Thursday, November 23, 2006

Killer fathers, again.

Two more major British newspapers report on the horrors of fathers killing their own children. It's obviously a fashionable topic. The Independent gives us "What makes a father kill his children?" and the Guardian "Fathers who kill their children". Both articles mention Angela Schumann in passing, the mother who tried to kill herself and her two year old child by jumping off a bridge (it wasn't just an attention-getter either, that bridge is a notorious spot for successful suicide), but otherwise discuss only fathers who kill, and usually kill themselves too.

Fortunately, neither paper makes the dishonest claim that parents who kill are nearly all fathers as did India Knight the other day in the Times and Olga Craig in the Telegraph, but there is a common thread that mothers who kill are depressed and ill, the poor dears, and the nearly equal number of fathers who kill are out for revenge and just bad, the murdering bastards.

Both articles cite the Heatley case, now a dozen years old, in which the surviving mother describes her control-freak husband and how the court system failed her and her children by granting him unsupervised visitation against her wishes, with tragic consequences. It is a common thread in much of the discussion that the murdering fathers are control freaks - walking cauldrons of "rage, jealousy, revenge and hatred. 'They are people who lack strategies for giving vent to that turmoil in the way that many women can,' says Dr Black - cutting the sleeves from their unfaithful husband's suits, destroying his favourite CDs, giving away his fine wine - 'attacking whatever he values'" (The Independent).

Question: how would we view a man who took out his revenge by cutting up his wife's dresses, giving away her jewelry, pouring her perfume down the toilet?

This may be true, for those rare, highly unrepresentative cases, such as the Heatley case, where the mother is said to have "found the courage to leave her husband and did not want him to have unsupervised contact with their children. However, the family courts, who believe contact with both parents is always in the best interests of the child, granted it. It was on their first unsupervised weekend with their father that [he] strangled them." (The Guardian).

Undoubtedly, "the system" failed in this case. Something went badly and forever wrong.

More than one of these articles frowns on the sense of ownership of their children that these murdering fathers are said to have, which is interesting given that no-one questions a mother's sense of ownership of those same children and her right to take them with her when she leaves.

These control-freak fathers are said put a great deal of store in their families, that the loss of that family is devastating to them, that they often appear normal until the moment when it is all too late. Heatley himself was a well-respected doctor, which too easily becomes a perverse point against him. Thus we pathologize normalcy.

These articles never seem to report on the vastly greater number of men who also set great store by their families, to whom the loss of that family is likewise devastating and who face a world in which 40% of them will lose contact with their children within two years, but still do not go over the edge and kill. There is no interest in the double standard that a wife has the courage to leave, but a deserting husband is philandering scum or, worse, the deserted husband is there to be enslaved financially and left for dead emotionally.

There seems to be no concern that the custodial parent can wield absolute power over the non-custodial parent's relationship with the children (let's be fair, custodial fathers are just as capable of malicious behavior as custodial mothers), that all they have to do is complain that they're afraid of what the other may do (look at the Heatley case!) and the doors can be made to slam shut.

It's a positive feedback thing, folks - the bleaker the outlook for the throw-away parent, the more likely the tragic over-reaction. The more tragedy, the stronger the malicious custodial parent's argument for the exclusion. We should never even begin to condone this tragedy, but we should also take great care to avoid cultivating it.

Four major national newspapers hold forth on murdering fathers within one month, and none discuss the greater context of the ongoing destruction of fatherhood. Could it have been that some of the perpetrators are driven over the edge by their wives' insistent claims that they were dangerous? That sufficient maltreatment brutalized them, made them want to deserve it? That living in the looking-glass world of a family court, their own world views are turned inside out?

Would some of these hellish murders not have happened if the fathers had felt sure they would not have lost their children, if their environments had been more protective of their roles? That they do actually have some right to control over their own lives and influence in their children's? Could it have something to do with the criminalization to which innocent fathers are so easily subjected?

Could some of these rare and highly unrepresentative murders actually be caused by spotlighting them and extending the suspicion to all separated fathers, locking them into a vicious circle by which the harder they fight to stay fathers, the more suspect they are?

We'll never know, because these are questions we never see asked.



Having written the above, I discovered a much more sensible article on the phenomenon of "family annihilators" by Zoe Williams in the Guardian, in which they are identified as horrific, but very, very unusual and a number of excellent points are made. Aside from repeating the erroneous 20:1 ratio of killer fathers to mothers, which is corrected in the on-line version, Ms. Williams says:

"Studies aren't undertaken to establish how men respond to the stimulus of jealousy, or what the specific factors might be that add up to the overweening emotional breakdown necessary to kill a child. But the argument that filicide could stem simply from jealousy has no currency among the police officers investigating these cases. They say, quite fairly, time and again: 'Well, married people have affairs all the time.' Husbands do it, wives do it, nobody likes it, and yet very few people take this as a reason to kill their children. It simply will not stand up as a motivation, when this response is so aberrant. Yet newspapers will report the alleged sexual behaviour of the mother as if it were of the utmost relevance."

"The second misconception is that the paternal instinct isn't as strong as the maternal one, that the urge to protect is not as great."

"Fathers are not afforded the same lenience [as mothers]; they are not assumed to be insane. Although there are, of course, murderous fathers of whom it may be said he was very "mild", " wouldn't hurt a fly", of whom no one had the slightest inkling of any psychological or emotional problem, these are actually the minority. In fact, fathers who kill their children often have a history of mental illness. ... Surely the fact of their having carried out such a crime and attempting suicide proves their instability?"

She ends with:

"The truth is that people go mad. The aggressively mad, more likely to be men, may kill others. The unaggressively mad, more likely to be women, may kill themselves or perhaps not kill at all. Infidelity doesn't create madness any more than money problems do, it is just that none of it helps. And the more facile the explanation of why a parent has killed their child, the less likely it is to bring comfort to the people who most need it."

At least someone around here seems to have some sense, although I wish she'd identified the family court stressor along with jealousy and finance.

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