For Obese Girl, Battle of Blame Comes Too Late
Marlene Corrigan has been tried in the harsh court of public opinion and found terribly wanting.
Now she stands before a Superior Court judge here, charged with abusing her 13-year-old daughter, Christina--a child who was as invisible in life as she is sensational in death.
Thirteen months ago, Christina Corrigan died in the living room of her El Cerrito home. She weighed 680 pounds, was covered with bedsores and was naked but for a sheet.
There were feces in the folds of her body. She had not been to school in a year, had not been out of the house for three months, had not moved from the spot where she died for days.
Details of Christina’s life and death have transfixed an increasingly overweight country obsessed with obesity and blame. They have provided fodder for talk shows around the world and raised troubling questions about parental responsibility and control, about doctors and diets.
They have filled Judge Richard C. Arnason’s courtroom with journalists and activists from the “size acceptance” movement. And they have elicited an international chorus of “How could you” directed at a mother who now faces up to six years in a state prison if convicted:
How could you let your child get so fat? How could you not know she was in such bad shape? How could you let her die in squalor? How could you let the doctors ignore her? Again and again and again, how could you let your child get so fat?
To which Corrigan’s defense attorney Michael Cardoza responds: “To blame her for this is unbelievable. . . . The truth is that this little girl fell between the cracks every step of the way.”
Yes, Marlene Corrigan’s daughter died at a weight rarely reached by human beings, but their life together was more than just a parable of pounds, Cardoza argues.
It was the modern American existence taken to extremes: Single mother of troubled child and sole caretaker of elderly parents reaches the end of her rope, and no one cares.
Corrigan, a 48-year-old federal worker, also tended a mother plagued with dementia and a father suffering from diabetes. Her father died eight months before Christina; her mother died a month after.
“If the child in this case had been an average-size child, I don’t believe there ever would have been a case,” said Marilyn Wann, a self-described “fat rights activist” who attends the trial in support of Corrigan. “There would have been sympathy for the mother. ‘Wow, your daughter died. That’s too bad.’ ”
That’s all well and good, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Haynes, who is prosecuting the case against Corrigan. But the mother still should have noticed and taken care of more than 100 deep bedsores that afflicted her child from torso to feet.
“The chief theory in our case is the wounds,” Haynes said in an interview. “Marlene Corrigan either knew about them or reasonably should have known.”
Haynes argues that Corrigan is not being prosecuted for felony child abuse for having a child who was grossly overweight. But he admits that weight cannot be separated from the prosecution of this high-profile case.
“She would not have developed the bedsores if she had not been immobile,” he said. “It is unlikely she would have become immobile if not for the weight. The immobility led to the bedsores.”
Christina Ann Corrigan was born in March 1983, a very normal 7 pounds, 11 ounces. She went on her first diet at age 2, when her doctor--affiliated with a Kaiser Health Plan HMO--suggested replacing whole milk with skim.
At age 3, her pediatrician testified in court, she weighed 60 pounds, double the average. At this point, Dr. Anjana Ray said, she and Corrigan discussed Christina’s rapid weight gain for the first time.
“We discussed eating habits, balanced meals, smaller portions, and encouraged greater activity,” Ray said.
By the time Christina was 5, she weighed 114 pounds, went to a dietitian and was restricted to 1,300 calories a day. Thyroid tests seeking an answer to the weight gain came back negative.
At 7, she weighed 190; at 8 she weighed 237 pounds, when the average is 55 pounds. She last saw a Kaiser doctor at age 9, according to medical records. She never saw a specialist about her weight.
“This little girl is not only off the chart, she’s off the page,” Cardoza said to Ray in court. “Did that not alert you to send her to a specialist?”
“No,” the doctor testified, defending her and Kaiser’s care of the child. “If the trend had continued, she would have been referred.”
By the time Christina refused to return to the medical offices, her mother had taken her to the doctor about 90 times. But they had not shown up at regularly scheduled weigh-ins and dietitian appointments, according to medical records.
Although she was sometimes teased for her size by older children, one friend at Fairmont Elementary School recalled that Christina’s life was not so bad.
“We were both part of a group of girls who were of the same age and academic excellence,” wrote AnnMarie B. Darrow in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. “All of us learned to see Christina, not as an overweight child, but for the person she was--the goodness in her heart and the sweet, understanding and friendly girl we all knew.”
But after she completed elementary school in 1995, she was never in a classroom again. Her junior high school was only seven blocks from her home, but they were steep blocks, and she could not traverse them.
Her mother asked the school for help, Cardoza said, but was rebuffed. A family member, alarmed, reported Corrigan to Child Protective Services, but an investigation ended with no charges.
“Marlene tells CPS, ‘Can you help me with the fat issue?’ ” Cardoza said. “They said, ‘No, we don’t do fat.’ Once again the village is turning its back on Marlene--the school, Kaiser, CPS.”
Still, asked Haynes, why did a parent who cleaned up a child who could not make it to the bathroom ignore deep skin ulcers that were months old?
Dr. Kent Carson, a dermatologist who testified for the prosecution, said that Corrigan should have noticed the sores. Carson also said there was evidence of dried feces on Christina’s body that was 2 to 4 months old.
“There would have been a terrible odor from this little girl’s skin,” Carson testified.
According to a medical examiner, Christina died of heart failure caused by obesity. But the girl did not have more than what is called a “visual autopsy.”
The trial resumes Monday.
The Corrigan case has played out on tabloid television around the world, has transfixed talk radio audiences from coast to coast and is the topic of intense Internet chat.
“We’ve been on German television, English television, TV and radio across this country. We’ve been on morning shows in New York and Philadelphia,” Cardoza said. “The ‘Leeza’ show was my gauge for a jury.”
Unlike big-bucks legal defense teams, Cardoza did not hire a pricey jury consultant to figure out whether to place the fate of Corrigan--who pleaded not guilty--in the hands of one judge or a dozen ordinary Americans.
Instead he appeared live on Leeza Gibbons’ television talk show and let the audience work its magic. After that, he said, the choice was simple. He picked a judge.
“We literally had one woman in the audience--she said, ‘You know, I’ve dieted all my life. I’m to a point where I’m not fat. I don’t think anybody should be fat,’ ” Cardoza recounted. “I thought, ‘My god.’ ”
Most of Corrigan’s support these days comes from the ranks of the so-called “size acceptance movement.”
Members of the movement are in court daily, “to bear witness, if only silently . . . to become informed, to also show solidarity,” said Frances White, president of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance, who took time off from her job to be in court three days before Christmas. “We’re watching. You can’t get away with this.”
Judy Freespirit, head of the group’s feminist caucus, came to court on an electric cart and sent the bailiff off for a “straight, solid chair without arms.” All chairs in Arnason’s courtroom have arms, automatically limiting who can sit in Department 28X. “I couldn’t be on a jury here,” she said.
Wann, who edits a zine called FAT!SO?, handed out copies of her hot-pink publication in the courtroom and granted interviews in the hallway.
“Our society is interested in the spectacle and the freak show,” Wann said. “It’s not really interested in helping fat children lead lives of respect and potential. . . . There was no money for a bus to take this child to school. There was no money in the Kaiser system to do anything other than blame her for eating too much and put her on ineffective diets. But there is plenty of money to pay lawyers to prosecute her mother.”