A plea for some psychology in public discussions of filicide

Filicide is the murder of a child by a parent. The term covers killings by genetic, step and de facto parents and the more specific crimes of neonaticide (the murder of a child within 24 hours of birth) and infanticide (the killing of a child under 1 year of age and defined in some jurisdictions, e.g. the UK, as necessarily involving a mental impairment) (Bourget, Grace, & Whitehurst, 2006; Browne & Lynch, 1995; Farooque & Ernst, 2003). When Damien Little allegedly shot and drowned his two children and himself this kind of killing came roaring back into public awareness. This kind of death unfortunately cannot be a private death, and I am sorry for heaping on those suffering from these killings. When I write about filicide, the hope is to contribute something to understanding it so it can be prevented. But, this comes at the cost of keeping certain individuals suffering in the public eye, and I am sorry that this is the case.

Many other commentators are writing about this case, with the same goal: understand and prevent. Rightfully much of this comes from feminist scholars and popularisers. I say “rightfully” because we know of the importance of gender stereotypes in both causing filicide and how we judge the responsibility of perpetrators (e.g. Wilcyznski, 1997). However, much of this commentary neglects the insights from the rigorous psychological study of filicide. Although McPherson is right when she laments that:

feminists are tired of hearing the voluminous acts of male violence against women and children explained away in a plethora of ‘individual’ circumstances. This explaining away turns gendered violence into a ‘figment of our imaginations’. It implies no systemic problem exists and, ergo, no systemic action is required.”

This shouldn’t be taken as implying, as McPherson sometimes seems to suggest, that the psychology can be safely ignored and that these problems can be dealt with and the social level alone. Without a properly interdisciplinary approach we run the risk of propagating myths about filicide which only get in the way of our understanding.

For example, McPherson says of Little:

While the circumstances remain unclear, it is hard not to be reminded of the Farquharson case with its narrative of ex-spousal vengeance.”

Perhaps it is, but we must not mistake this intuition for psychological insight. Spousal-Revenge or retaliation killings as they are known are those cases of filicide in which the motivation of the killer is to harm the child’s other parent by taking the child away, in the most drastic way imaginable. There are deep problems in our understanding of these killings. But, what we do know is that these killings are exceedingly rare. For example, after a study of public records of all child homicides in Sweden between 1971 and 1980, Somander and Rammer (1991) classified just one of their sample of 77 killers as of this type. Such killings are perpetrated more often then men then by women, but mothers have been known to kill for this reason (Marieke Liem & Koenraadt, 2008b). Although common, suicide is by no means universally attempted following a revenge filicide. Leveillee et al. (2007) report that in their sample (1986-1994, Québec Canada) of the 27 killers who attempted suicide following filicide and who had an identifiable motive 13 were motivated by revenge. In contrast with the 37 who did not attempt suicide and had an identifiable motive, five were motivated by revenge (Leveillee et al., 2007). It is possible that revenge was a motivation for Little, but we can’t know without having the suicide note.

Instead of speculating on exceedingly rare motivations which inspire a lot of press, it is helpful to understand what is in common amongst similar kinds of killings. We know a fair bit about that and it is here that we begin to get a grip on how bizarre filicide is, and how our limited the tools which we normally use to understand each other are. One psychological factor which is common for a variety of kinds of filicide is something called “identity collapse” (M. Liem, 2010; Marieke Liem & Koenraadt, 2008b; Somander & Rammer, 1991; West, Hatters Friedman, & Resnick, 2009). It has been proposed that both family annihilators and those who commit revenge filicide become violent following the collapse of their role as father, provider, husband, wife, or mother (Leveillee et al., 2007; Marieke Liem & Koenraadt, 2008a). But identity collapse is not simply being distraught at this loss. Those who experience this identify so strongly with the lost role, and only with that role, that when they lose the role they lose themselves. They can’t tell who or what they are any longer.

Normally when we try to understand why someone acts violently we do so with reference to emotions such anger and social constructs such as power. But, the bizarreness of identity collapse along with how difficult it is to imagine reminds us that these tools, whilst helpful for day to day life, are so badly limited in cases like filicide. Whilst McPherson is rightly critical of explanations of the killings in terms of ‘snapping’ and the like and does try to undo some of the damage done by Ford’s unfortunate equation of mental illness with low self esteem, the attempt to place the killing in a broader patriarchal context doesn’t go far enough. It can’t go far enough until the psychology of filicide is added to the discussion.

McPherson does gesture in this direction when she says:

The question we must ask is not what led this man to drive himself and his children into the water (although that may be a question for mental health exploration). The question we must ask is, whatever the reason prompting his behaviour, why was this the behaviour he engaged in.”

But her attempt to answer this neglects the complexity of the psychology and is inconsistent with some of what we know about such killings. She says:

This is not a new question. Dr Deborah Kirkwood, author of ‘Just Say Goodbye’ (2012), argues that male filicidal behaviours usually occur in the context of a family breakdown and are often preceded by a pattern of violence or control within the family.

Her research points to the highly gendered nature of those acts; male perpetrators of filicide in particular hold the view that hurting children is a mechanism for hurting the (ex) spouse. It is an act irrevocably tied to patriarchal perspectives on the ownership of ‘family’ and the use of violence as a method for enforcing that ownership.”

But this hypothesis cannot explain why female killers also act out of revenge, nor can it explain why spousal revenge is identified as the least common motivation by some way for both male and female killers. This is not to say that breaking patriarchal stereotypes can’t contribute to ending other forms of violence, or even some cases of filicide. The most commonly identified motivation for male perpetrators of filicide has the unfortunate name of ‘accidental filicide’. The name is unfortunate because it could be taken as downplaying the actions of the perpetrator. That is most assuredly not the intention Resnick who coined the term. What he was trying to communicate was that when the killer kills they are not intending to kill, rather they are intending to abuse their child. These kinds of cases are much, much more common than spousal revenge cases, or murder-suicides which have other motivations. McPherson’s analysis seems apt for many of these cases which we do have reason to think are motivated by the desire for power, anger and a propriety sense of ownership of the child. We must be careful, though, not to assume that this analysis generalises to murder-suicides or spousal-revenge killings, where the psychology seems to involve a variety of factors which are extremely difficult to understand such as ‘identity collapse’. To understand these crimes the feminism needs to inform and be informed by the psychology and the psychology needs to be taken as seriously as the feminism.

with love

DrNPC

Bourget, D., Grace, J., & Whitehurst, L. (2006). A review of maternal and paternal filicide. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, 35(1), 74–82.

Browne, K. D., & Lynch, M. A. (1995). The nature and extent of child homocide and fatal abuse. Child Abuse Review, 4, 309–316.

Farooque, R., & Ernst, F. A. (2003). Filicide: A review of eight years of clinical experience. Journal of the National Medical Association, 95(1), 90–94.

Leveillee, S., Marleau, J. D., & Dube, M. (2007). Filicide: A comparison by sex and presence or absence of self-destrutive behaviour. Journal of Family Violence, 22, 287–295.

Liem, M. (2010). Homicide–parasuicide: a qualitative comparison with homicide and parasuicide. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 21(2), 247–263.

Liem, M., & Koenraadt, F. (2008a). Familicide: a comparison with spousal and child homicide by mentally disordered perpetrators. Clinical Behaviour and Mental Health, 18, 306–318.

Liem, M., & Koenraadt, F. (2008b). Filicide: A comparative study of maternal versus paternal child homicide. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health, 18, 166–176.

Somander, L. K., & Rammer, L. M. (1991). Intra- and extrafamilial child homicide in sweden 1971-1980. Child Abuse and Neglect, 15, 45–55.

West, S. G., Hatters Friedman, S., & Resnick, P. J. (2009). Fathers who kill their children: an analysis of the literature. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 54(2), 463–468.

Wilcyznski, A. (1997). Mad or bad? Child killers, gender and the courts. British Journal of Criminology, 37(5), 419–436.

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