We’ve heard of abandoned newborns, usually the infants of teenagers too frightened to turn to adults for help during pregnancy. 17-year-old Melissa Drexler was one such teenager with a bizarre twist: she is probably the only teenager to give birth at her prom, then return to the dance and enjoy the rest of the evening. Seriously. As she gave birth, Melissa told a friend, “Go tell the boys I’ll be right out.” That is, after her little boy was out.
Melissa, a vocational-technical student, attended Lacey Township High School in the Forked River section of Lacey Township, New Jersey. Five feet seven inches tall, and weighing 60 kg (130 pounds), she allegedly showed no signs of her pregnancy. On June 6, 1997, Melissa arrived at the senior prom between 7:30 and 7:45 P.M. Melissa went straight to a washroom and gave birth in a toilet stall. Picture that scenario if you will. A young woman in the hardest stage of labour somehow quietly birthed her baby with no one in the adjoining stalls being aware of anything amiss. Melissa Drexler must have an amazing capacity for pain, almost as amazing as her classmates’ capacity for naivety.
Melissa then retrieved the baby from the toilet bowl, cut the umbilical cord on the serrated edge of a sanitary napkin dispenser (a tragic irony), wrapped the baby in several garbage sacks, and deposited the bundle in a trash can. She then returned to the dance floor. Seriously. She left the washroom and for macabre reasons of her own, requested the DJ to play “The Unforgiven” by Metallica. Indeed. What is almost as remarkable is Melissa’s ability to birth her child then dance the night away. This woman is a baby factory, something that doesn’t bode well.
Finally a classmate clued in and informed a teacher about blood in the bathroom. A significant amount, I should imagine. A janitor responded and became suspicious of the weight of the trash bag. Emergency workers attempted to resuscitate the baby for two hours without success. In the decision as to whether to charge Melissa with any crime, it had to be determined whether the infant was in fact, born alive. Prosecutor John Kaye informed the media that if the baby’s lungs were functioning on their own they could file murder or manslaughter charges against Melissa. Tests of the baby’s lungs for signs that it may have drowned were ”inconclusive.’‘
A well-known forensic pathologist, Dr. Michael Baden, argued it was possible that the child was stillborn and the air found in the lungs was put there by emergency medical technicians who tried to resuscitate the baby when they arrived about an hour after the birth. However Kaye stated,’‘We found some marks on the child’s neck which led us to believe that he might have been strangled and not asphyxiated or drowned, but the medical examiner wasn’t sure if it was strangulation or asphyxiation.”
Melissa was nicknamed the “The Prom Mom“ by the media. Personally, I refer to her as a murderer. In the time since she was first arrested, Melissa lightened her very dark brown hair to a medium blonde. Some reporters who had published older photographs of Melissa, took little notice of her. Nonchalant and unaccompanied, she walked past them, entered the well of the courtroom and sat down at the defense table before the start of the proceedings.Originally charged with murder, Drexler avoided a jury trial and pled guilty to aggravated manslaughter on August 20, 1998. Prosecutors agreed to a plea agreement to avoid a trial, partly because inconclusive autopsy evidence of whether the baby was dead or alive at the time of delivery would be bitterly contested by prosecution and defense experts.
Melissa addressed the crowded courtroom by admitting “the baby was born alive. I was aware of what I was doing when I placed the baby in the bag, and I was further aware that what I did would most certainly result in the death of the baby… I knew I was pregnant. I concealed the pregnancy from everyone. On the morning of the prom, my water broke.” Tellingly, Melissa offered no apology and showed no remorse. Her defense lawyer, Steven Secare, said Melissa showed no emotion because she was nervous. Uh-huh. Whatever.
Prosecutor Kaye was generous: “[Melissa] felt that being pregnant was a very serious problem, something she was ashamed of and wanted to hide. She isolated herself. She did not tell her parents. She kept this a secret from her boyfriend. ‘There is no question, from a psychological point of view, that she was suffering from emotional stress, and one of the keys in showing her mental condition was how she isolated herself from her family and from her boyfriend. She just denied it.” How a young woman could completely conceal a pregnancy for 9 months from friends and family is a mystery to me. I’ve heard some women do not physically show their pregnancies at all. Fine. I can buy into that one. What truly amazes me is where Melissa Drexler got the stamina to hide her condition and not turn to anyone, even the boy who got her pregnant, for help and emotional support.
Judge John A. Ricciardi sentenced Melissa to 15 years in prison, the maximum penalty. On November 26, 2001, she was released on parole after serving a little over three years.
The Nickelback song “Throw Yourself Away“, which appeared on their 2003 album The Long Road, is about the case. Along with that of Amy Grossberg and Brian Peterson, and Alison Leach, Melissa also inspired the Family Guy musical number Prom Night Dumpster Baby. In The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, Thomas Hine uses Melissa’s case to embody “the grotesque consequences of the teenage mystique”, or the harm from qualities associated with teenagers. Well, certain teenagers:
I’m going to begin with a horror story, one that is not at all typical of young people’s experience today. It does, however, illustrate how the teenage mystique provokes us to draw spurious generalizations from a singular abhorrent act and how it can lead to strange and destructive forms of denial.
On the night of June 6, 1997, an eighteen-year-old woman from Fork River, New Jersey, gave birth to a six-pound-six-ounce baby boy in the women’s rest room of the catering hall where her high school senior prom was taking place. Her son was found dead, tied in a plastic bag in a trash can in the lavatory where he was born. His mother, meanwhile, was dancing, smiling, and to all outward appearances, enjoying what’s supposed to be a magical night. This story excited tremendous public interest, as true horrors do. Always there are questions. How could she not have known that she was pregnant? Didn’t her parents, with whom she was living, know? And how about her boyfriend of two years, the presumed father? The explanation that she had taken to wearing baggy clothes didn’t seem convincing.
The bigger, more fundamental question was how she could have done it. She said she believed the baby was born dead. (Prosecutors felt otherwise, and in the end, she pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter and was sentenced to a fifteen-year jail term.) But even a miscarriage spurs more emotion than this young woman displayed. According to one account, she touched up her makeup at the bathroom mirror after discarding her child, then emerged smiling and animated, mingling with her classmates as if absolutely nothing had happened. When faced with shocking events, people search for reasons and meanings. In this case, an explanation was close at hand: She was a contemporary teenager, a member of a generation that’s out of control. – T. Hine
I would argue vehemently with Kline’s ludicrous assessment of this generation’s youth. Let’s hope this “contemporary teenager” isn’t simply a “member of a generation that’s out of control.” The very sensationalism of Melissa Drexler’s case itself proves this isn’t so; if her case was daily news, she wouldn’t have made headlines.
Update: Melissa was released from prison, 11/2001 at age 23 to go home and live with her parents. She was noted to be a model prisoner, hence the reason for her release. Maybe so, but this kid scares me. There’s pathological and then there’s Melissa Drexler. In a truly staggering irony, if the baby’s birth had taken place only three days later, Melissa would have been subject to a new state law requiring those convicted of infanticide to serve at least 80 percent of their sentence before becoming eligible for parole. Her lawyer, Secare, stated Melissa took fashion courses while in prison and made plans to work in the industry. Better than becoming a midwife.