I was saddened to hear of yet another family devastated by the murder of 3 innocent children. I am firmly of the opinion that in these cases the families deserve the right to privacy. I’m not sure quite how to articulate my criticisms of how these cases are portrayed in the media without participating in the same media frenzy around the family. The family deserves privacy and the right to grieve without the BBC writing ridiculous articles like this one.
As a feminist, I find the police and media language around this case, and others of a similar nature, to be extremely insensitive and, effectively, minimising violence against women. The murder of women by their male partners is frequently dismissed as “isolated” incidents despite their being 2 women a week murdered by their partners or ex partners. That isn’t an isolated incident. It’s systemic violence against women; just as domestic violence and rape. The murder of children by their fathers, and its generally fathers who kill their children and then themselves in order to punish their ex partner for some perceived slight, are referred to as “tragic family situations” or “isolated incidents” by the police; catch phrases which the media repeats without any attempt at political analysis. These aren’t “tragedies“; that implies an accident. These are the deliberate murder of children. The perpetrators have clear histories of controlling or violent behaviour and they are preventable.
The reporting of these cases, known as family annihilators, in the media always imply that there was something the mother did to “push” the father into killing his children and then himself. The assumption that the mother brought the crime on herself by having an affair or leaving her husband is constant in news reports. Or, the poor father was stressed at losing his job that he couldn’t bear the “dishonour” of public knowledge and therefore had to kill his children and wife as well. It’s this kind of victim-blaming which makes it hard for women to seek help in leaving violent or controlling partners. It’s this kind of victim-blaming which minimises male violence and further punishes women. We need to start changing the language around how we report these stories. We need to stop blaming the victims and putting the blame squarely where it belongs: on those fathers who think they have the right to kill their children and/or current or former partners. We need to stop pretending these men have histories of mental illness because they don’t. They have histories of domestic violence and controlling behaviour but those aren’t signs of mental illness and its incredibly offensive to those who suffer from mental illness to pretend otherwise.
My friend Kritique is far more eloquent on this issue than I. This is her response to the case on this Mumsnet thread.
Family annihilators don’t always have a history of mental illness. Many have been abusive towards their partners or at least have had quite “controlling” tendencies related to their families. Sometimes, they have careers where they are required to compete and/or are in positions of power and status. Conversely, they are in jobs of a lower status, but play out their need for power and control in the domestic sphere.
It seems they are most likely to kill if they feel their control over their partner and family is at risk. For example, they might have lost their job or been convicted of a crime or something else that means they feel they can no longer be the “provider.” Most commonly, however, it happens when the relationship is breaking down or has ended, which signals to them that they are losing control of their family. Some will kill the children as the ultimate punishment for an ex partner, but it has also been suggested that those who kill their children and not their ex partner may do so simply because it is easier to get the opportunity to do so.
Once their family are dead, the man then literally has no purpose in life, if his obsession in life was to control them, so that’s when he commits or attempts suicide. Basically, the phenomenon seems to stem from a belief in male entitlement taken to an extreme. Although there are often signs that something could happen (e.g. man with history of abuse and/or control, experiences sudden change in his position and/or end of relationship, etc.) which agencies could pick up on, they are rarely noticed until after the incident. Even where the woman, a relative or friend reports concerns to the police, these concerns are rarely acted upon. Lives could be saved if there was greater awareness of the problem and a commitment to intervention to protect women and children at risk.
The media tend to be very, very coy in describing incidents where women are killed by their partners. Quite frequently it will be something very brief like, “A man and a woman in their mid 30’s were found dead in Acacia Avenue this morning. The incident is being regarded as unexplained but no one else is being sought in connection with the killings.” If you aren’t paying attention and don’t read between the lines, you won’t “get” that it was probably a man who killed his partner then himself. While tabloids will splash lurid headlines about murder and violence, particularly where the perpetrators fit the model of “villain” quite neatly, it’s as though hacks are afraid to frighten the horses if they more than whisper that a man has killed his partner in cold blood.
But, sometimes the stories break big, particularly where there are children killed. Then something of a “formula” is followed for reporting. Lots of photos of cute children, children smiling with their dad and happy family shots. Statements from friends, neighbours, teachers, etc. about how happy/pretty/clever the children were. Statements from co-workers, neighbours, friends about what a loving/caring/hardworking/committed father the killer was, with much hand wringing about what would “drive” him to do this. Comments about him being under pressure/depressed/stressed/worried generally follow.
Then there are almost always insinuations about the dead woman. She left him/was threatening to leave/was restricting access to the children/was having an affair/he thought she was having an affair/he was worried she would have an affair/she was demanding/she spent too much money, etc. Dead women tell no tales but there are always plenty of people willing to tell tales about them, whether there is any truth or not.
The goal of such reports really seems to tug the heartstrings over the loss of “innocent” children’s lives, attempts to excuse or justify the man’s actions and efforts to demonise the dead woman. If they succeed in this goal, then we can swiftly forget that women are far more at risk of being killed by a partner than a stranger. This stops us worrying about the inequity in many male / female relationships and the serious risks many women face from their partners.
It’s late and I don’t have time to look up more links, but most of the literature suggests that women who kill their children are more likely to have a previously diagnosed mental illness than men who kill their children. Women very, very rarely kill their partners then kill or attempt to kill themselves.
Some links to research and news reports on Family Annihilators:
This 2008 report on murder-suicides in the US, found that only about 5% of murder victims of murder-suicides are male and 74% were murdered by an intimate partner (who then committed suicide.)
This File on 4 programme from March of this year discusses similar features of cases where men kill their families and then themselves.
BBC: What Drives a Father to Kill His Children?
Newsweek: Inside the Minds of Family Annihilators
Guardian: Leave the Children Out of It
Marie Claire: Why Men Kill Their Own Children