Marieke Liem sheds light on familicide and identifies two types of perpetrators.
Only the best was good enough for his wife and his two sons. A new car for her. A PlayStation for them. His salary was not enough, and savings he never had, but he had credit cards, lots of them. He used one to pay off the other. She shouldn’t work, she should stay in their suburban home with the kids. He enjoyed thinking about them, when he was at work: Knowing exactly where they were, his little family, any time of the day. Told himself that everything was going to be fine. Just fine. He had it all under control.
Until one day, the first debt collector letter came. Then the second, and the third. It grew into a small pile. He had to stay in control. He could not let this happen to his family. He had to take responsibility.
‘Familicide’ is a term used to denote the murder of multiple family members. Its most common form is the killing of an intimate partner and child(ren). The perpetrator who kills his spouse and children is typically a white male in his 30s or 40s, who, compared to other homicide offenders, is more likely to have substantial economic resources and less likely to have a criminal record. Familicide is a rare event: In the Netherlands, its incidence varies from one to three times per year. In the US, familicide occurs on average 23 times per year. This type of mass murder occurs more often than massacres at work, in shopping malls, or at school. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that familicide usually leads to extensive media coverage, as it challenges our perception of the family and our private home as safe havens.
Previous research has distinguished two major motivations underlying familicides: Perpetrators who kill their family members in a ‘murder by proxy’ and those who kill in a ‘suicide by proxy’.1 The first applies to perpetrators who are motivated by anger and revenge following their intimate partner’s threat to separate or divorce. The thought of being betrayed by their wife leaves them shaken and alone. The perpetrator operates out of a profound sense of anger and revenge over his divorce, separation, or child custody battle, in which he sees the children as ‘her’ children, equally responsible for her betrayal. In this process, the children become objectified – through the eyes of the perpetrator. They constitute an extension of his wife, in which he denies them a sense of identity. The perpetrator thus seeks revenge by killing her and all of ‘her’ children. From this perspective, familicides resemble intimate partner homicides generally, as the primary object of aggression constitutes the spouse rather than the children.
‘Suicide by proxy’ familicides, on the other hand, are said to refer to the familicidal male who aims to protect his family from the fate that would befall them without his (financial) support. I argue that ‘suicide by proxy’ is an inaccurate representation of the actual motive – the perpetrator’s primary aim is not to commit suicide, in which he takes his loved ones ‘with him’, but he rather considers the homicide of his family members and his ensuing suicide as a total, and only, solution:2 These men do not consider either killing themselves or their loved ones, but rather consider a combination of the two as the only available option. In these cases, financial problems ranging from the loss of a job to an increasing debt are prominent. These perpetrators become depressed, despondent, hopeless and emasculated: At the very time in their lives when they feel they should be reaching the pinnacle of success in their careers, they are instead fired, or find themselves deeply in debt. Men committing this type of homicide typically perceive themselves as the provider, controller and central figure in their family member’s lives. In such cases, the perpetrator commands a relationship in which he perceives that only he can satisfy the needs of his victims.3 Arguably, this may also be the reason why there are so few familicidal women: Women traditionally being less likely to identify themselves as the head of the household, and therefore less likely to link professional failures to potential impacts on the family life.
Both types of familicide perpetrators are characterized by a need to stay in control over the family situation when the family unit is threatening to disintegrate. This threat can be perceived, such as in a psychotic state, in which the perpetrator is convinced that, for example, the Antichrist will arrive and the world as we know it will cease to exist. Alternatively, the threat may be ‘real’, involving relationship troubles or financial problems. In both scenarios, apocalyptic thinking is pronounced, and, as Baechler (1975) put forward: “The final solution [is]: the pure and simple suppression of all data, including the subject” (p. 14).4 In this view, lethal acts of violence against others and against the self occur as a result of a rational decision-making continuum. Such a decision-making continuum is related to what Wertham (1937) originally termed ‘the catathymic crisis’, or an isolated, nonrepetitive act of violence that develops as a result of intolerable tension. The catathymic crisis begins with a fixed idea to commit a violent act as the only means to solve the intolerable situation, accompanied by increased emotional tension and a mounting pressure to act.5 The plan itself meets with such a level of resistance in the perpetrator’s mind that he is likely to hesitate and delay. For a while the perpetrator struggles and resists the idea to commit the violent act. Wertham describes that eventually, once the decision is made to act, the perpetrator experiences a feeling of relief from emotional tension. This tension release is followed by a period of superficial normalcy, during which the perpetrator momentarily achieves insight and recovers to a mentally stable condition. This may be the reason why men committing these acts may still be able to celebrate a child’s birthday, call for pizza delivery or take out the trash hours prior to the event: They have already made the decision to proceed. From a psychodynamic point of view, the catathymic crisis arises in order to counter mental disorganization. The perpetrator carries out the violent act as a defense mechanism to protect his self-concept as the husband, the provider of the family and the head of the household. Killing his family members and, not infrequently, himself, allows him to restore this self-concept.
Another similarity between these two types of perpetrators lies in the belief that their self-concept is contingent on others: Their self threatens to disintegrate when their role as provider breaks down or when those who provide them with a sense of identity as husband and father, threaten to leave him. These men respond to the loss of control by taking charge again. They will eliminate the family as a unit in order to take their loved ones to a better place in the hereafter, where he will join them: He sees the death of his family members and himself not as an endpoint, but rather as a doorway to another life, a new beginning in which the holy unity – his family – can start over. It is not uncommon that pets are killed, too: They are a part of the family, after all, that need to be brought along in the afterlife. In the perpetrator’s mind, life after death allows his family to be undisturbed and in peace, without the risk of ever being separated.
It has been suggested that, as the economy weakens and the unemployment rate rises, there may be more opportunities for catastrophic losses to precipitate a familicide. Intimate partners may have profound arguments on financial problems; they may lose their house to a foreclosure. A family business is more likely to go bankrupt. When job loss or indebtedness is involved, the motivation may become a lethal version of altruism.
We tested this hypothesis based on US homicide data, going back all the way to the 1970s, and found no support for financial crises leading to more familicides.6 It can be argued that the lack of finding such a relationship can be found in the nature of financial crises: Society at large is affected by it, rather than a single person finding himself alone in the midst of financial downfall. Another explanation lies in the rare occurrence of the event itself, and low sample size inhibiting the possibility to make causal interferences. Fortunately, very few men are imminent familicide perpetrators, who become blinded by what they think is mercy, or duty, to the extent that they cannot clearly see the horrifying act they are about to commit.
A week went by. They would come the next morning. They would take everything away. The car. The PlayStation. His wife would leave him, thinking of him as powerless, as incapable, as unworthy. She would take the children, too.
He walked to his sons’ bedroom. There they were, in the bunk bed. Now was the time. He would see them on the other side. Next, he leaned over his wife and pressed the pillow until all became silent. He left the letter at the nightstand and lay down beside her. That’s how they found them.
Marieke Liem (’04) completed a PhD in forensic psychology at Utrecht University in 2009. She now works as a Marie Curie Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government conducting research on the Recidivism of Homicide Offenders.
5 Wertham, F. (1937). A catathymic crisis: A clinical entity. Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, 37, 974-977.
Schlesinger, L. B. (2000). Familicide, Depression and Catathymic Process. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 45, 200-203.