We've reported here before on RICHARD SMITH, who slaughtered his wife and two sons. Also on TOBIAS DAY.
What drives a father to kill?
After the shocking Pudsey case in which a father murdered his whole family, Dr Max Pemberton investigates the psychology behind 'family annihilation'.
7:00AM GMT 17 Dec 2011
They were described as the perfect family: Richard and Clair, married for 13 years and with two sons, Aaron aged one and Ben, nine. Only a few weeks ago they’d posed for a family portrait and smiling into the camera they appear the epitome of a happy suburban family. Friends said that they seemed to have no problems. They had bought their house, in a quiet cul-de-sac in Pudsey, near Leeds, last May and had no money worries. No one could begin to imagine the truly horrendous events that would befall them.
Now, outside the police cordon surrounding their home, people console each other and lay flowers in remembrance. There are touching tributes from friends attached to the bouquets. ‘You were such a beautiful family’ reads one. ‘RIP all of you in heaven’ reads another. Neighbours shake their head in disbelief. In the early hours of last Saturday morning, Richard stabbed his wife and two young children on the marital bed, before setting fire to the room. He died of smoke inhalation. Detectives believe he may have been having an affair and that this may have been a factor in the tragedy. But what drives an otherwise good, upstanding man to kill his whole family?
Of all crimes, a parent killing a child must surely be one of the most harrowing and perplexing. It goes against our very understanding of the role of a parent as the ultimate protector. And yet it happens. Just days before horror in Pudsey, another father reportedly turned on his family. Tobias Day, from Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, had recently lost his job as a policeman. He killed his wife Samantha and his seven-year-old daughter Genevieve and attacked his two other children, Kimberly and Adam, before taking his own life.
To try and understand this phenomenon, it is first important to put child homicide into context. Although these instances are rare, crime figures show that a child is more likely to be murdered by their parent than by a stranger. This means that, statistically, it is more dangerous to leave a child with your spouse than it is to leave them with someone you’ve never met. While the number of child homicides fluctuates each year, the overall child homicide rate in England and Wales has remained broadly similar since 1997. However, in recent years from 2005/06 the numbers have dipped below 60 for the first time. This still means that, according to the NSPCC, on average a child is killed by a parent every 10 days.
However, a further analysis of the statistics reveals interesting differences between the genders. While mothers are responsible for killing children in roughly as many cases as fathers, the circumstances are typically very different. This gives an important insight into what drives a man to murder his family.
According to a Home Office report into child homicides, the proportion of child homicides in which the perpetrator is a parent is exceptionally high among infants – roughly 80 per cent of homicide victims under one year old were killed by a parent. In these very young children women are far more likely to be the perpetrators of infanticide than men. However, research has shown that these women typically have severe, undiagnosed or untreated mental illness, often triggered by the birth.
So, postnatal depression or postpartum psychosis – whereby the mother becomes psychotic after the birth of their child – are felt to be significant factors. This has been recognised for many years in UK legislation with the Infanticide Act (1938), which allows such mothers to be dealt with and punished as if guilty of manslaughter rather than murder.
Of course, mental health problems during or after pregnancy are not uncommon. Research has shown that up to 80 per cent of women experience some degree of depressive illness after giving birth and that new mothers are 25 times more likely to become psychotic within the first month. The vast majority of these women will never harm their baby. But the association is there and, as a result, there has been a drive to screen all new mothers for signs of mental illness and offer intensive support after the birth. Midwives are now specifically trained to ask about a patient’s mental health and to spot any worrying behaviour.
Older children, however, are more likely to be killed by their father and there is often little or no evidence that such men have an identifiable mental illness. We can take some small comfort from the idea that such instances are rare adorations; temporary losses of sanity. Something hideous done in the heat of the moment when someone is not themselves and cannot be held accountable for their actions. This provides a framework in which we can explain the inexplicable. It’s convenient and reassuring. But in many cases, it is not true. Researchers point to the fact that they are virtually all premeditated and typically executed with a chilling calmness and sense of purpose. This is particularly true in the case of ’family annihilations’ as they are referred to by psychiatrists, where the father not only kills his children but his partner and usually himself.
The phrase was first coined in the US, where they have 10 ‘murder-suicides’ a week, proportionally higher than in the UK, where there are only a few a year. Easier access to fire arms in the US may be a factor. It is the calculating nature of these family annihilations that people often find so hard to understand. Psychologists have long puzzled over this phenomenon and in particular why it tends to be fathers, rather than mothers, who are the perpetrators. Family annihilation is an act of extreme aggression; a violent gesture, laden with potent rage. US research shows that family annihilators rarely have a criminal record and will often appear to others as stable, trustworthy and dedicated to their family. The psychological profile they share, however, concerns how they have constructed their sense of ‘self’. According to stereotypical gender roles, while motherhood is often seen as the denial of self by putting one’s children before one’s own needs, fatherhood is more concerned with provision for the family and being seen as the head of it – the family becomes part of the self, rather than supplanting it.
The typical profile of a family annihilator is a middle-aged man, a good provider who appears dedicated, devoted and loyal to his family. However, he is usually quite socially isolated, with few friends and with profound feelings of frustration and inadequacy. The tipping point is some catastrophic loss or impending tragedy that threatens to undermine his sense of self and amplifies his feelings of impotence and powerlessness. In individuals for whom their family is an integral part of their identity – part of themselves, rather than a separate being – murdering the family is akin to a single act of suicide. It is a way of regaining control; of obliterating the impending crisis. This explains why men will often not only kill their partner and children, but also pets and destroy their property by setting fires. It is an eradication of everything that constitutes the self.
In addition to this, they are often motivated by bitterness and anger and a desire to punish the spouse; while killing the partner is an act of revenge, killing the children is an act of love as he believes he – and therefore they – will be better off dead than face the imminent loss of power.
While this points to severe psychological problems with underlying personality issues and maladaptive coping strategies, this, in itself, does not necessarily constitute a mental illness. However, professionals are divided as to whether these men can be held truly culpable for their actions. For the few that survive, jurors tend to find them responsible for their actions and therefore guilty of murder, but some end up detained in secure psychiatric hospitals indefinitely.
Experts, such as Jack Levin, Professor of Sociology and Criminology at the Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts who has studied family annihilators, have argued that they typically do know right from wrong and points to the fact that they are well planned and selective and that if a friend came along, the father wouldn’t kill him or her – instead, he kills his children to get even with his wife because he blames her and hates her.
Others, such as Tony Black, former chief psychologist at Broadmoor, are more circumspect. Black has argued that for anyone to commit such a heinous crime, there must be something fundamentally wrong with them and it is unhelpful just to simply think of them as ‘bad’. But what can be done to prevent such atrocities? Is there the possibility of intervention before such murders take place or ways to identify at risk men?
Scott Mackenzie, a consultant forensic psychiatrist in Essex who has assessed family annihilators for the criminal justice system, feels that often there are underlying anti-social personality traits and fundamental issues with rage and anger management. But these psychological traits are not uncommon in the population, and most will never go on to murder their family. ‘Those who act are often angry and resentful individuals. There is often a prior pattern of domestic abuse. But predicting with any reliability who will suddenly flip and resort to this kind of behaviour is incredibly difficult, if not near impossible. After any such incident there are inevitably questions asked if anything could be done, if someone could have intervened or spotted the signs. Tragically, in most cases, the answer is no.’