Back from the brink
A wayward daughter embraces God's grace in her darkest hour
By John W. Kennedy
Naomi Knoles embarked on a childhood and youth of deep faith
when she made Jesus her Savior at an Assemblies of God church at age 5. As the
older child of John and Doris Knoles — missionaries to Native
Americans for the past quarter-century — Naomi became passionately
involved in her church youth group, went through a FIRE Institute discipleship
program and graduated valedictorian of her high school class.
But Naomi moved away from home the final year of attending a
Christian university in Phoenix. She started hanging out with non-Christians,
who convinced her that she had been missing out on excitement all her life.
Naomi started smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol.
Nevertheless, Naomi graduated summa cum laude with a degree
in international business. Soon she became an assistant vice president working
in a branch of a national bank chain, specializing in mortgage sales. As she
gained material possessions, Naomi let the faith of her youth dissipate. She no
longer sensed God’s love. Instead, she frequented singles bars.
In 2002, Naomi became pregnant and began cohabiting with the
baby’s father. After a few months, however, he became abusive, and Naomi
obtained an order of protection. The companion moved out, never to be involved
in her life again.
During her pregnancy, Naomi never considered abortion. She
selected a family for adoption, believing her child would have a better
upbringing with both a mother and a father. But as the baby grew inside her
womb, she could not bring herself to relinquish the child.
After the initial shock and disappointment, John and Doris
Knoles continued to love Naomi rather than try to make her feel guilty about
quitting church and becoming pregnant out of wedlock.
“Naomi knew she was wrong,” says John, who became a
Christian 38 years ago at age 21 through Teen Challenge, where he was instantly
delivered of his drug habit. “We didn’t need to condemn her.”
Anna Marie came into the world in December 2002. Two months
later, Naomi returned to work. But slowly her world began to crumble. The
following months, her troubled thoughts went beyond the baby blues that afflict
millions of women after giving birth.
By June 2003, Naomi suffered from severe postpartum
depression, which eventually devolved into psychosis. Even though her bosses
valued her work, she grew paranoid about being fired. She thought co-workers
whispered about her behind her back. Naomi also became plagued by the notion
that she didn’t measure up as a mother, even though she gave Anna Marie lots of
attention and care in an immaculate home. However, she kept these thoughts to
Even though her parents saw her several times a week, they
attributed Naomi’s doleful and weary behavior to financial struggles,
work-related stress and lack of sleep. They believed the best because Naomi
always talked of her love and dedication for Anna Marie.
Naomi and Anna Marie came home to an empty house in the
evenings. In August 2003, Naomi began unplugging the phone and withdrawing into
an irrational, internalized world. Many times she felt drawn into the TV
commercials she watched. She believed they implied that she never could make a
good life for Anna Marie.
Everything changed just after midnight on Sept. 3, 2003.
“I became so hopeless I didn’t want to live anymore,” Naomi
She wrote a suicide note and took a combination of nearly
100 sleeping pills and pain relief tablets. She assumed she would be dead by
morning. She thought if she didn’t show up for work that someone would come
looking for her and Anna.
But a groggy Naomi woke up around 8 in the morning more
delusional than ever. She believed the devil told her Anna Marie would be
better off dead. Naomi couldn’t get the thought out of her mind: I must prevent
Anna from experiencing all the misery I’ve been going through.
“I went to her crib and put a pillow over her face until she
stopped breathing,” Naomi recalls, crying. “When I picked her up, her body was
Suddenly aware of the reality of the situation, Naomi called
911, explaining that her baby had stopped breathing. A dispatcher guided her
through cardiopulmonary resuscitation techniques until paramedics arrived.
At Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Naomi drifted in and out of
lucidity, admitting responsibility for her actions yet not recollecting the
details. Police detectives read Naomi her rights.
When Naomi called her parents en route to the hospital in an
ambulance, John and Doris presumed Anna Marie had a medical emergency. When
they finally saw their daughter — handcuffed to a hospital bed —
they realized something extraordinarily tragic had occurred.
The hurting grandparents immediately received help from
Phoenix First Assembly of God, their home church for 20 years. Marriage Pastor
Leo Godzich spent the entire day with them. Senior Pastor Tommy Barnett came to
the family home after the Wednesday evening service. He canceled a flight to
Los Angeles in order to pray with the Knoleses and to give encouragement. John believes
he and his wife were able to cope because Barnett had repeatedly taught about
rising above circumstances.
During Naomi’s three-day hospitalization to flush her system
of her drug overdose, a grand jury indicted her for child abuse and
first-degree murder. The latter charge could have resulted in the death
penalty. After being arrested on the third day, she spent six hours in a
suicide prevention chair. Later that night, handcuffed to the bed by her ankles
and wrists, she realized she had lost Anna, her job and everything.
“This was my Damascus experience, lying in bed crying out to
the Lord and asking forgiveness,” Naomi explains, beginning to sob. “I saw a
figure of a Man holding a little girl’s hand. I knew it was Jesus and Anna.
That was His way of letting me know she was OK in heaven. I knew from that
point on I could make it, even though I didn’t deserve it.”
Naomi spent the next six weeks in the jail’s psychiatric
ward. In a plea-bargaining agreement almost a year later, prosecutors dropped
the original charges in exchange for a second-degree murder conviction, which
carries a mandatory 10- to 22-year prison term. More than two dozen people from
First AG attended her sentencing, with several ministers testifying on her
behalf. Naomi received the 10-year minimum sentence, and now has a little more
than four years remaining to serve.
“I don’t begrudge my time at all,” Naomi says. “It’s the
grace of God that I received the sentence I did.”
Naomi’s parents, who have been married 35 years, drive 40
minutes from their Phoenix home every Saturday to visit Naomi at the Arizona
State Prison Complex in Goodyear, a western suburb of Phoenix.
On a recent Saturday, Naomi warmly hugs her parents and greets
them with a broad smile in the large visiting room. The tall, slender woman
with auburn hair in a ponytail wears the standard prison-issue orange T-shirt
Naomi rededicated her life to Christ while still handcuffed
under suicide watch. She is no longer the confused woman who committed a crime
six years ago. While she’ll always feel the enormity of smothering her child,
Naomi’s life has been redeemed. While in the county jail awaiting sentencing,
she led three inmates to commit their lives to Jesus. Several of those
incarcerated in Goodyear come to her regularly for Scripture-based advice. Now
31, Naomi spends time each day reading the Bible.
In 2006, Naomi — making 50 cents an hour —
donated $104 to become a Key Bearer, the Light for the Lost program that
provides Today’s Pentecostal Evangel to inmates.
Her priority after being released will be to minister to
women in severe postpartum depression or psychosis.
“Anna’s brief life and tragic death can help save the lives
of mothers and children in the future,” says Naomi, who is on medication to
regulate what is believed to be a chemical imbalance. “This can happen to any
In the book Infanticide: Psycho-social and Legal
Perspectives on Mothers Who Kill, Dr. Katherine L. Wisner and Dr. James L.
Perel note that women are most vulnerable to depression and psychotic illness
in the post-birth period, with first-time mothers 35 times more likely to
develop psychosis. Symptoms include delusional thoughts, diminished interest in
activities, insomnia, inappropriate guilt and feelings of worthlessness. These
aren’t women who habitually abuse their children, but rather mothers who snap.
Naomi has joined an international postpartum support
network. The network emphasizes that severe postpartum depression can be
avoided with proper education.
“I want to let women, especially single mothers, know they
are not alone,” says Naomi, who knows logically she should have died from her
drug overdose. “It is a lie from the enemy who wants to isolate us.”
Anna Marie actually had been revived from the smothering,
but had no brain function left. The day after the incident, John and Doris made
the decision to take their granddaughter off life support.
“When a baby dies in your arms you will never be the same,”
John says. “The Holy Spirit comforted us in that dark moment in a way that we
never imagined possible.”
On the road to recovery, Naomi realizes her social friends
abandoned her, but her Christian friends remained faithful. One of those, Holly
Bodine, has visited her monthly the past four years. Holly never forgot Naomi
invited her to join the church youth group in seventh grade.
“Naomi changed my life in amazing ways,” says Holly, tears
filling her eyes. “This is my time to be with her.”
As they minister, the Knoleses say God has given them the
grace to triumph in tragedy, relying on 2 Corinthians 1:4: “He comforts us in
all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will
be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (New Living
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal
Evangel and blogs at Midlife Musings (jkennedy.agblogger.org).
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