A professor I knew once advised me that it is the extreme cases which shed the most light on our general understanding. He wasn't talking about human relations, but the comment has some relevance nevertheless. (I also wouldn't put him forward as all that much of a wise man, indeed he turned out to be something of, to use his own word, an "operator", but we're all human no matter how fancy our office or high our ideals.)
The extreme cases I'm thinking of today are those of parents who kill their own children and often themselves, while in the throes of separation and divorce. It was brought to mind by two cases that are recently in the news. In the US, there is Tim Parmeter, a basketball coach coming to terms with his wife's murder/suicide with their child Ryan. (Nod to Glenn Sacks.)
On December 29, 2006, after an emotionally traumatic evening with Tim, Paula shut herself in the garage with 2 year old Ryan and gassed the both of them with car exhaust. She left no less than 6 suicide notes, one to Tim, and took photographs of Ryan as he died from carbon monoxide poisoning. One of the notes was addressed to Tim and it is unequivocal:
"Don't ever try to convince yourself otherwise -- this event is absolutely, completely your fault. You created it. You could have prevented it. You encouraged it. You found our pain funny. ... If I have the opportunity to haunt you, I will. ... I pray you will see our faces in your mind's eye and wonder what Ryan could have been and what we could have had if you had only chosen love."The motivation is clear, it is pure hate. Is it evil, or is it sick? Are the two the same? Should we be angry or pity her? (Is it possible to do both?)
It gets worse.
There is some child's scribble at the end of the note to Tim next to Paula's signature. It is annotated with the comment "That's Ryan saying bye-bye, Dada."
Think about that. She wanted to hurt Tim worse than anything possible, more than she wanted her child to live. She wanted him to scream in pain for the rest of his life. It is a wonder that the man did not go irretrievably insane.
The act took planning. Never mind the time it took to write 6 suicide notes, she also plugged the gaps in the garage walls, remembered to take the camera and had toys to entertain Ryan while she killed him. It was certainly premeditated.
I have heard it said that suicide is the most violent thing one can do to the world. The suicide can be trying, with an inverted logic, to destroy everything but themselves. I don't think that's always true, but it seems a very reasonable hypothesis in this case. In Paula's twisted fantasy, she was destroying Tim by killing herself and Ryan.
(The semiotics of these cases can sometimes be intriguing. The police describe the murder-suicide as "initiated" by Paula. That is a peculiar choice of words for people who normally have no problem with describing crimes as "perpetrated". Do they speak of bank robberies being "initiated" by the accused? It is almost as if they do not want to face up to the possibility that Paula actually carried through what she did, she only initiated it.)
One reference I have found claims "Most types of murder-suicide involve morbid forms of attachment between perpetrator and victim, especially when the relationship is threatened with dissolution, and/or impulsive personality traits." In the Parmeter case, Tim was trying to leave Paula and the details we have certainly corroborate Paula's very strange approach to the end. She was unable to cope with Tim leaving and ultimately dealt with it by destroying him through destroying herself and Ryan, requiring it all to be his fault, not hers.
The second case is that of John and Natasha Hogan of the UK, who went on holiday in August 2006 to Crete with their two children. This was an attempt to salvage their marriage and it turned tragically sour when, in the heat of argument, John picked up son Liam (6) and daughter Mia (2) and leaped off their 4th floor balcony. John and Mia survived, Liam did not.
Since then, John has tried to kill himself 4 times. It is relevant background that both his brothers had killed themselves and that he himself has been treated for clinical depression for much of his life. It is completely clear that he was already a deeply troubled individual.
Today, the news broke that Hogan has been found not guilty of murder, it is characterized as a psychotic breakdown. That doesn't mean he gets off scot-free, he'll probably be spending several years in a secure psychiatric hospital. Personally, I don't think he'll last it out and eventually will go the way of his brothers. I honestly don't know if that would be best or not - perhaps only forgiveness from his daughter, sometime in the far future, might have a greater human benefit.
John Hogan's actions carry a very different flavor to that of Paula Parmeter's. For starters, they weren't premeditated, and he has shown no inclination to blame anyone but himself. The closest he gets to trying to avoid responsibility is to say:
"I feel no guilt because I didn’t do it," he said. "I feel no guilt whatsoever." "This person sat before you isn’t the person who jumped from the balcony on the fourth floor. I already have my son’s forgiveness, and I have God’s forgiveness."
The "I didn't do it" isn't literal. He means it figuratively, psychologically.
He goes on, to Natasha in court: "You know that a sane John Hogan would not have done what he did so please do not judge me on one action. If I could do anything to bring my son back I would." As far as he personally is concerned, I would hazard that this is about the most healthy position we could expect from such a man after 18 months of psychiatric treatment and under heavy medication.
Bizarrely, the judges wanted to know why he had tried to kill himself 4 times. Perhaps it just had to go on record.
Two cases, with gross similarities and significant differences. Paula Parmeter planned and executed a diabolical revenge. John Hogan blew a mental gasket and destroyed himself more thoroughly than he could have done if he'd died along with Liam.
What conclusions can we draw? The crimes were horrible and tragic, and yet I do not feel inclined to condemn the people, only their acts. There's no point in condemning Paula, she's dead. What she did was purely grotesque and should be condemned utterly. We could condemn John, but to what end? He's already condemned himself and will punish himself for what's left of his life. As he himself has said, there is no punishment that could compare to what he has done to himself. (Please note that I am absolutely not trying to defend Paula Parmeter nor John Hogan.)
Better to look at the causes of the incidents and think about what might be done to prevent it happening again. Many of the writers on the topic point out that prevention is exceedingly difficult because the acts are so rare and so sudden and so unpredictable. The best comment I've seen was "the most successful preventive approach involves diffusing the intensity of the spousal relationship" (from here) which, given these two cases, seems eminently sensible.
One thought that struck me is that these look like extreme fight-or-flight responses. In both cases, I think both factors were operating, but "fight" was stronger with Paula and "flight" with John. In both cases, the perpetrators found themselves in situations they could not tolerate and their reactions were pathologically extreme. They fought and they escaped, to horrific effect.
"Fight-or-flight" is what animals, including humans, do when cornered, when mortally afraid, when under attack. If the threat of divorce is felt as an attack, then I think it behooves us to look at some of the reasons why.
A divorce can be an attack on someone's identity. Marriage used to be for life, for many it still is. It was supposed to be an investment of life. To have an investment fail implies a loss. The bigger the investment, the bigger the loss. If the investment is life, then so is the loss, and that is by definition an attack at the animal level. The only way to diffuse this is to devalue the investment in the first place, which is essentially what is done as divorce becomes more and more acceptable and common.
I am not arguing for further devaluation of marriage, I think we've gone pretty horribly far already, I just wanted to point out that maintaining the value of marriage is in conflict with "diffusing the intensity of the spousal relationship".
A divorce can be an attack on a parent's relationship with his or her children. Indeed, the threat to remove children from a parent's life is visceral on so many levels one might reasonably think of it as a far greater threat that the simple loss of the marriage and cohabitation with one's spouse.
This strikes me as a pretty likely factor in the Hogan case. Being from the UK and having a very troubled background, John didn't have much hope of maintaining a proper fatherly relationship with his kids if Natasha decided not to play ball. All she would have to do would be to claim fear of him and the courts would roll over for her. Awareness of that might well have contributed to the vulnerability of his stability of mind.
There's a trivially easy way to remove, or at least ameliorate that source of stress - protect both parents' relationships with their children in the event of a divorce. However, this is not a strong argument for the protection and equalization of parental rights in the event of a divorce, and I wouldn't use it that way on its own. We have extreme examples here and while they may illuminate some of the darkness, they should not be used to dictate larger policy, although they may reasonably inform it.
This is further underscored by the fact that mothers commit the majority of filicides. "Often such filicidal mothers view their infants as extensions of their own tortured psyches and hence claim the altruistic motive of rescuing their children from future emotional torments" (ref) and there is definite resonance here with Paula Parmeter. But we wouldn't use that as an argument against maintaining the mother's connection with her children after divorce.
Nevertheless, the very sanctification of the mother's bond has a sting in its tail - the psychological pressure on a mother who, however unreasonably, fears losing her children is therefore all the higher. Not to mention the opportunities for tormenting a father by a mother who has no such irrational fears.
All that being said, if you wanted to generally reduce the "intensity of the spousal relationship" as it breaks up, which is usually considered a good thing as "intensity" applies to conflict just as it does to harmony, then protecting parental relationships might be a good way to begin.
But then again, are the family courts and their hangers-on really interested in "diffusing the intensity of the spousal relationship"? From where I sit, I'd say far from it. They thrive on conflict. It is a common argument that the family courts profit from ramping up the intensity, from reducing the father to a visitor with a wallet, completely undermining his ability to be an adequate parent and milking him for all he's worth. Any sensible human being should fear this walking into the court, most especially the father, who will pay for it all anyway.
It seems incongruous to run a discussion from murder-suicide into the preservation of parental rights in family courts, so I'll backtrack a little into a final and possibly more consequential thought which occurred to me. It is that murder-suicides like this, where a parent kills themselves and their children, are at the very far end of the same spectrum of pathological human behavior which includes child abduction and parental alienation.
All three of the actions are designed to attack and destroy the other parent, they are inextricably linked. To the target parent each one is a version of killing their child by the alienating parent. We have no difficulty condemning the act of murder-suicide, but child abduction, both court-sanctioned and illicit, and parental alienation are treated with near indifference. Why is that?
UPDATE: I am astonished to have found a "Tribute to Paula Parmeter" web page. I think it's referring to the same woman. I am particularly struck by the quotes "She will be incredibly and deeply missed not only by her family and friends, but by her business colleagues, peers, and most notably, her clients." and "she performed her job, as she lived her life, with incredible integrity, commitment, passion, and strength. She touched many lives, both professionally and personally, and we will all miss her dearly." Just, well, wow.