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How can parents lack a conscience? The 'Me Syndrome'

By LEANORA MINAI

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 11, 1999


The day Sabrina disappeared, Steve and Marlene Aisenberg appeared on television and begged, "Please bring our baby back to us."

Federal prosecutors charge that the real Marlene Aisenberg is the one who shouted at her husband a month later behind closed doors: "The baby's dead and buried! . . . You did it!"

Aisenberg supporters have raised the prospect that their recorded private conversations have been taken out of context to support their federal indictment on charges of conspiracy and obstructing the investigation of Sabrina's disappearance.

But if Marlene and Steve Aisenberg are the calculating, callous parents the audio tapes portray, they join a growing list of parents who behaved one way in public, while secretly caring only for themselves.

"It takes a real cold, calculated person to withhold something like that, especially with a child," said Steve Aspinall, a St. Petersburg homicide detective.

Aspinall calls it the "Me Syndrome." Some people, parents included, lack a conscience and care only about staying out of prison.

"It's me, me, me, me," Aspinall said. "It's not, "Hey, we had a little girl here who got killed and somebody needs to answer for it."'

Doctors and criminologists suggest that in cases that involve parents killing their children, almost always the parents are driven by fear, a desire to protect themselves and to stay out of jail.

Several people Friday drew comparisons between the Aisenbergs and Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who in 1994 told the nation that her two young sons were kidnapped, then nine days later confessed that she strapped them in their car seats and watched them drown in a lake.

How could a mother do such a thing?

Charles Patrick Ewing, a New York lawyer and psychologist who wrote the book Fatal Families, said some parents can actually convince themselves of their innocence.

"We want to believe them, and because we want to believe them, they get an awful lot of positive reinforcement with the story they tell," Ewing said. "In some cases, I'm convinced the parents come to believe their own lies after a while."

Parents covering up their involvement in a child's death may be able to rationalize and maintain an elaborate hoax because they are insincere and had children for the wrong reasons, said Norman Poythress, a psychologist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

"To the extent that the motivation is to have children and a family, the harder it would be to do something like this," he said.

Sometimes, parents get the stamina to keep up their lie from society. They make their rounds on the television talk shows. They get help from everyday people who volunteer to comb the woods or hand out fliers.

"Not everybody has a conscience," said Charles Mutter, a Miami psychiatrist who testified for the state in the Ted Bundy prosecution. "They know what they did was wrong, but they don't care."

Some criminologists say the Aisenbergs might have been able to steer clear of any blame in their daughter's disappearance because they didn't have enough face-to-face contact with law enforcement.

Two days after the disappearance, and after they faced a round of questioning from FBI agents and sheriff's investigators, they hired a prominent defense attorney and stopped talking to authorities about the night Sabrina disappeared.

"As long as people are not put to the test by the authorities, it's fairly easy to maintain this kind of facade," Ewing said.

The Aisenbergs have appeared on Dateline NBC and Good Morning America, among other programs.

They also had backyard parties, including children's parties with horses and ponies. One allegation by prosecutors charges that they used donations intended to help find Sabrina to pay their credit card bills.

"They go on living, but they're always living with one eye over their shoulder waiting for the ax to fall," Ewing said. "That's got to be an awful existence."

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