It's hard for Adam Smith, 37, to say whether Barbara had been a good mother. Growing up, he and his sister Susan always had food on the table, a roof over their heads. They also saw a stream of husbands and boyfriends cycle in and out of the house. Some were better than others.
When Adam was about twelve, Barbara started drinking heavily and taking up with people who did the same. "My teenage years she wasn't around," Adam says. "She was on the bar scene, always out, hanging out with her boyfriend and this and that."
Perhaps not coincidentally, about the same time that Barbara started drinking a rift formed between her and her extended family. Previously, Adam's aunts, cousins and grandmother had been a steady presence. Then, all of sudden, Adam says, that extended family was cut out of his and his sister's lives.
The Smiths lived on Miami Street in Tower Grove South and later moved to the Hill when Adam started high school at St. Louis Career Academy. Before Adam and Susan were born, Barbara had worked as a mail carrier and in restaurants, but she later told her children that she had to give up work because of them. For a while, Adam split his time between his dad Terry's place and his mother's. Days with his dad mostly meant sitting at bars watching him drink. Things were marginally better with his mom. Still, he says, she'd always had a mean streak and regularly belittled him for no cause. When he was old enough, he didn't hesitate to get a job and move out.
"But I always got sucked back in," Adam says. "That was my mom."
Even when he was living out of the house, Adam says, Barbara was still "clingy" with him, calling, asking him to run errands to get groceries and pick up medicine. Analyzing their relationship now, he thinks she stunted his independence, preventing him from fully realizing the life he wanted for himself.
In the mid-'90s, Barbara met a metal worker named Steven Yaw at a bar on Macklind. Yaw doesn't recall the name of the bar, though he's sure it's long gone. He describes Barbara as having been "headstrong, stubborn, domineering, set in her ways." She once chewed him out for buying a car he could drive back and forth to work. "What are you going to use that for?!" she said, accusingly. They lived together for almost twenty years.
"I worked nights a whole lot, and when I went to work she'd be at the bar," says Yaw, who is now 65. "Saturday if I was off, we'd always go to the bar."
In 2017, Yaw left Barbara to go live in Houston. According to Adam, Yaw couldn't deal with Barbara's deteriorating health. Yaw says he left because he discovered Barbara had spent $40,000 of his money supporting her children. He'd given her access to his account to pay bills but had no idea she was going through that kind of cash on her kids' car payments, food and cigarettes. Whatever the case, Adam, though not necessarily eager to, moved in to the second-floor, two-bedroom apartment in Clifton Heights to provide his mom full-time care. Living in close quarters with Barbara subjected him to even more of her neediness and mistreatment.
When Adam arranged for his sister Susan to come over so he could have a night out, Barbara would start to scream.
"Oh here goes whiny butt," she'd say. "Here he goes whining. Fuck, just leave. Go to your girlfriend's."
As Adam describes it, "For a woman dying, you wouldn't think someone had that much strength to sit there and like bang on an ottoman saying, 'Die, motherfucker, die.' Yeah, she would tell me that."
During her fits of shouting, Adam sometimes called his girlfriend on speaker phone just so she could hear and know that he wasn't exaggerating. He tried his best to be magnanimous, not wanting to devolve into a shouting match with an ill older woman.
Barbara had lived in the apartment for nearly two decades and smoked in it every day. The white walls had turned yellow. Detritus from a disordered life lay everywhere.
Then there was the box in the freezer, a detail that at the time wasn't particularly out of the ordinary given that a lot about Barbara's life didn't add up, even to her children.
Later, a handful of media reports implied that Adam and his sister had spent their entire childhoods asking their mom, "What's in the box? What's in the box?" It hadn't been like that. However, it was true that for as long as Adam could remember there had been an object in his mom's freezer the size of a large shoebox, the sort of thing a pair of boots would be packaged in. He has firm memories of it from as young as six. His sister, who is 45, remembers it always being there, too. They thought maybe a piece of wedding cake was being saved inside. When Adam asked his mom about, she would deflect.
"She'd just say, 'No, it's nothing. No comment. Don't worry about it,'" Adam recalls. "She changed the subject."
Generally, Adam didn't think of it at all.
This past January, about a year after Adam moved in with her, Barbara was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer. She'd been telling her doctors she wasn't smoking, which was categorically false. A CT scan found spots on her lungs. The cancer spread to her liver, her bones and her lymph nodes, and in late July Adam called a priest to the apartment. "I'm not particularly religious," he told the cleric. "But if you could say a few words I know she'd appreciate it." Barbara passed away on July 21 at the age of 68.
About a week after Barbara died, Adam's girlfriend was on his case to clean out the apartment. Dirty dishes covered the table. The pantry was stuffed with half-empty boxes. He had his work cut out for him on that hot July Saturday. It was shortly after midnight when he opened the freezer to grab a water bottle he'd been chilling and saw the box.
Holy crap, he thought. The box. His mother wasn't around to tell him not to open it. He took a photo of the open freezer and messaged his girlfriend, his sister Susan and his aunt.
What if it's money? his aunt texted back, jokingly.
Money was one thing Adam felt pretty confident it was not.
He thought it might be more fun to wait until his sister and girlfriend could be there to open it with him — an impulse, in retrospect, he's glad he ignored.
He grabbed a knife and cut into the cardboard. He saw a pink fleece blanket.
"When I reached down there, I mean you could tell it was just a foot. You could see it was a baby's foot," Adam says. "The skin was cracked. I guess curiosity gets the best of everyone. I pulled it up. When I pulled it up, that's when I saw the back of the baby's head with hair."
Adam freaked out, he says. He put the baby back in the box and called the police, the non-emergency number.
"This is crazy," the dispatcher said. "I'm just going to transfer you to 911."
Adam met the officers outside and led them upstairs. In the kitchen, he recalls, one of the officers looked to Adam and asked, "Are you going to grab it?"
"I am not touching the thing again," he said.
Adam went into his room while the officers, and eventually a detective, investigated the kitchen, which was now a crime scene.
Later that night down at the police station, a homicide detective interrogated Adam, who insisted the baby was a total surprise to him.
He says the detective apologized to Adam for what he'd gone through and let him go. The medical examiner would do an autopsy which would hopefully provide at least some rudimentary answers.
The next day, the media showed up. Channel 5 was the first. Adam let them in. The other local stations followed suit. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Riverfront Times published stories, as did CNN, NBC, the South China Morning Post and countless others.
The headline on the Washington Post's website read, "His mother kept a cardboard box in the freezer for decades. Inside, he found a 'mummified' baby."
Reporters had a lot of questions. Adam had a lot of questions, too, chief among them: Exactly what kind of person was his mother? What else about her didn't he know?
Barbara Smith kept a lot of secrets. Even when she was alive, it was often up to her children to suss out key aspects of their identity on their own. An example: For a long time, Adam and Susan had assumed they got their last name from the same man, Adam's father Terry Smith. However, as adults, they found out that Barbara had previously been married to a man named Howard Smith, from whom Susan got her last name (though Susan's biological father was really a man named Don). In the wake of her death, the family compared notes about Barbara. How many times had she been married? How many times did she give birth? Different relatives came up with different numbers. In the weeks since Barbara's death, siblings who previously had been unknown to each other have met for the first time.
Steven Yaw, the man who lived with Barbara for almost twenty years, said her past didn't seem particularly mysterious to him at the time. "Now? Yeah," he adds. Yaw of course knew about the box in his freezer for all those years but says he was "blown away" when he learned on Facebook about Adam's discovery. "For twenty years, I saw that box in the freezer and it was never used, didn't move. I always wondered what that box was for, didn't ask," he says.
In multiple conversations, Adam stressed he isn't judgmental of his mom for being with so many partners. That's not what bothers him. What keeps him up at night is the fact that she left him in the dark about so much — and that she died leaving an infant frozen in a box she knew her son would open.
"She knew she wasn't going to be around much longer. Why couldn't she tell us?" he says. "I can't help but think she did something bad."
In the weeks since finding the baby girl, Adam has combed through his memories for clues to her identity. He remembers once when riding in the car with his mother he asked her why she seemed sad. She responded, "My firstborn Jennifer would have been 21 today." Adam can't recall exactly how old he was when she told him that. Maybe six. Maybe seven or eight.
"I can't help but think that the baby that I found was Jennifer," Adam says.
But even that, the most basic of information, is still beyond his grasp nearly two months later. Police and the medical examiner have yet to say how the baby died. And without a DNA test, Adam does not even know for certain the little girl was Barbara's child, although he strongly suspects that to be the case.
Adam and Susan have always known the box to be in their mother's freezer, in houses from Miami Street to the Hill to Bancroft to Magnolia, meaning it's probable that the baby inside was born before Susan, who was born in 1974. In that case, Barbara would have been barely in her twenties, maybe even younger, when the infant arrived.
It is hard to say what Barbara's life was like at that time. In the early 1970s, she would still have been living with her family in the north St. Louis County city of Florissant, where she grew up. Younger relatives described the family as strictly Catholic, but family members who were around Barbara then and might remember what was happening at the time have not wanted to speak to reporters.
However, Adam says in talking with his relatives, he has come to believe his mother almost certainly concealed her first pregnancy. It is likely her family did not know – or somehow did not notice, even as her belly swelled.
Though concealed pregnancies that end in tragedy are shocking, they are relatively common and follow distinct patterns, says Michelle Oberman. A law professor at Santa Clara University, Oberman has researched the grimmest of outcomes. She is often cited as a leading expert on infanticide as well as neonaticide, killing a baby in the first 24 hours of life.
Women who conceal pregnancies for the entire duration often are disconnected from their own bodies and typically are young, often teenagers, pregnant for the first time. Oberman notes they are slow to recognize the signs of pregnancy, possibly as a result of some sort of trauma, but often because they are scared at the prospect of being pregnant.
And while they are physically and emotionally changing, another hallmark of the cases Oberman has reviewed is that no one around the expectant mothers notices what is happening. The young women end up confused and torn between yearning for a connection with their baby and the feeling that they would be left in a seemingly impossible situation of caring for a child alone.
Because they are young, they fall in the adolescent trap of avoiding the short-term pain of telling an adult they're pregnant, and perhaps getting in trouble for having sex, and ignore the far more serious long-term consequences.
"All too suddenly, labor begins one day," Oberman says. "No one would plan to have a baby alone, unattended, on a toilet. Yet the overwhelming majority of these cases end in this tragic manner."
In cases of neonaticide, the unprepared mothers often smother the newborns in a moment of panic. The response is not, I don't want this baby, but instead, Oh my God, someone is going to find out. Often, the women follow the nearly unimaginable act with tenderness, cleaning the infants before taking them back to their bedrooms. Under their bed, in their closets, they keep the lifeless babies with them. Oberman points out that if a woman were committing something like premeditated murder, she would endeavor to get the evidence as far away from her as possible.
"We're distracted by the fact that the baby is dead, I get that heartbreak. It's a tragedy," Oberman says. "But if we're tending toward worrying about these cases and how to prevent them, then we have to notice that what the woman is doing is actually treating the baby like a baby."
Neonaticide cases tend to follow a distinct pattern, Oberman says. Parts of what we know about the broad outlines of Barbara's younger life follow that pattern. She would have been young and almost certainly afraid. Given her family's heavy-handed Catholicism, it is easy to imagine her concealing a pregnancy rather than admitting she'd been having sex — and worse, had become pregnant. In fact, when she was later pregnant with twins following Susan's birth and put them up for adoption, her family was adamantly opposed, Adam says.
But what actually happened to Barbara and that little girl in the freezer is still a mystery. Oberman says there are significant aberrations in the story that set Barbara's situation apart from the cases she has reviewed.
"What's weird about this case is how long Barbara hung onto the baby, and that she talked about it aloud," the professor says. "Those are strange facts."
Maybe the little girl was stillborn or died of sudden infant death syndrome. Maybe there was an accident. But the idea that Barbara could carry a child to term without anyone close to her noticing seems entirely believable to Adam — because it happened at least one other time.
In 1986, Barbara gave birth to a daughter whom she put up for adoption. Adam and his sister were schoolchildren at the time, and yet, he says, no one in the family — not her children, not her siblings, not her parents with whom she was still in contact — realized what had happened. It wasn't until the days after her death that Adam and Susan found out.
About a week after Barbara's passing, Adam got a call from his aunt. She had news. Earlier that year her daughter, Jessica (Adam's cousin), paid for 23andMe DNA testing and found she had two full cousins, both women, one living in Illinois and the other in Florida. Laura and Shannon were their names. Born a decade apart, they shared the same mother but had been adopted by different families. Their mother was a woman from St. Louis named Barbara Smith.
Adam now knew the name of his older half sister, Shannon, who had been given up for adoption in 1977.
The younger sister, Laura, was the real surprise. He hadn't known she existed. No one in the family did. She was younger than Adam by five years. He'd been around for the pregnancy but hadn't noticed. Furthermore, this was before the rift with the family in north county, and despite being in Barbara's life at the time, none of them had noticed either.
Laura Sorensen grew up in St. Louis and has lived in Springfield, Illinois, for the past eight years. After connecting with Adam's cousin Jessica on 23andMe, they pieced together that Barbara was Laura's mother. Jessica told Laura that Barbara had passed away recently. If there had been an opportunity for the long-separated mother and daughter to meet, they had missed it by a matter of weeks. Laura did a Google search for her mother's obituary, but what appeared instead was a story about a baby in a freezer.
"I had actually seen the story about Barbara before I even found the cousin or Adam or any of them," Laura says. "I saw an article earlier that week. I was like, 'No way, I totally read that headline earlier that week.' Apparently, that's my birth mom and my half brother. It was overwhelming."
A birth letter Laura received from the adoption agency had some basic information about Laura's biological mother and father. The father had been an acquaintance of Barbara's ex-husband whom Barbara had dated for a year and half, though at the time of Laura's adoption, they were no longer together. It said Laura was Barbara's seventh pregnancy. However the letter also states that prior to giving birth to Laura, Barbara had one miscarriage, a stillbirth, and four natural births. It's likely, but not certain, the baby in the freezer would have been her first pregnancy, followed by the natural birth of Susan in 1974. Three years later, she gave birth to Shannon, natural birth number two, as well as a twin who was stillborn. Adam was born in 1981. This means there are three known natural births, one short of what the letter says. Also, the stillbirth was Shannon's twin, the same pregnancy, meaning the letter leaves another pregnancy unaccounted for. The letter from 1986 also states that Barbara lives with a son who attends a school for kids with severe hearing problems; Adam's hearing is fine and always has been. The adoption worker who wrote the letter may have made a few careless mistakes. Or it's possible that she, like a lot of people in Barbara Smith's life, was working with incomplete information.
"The more you know, the more questions you have," Laura says.
Asked what she thinks is the story behind the baby in the freezer, Laura can only speculate: "Maybe something tragic happened and she didn't know what to do and that was her solution to not getting in trouble. She was young when it happened. I don't think it was anything criminal. It takes a big heart to give up two children to adoption, so I have a hard time believing there would be any kind of malice involved."
Laura may have missed out on meeting Barbara in life, but she did go to the funeral and hung out with family afterward. She and Adam hit it off. Cut from the same cloth, they bonded instantly.
Since connecting with Laura, Adam had been trying to scrape together the funds to have both his and his sister's DNA tested. In September he bought a scratch off and won $1,000, some of which he used for 23andMe. The results showed he and Laura are half siblings. Her dad's identity is still unknown.
The end of summer and early fall have been rough on Adam. He's mourned his mother. Pictures of him in front of his mom's open freezer have gone around the world. He's put up with media intrusions. He's had to grapple with the anger he has toward Barbara that may never fully resolve. Barbara's legacy was questions, ones that only she knew the answers to.
At the same time, Barbara's death has brought Adam something of a relief, a weight lifted off him. He no longer has to witness his mother's pain and suffering, nor be subject to her cruelty. He's out of the apartment on Magnolia.
"I was held back for so many years by my mom's sickness," he says. "I could never go and venture out and do my own thing. Now, I get to do what I need to do, what I've always wanted to do."
Ryan Krull is a freelance journalist and assistant teaching professor in the department of communication and media at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.