up a predictable pile of dirt on her, little of which is instructive in understanding her case. The fact that she was brought up a Jehovah’s Witness in Oakville, Ont., had a failed first marriage within her faith and a brother who killed himself may or may not have contributed to the mental illness that led her to take her children’s life. What is instructive is the fact that she functioned well as a mother while on medication and very badly off it, and that her symptoms, which may have seemed relatively mild to her loved ones and doctor, were heavily masked and quickly escalated beyond her control.
In the days after the judge’s verdict, the denizens of Nappy Valley were doing what the English middle classes do best: avoiding the topic all together. One resident of nearby Wandsworth, in south London, told me in confidence that most of her neighbours find the case so sad they can’t bring themselves to talk about it. “It’s just so unfortunate and there’s no one to be angry at, is there? What’s the point of gossiping about something so tragic and random?” she said.
While it’s true that laying blame in the aftermath of such a tragedy might seem pointless—a view taken by much of the British tabloid press who have remained uncharacteristically mute on the judge’s ruling that Mrs. Boots was not at fault for the death of her children—one family friend did come forward to say that it was unfortunate more had not been done to help before tragedy struck. “Something should have been done to help her sooner,” George McRae, who lives near Boots’s parents in Oakville, told the London Evening Standard. “You notice things about people, you know something is wrong.”
The judge’s verdict absolving Felicia Boots of all wrongdoing has been applauded by those hoping to raise awareness of the dangers of untreated postpartum depression. Erin Baker, a writer for the Daily Telegraph, wrote that she was comforted by “the acknowledgement from someone, particularly a man in a professional capacity, that postnatal depression is ‘beyond the control’ of the person suffering it.”
It’s difficult to say what we might learn from such a tragic and anomalous case, but one thing is heartbreakingly clear: even in a circle of privilege, no one is safe from the creep of mental illness. Postpartum depression knows no prejudice—class, race or otherwise. It chooses the 35-year-old banker’s wife as easily as it chooses the teenage mother on welfare. Had Felicia Boots been properly treated her children would be with her today. It’s as simple—and painful—as that.