‘It Came to Me on a Whim’

‘A dreadfully sad occurrence in the quiet village of Vesene. A mother drowned her three children in the washtub while her husband was out at work. Naturally this happened in a moment of insanity, the pastor wrote in his diary that evening.’

I didn’t quite know what to expect from a book about a young Swedish woman who killed her three small children Tor, Efraim and Lucia one cold day in March 1929. True crime at its most gruesome and poignant, and very personal to people affected by it, at the time and now.

Ingeborg Andersson remained quiet and detached throughout her ordeal: interrogation by the local sheriff, being arrested and transported to the prison, and attending the trial. The only thing she could think of and say in response to questioning was that the impulse to do that came to her on a whim. But how can you explain that ‘whim’? What was it really? What has happened to Ingeborg and pushed her to commit such a crime in circumstances that on the surface seemed completely ordinary. Her husband Artur was a kind, calm and hardworking man, a devoted husband and father. His world collapsed in a split second when he saw three lifeless bodies next to the large copper washtub in the bedroom of their well-kept house. The laundry wasn’t done, the lunch wasn’t cooked and the wood he had fetched wasn’t important anymore. How could such mundane things be in the face of tragedy? He was no longer the object of much envy in the village but a totally destroyed human being. Yet the novel’s aim isn’t him but the woman unable to understand own actions.

Ingeborg’s grand-niece Maria Bouroncle felt compelled to follow the story which has been a taboo in her family and a deeply hidden secret. No doubt shame must have been one of the reasons why the past events have not been mentioned. Even at the time of the crime, so much depended on the perception by others, and presenting only one’s best sides to the community. Why talk about a mentally unstable female killer and her victims? Initially Bouroncle was shocked when she had discovered fragments of the story. Afterwards she began to arrange own feelings and questions. It Came to Me on a Whim became her search for truth, motives and reasons, and most importantly her quest to understand the timid woman who had murdered her children and although knew she had deserved the punishment, she could not comprehend her own mind and emotions. Ingeborg was aware of basic religious principles but nothing more complex, relating to social norms: ‘’You were not in full command of your senses when it happened, Ingeborg. You have been very ill and are in need of care.” “Going unpunished is out of the question, since I am so well now,” continued Ingeborg. “In another life I hope to go unpunished”. The process of imagining situations and conversations between prison staff, the doctor in charge and then the hospital employees, as well as uncovering processes that might have been in Ingeborg’s mind seem also a difficult personal journey for the author. Certainly access to archives helped to map the events: ‘The purpose of the psychiatric examination was to assess patients’ grounding in reality and their conformity to social norms, and to test their understanding of religion, history and geography and their general knowledge. The exercises included interpreting proverbs, critically examining apparent illogicalities, and answering questions on abstract and ethical concepts.‘ The result in the form of the matter-of-fact yet compassionate book shows the possible state of the care institutions, and empathy in portraying a deeply-troubled young mother. The author spent years going through various documents, focusing on extensive research into penal history in Sweden about a hundred years ago, and investigating letters and papers connected to the antiheroine.

Tom Ellett’s translation from Swedish is excellent, and I assume it must have been a bit of a challenge when translating Ingeborg’s original letters with their simplicity, repetitions and poor language. She knew limitations of some of her skills: ‘I write ugly’ but had no idea how her actions impacted others, especially her husband: ‘Her emotional side became completely dead […] She gradually brightens up enough that she can feel remorse and be reasoned with, but still exhibits, at the time of writing, catatonic and demented traits.’ Nevertheless, the book is very much alive.

You can find out more about the author on her website Maria Bouroncle.

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