Burke’s Law V: What’s Killing Fathers Who Kill Their Families



By Elizabeth Burke
Special to the Clyde Fitch Report

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  • Last Wednesday, a man, his wife and their toddler were found dead, shot inside their Orange County, CA home in an “apparent murder-suicide.”
  • On May 3, a man took his high-powered rifle, shot his wife, then shot his 5-month-old and 7-year-old, killing both of them. Then he chased his 13-year-old around, who escaped. Then he turned the gun on himself.
  • In April, a Manhattan tax lawyer beat and asphyxiated his wife and daughters in a Maryland hotel room before fatally slashing himself hours later. It is suspected the man may have scammed clients out of millions as part of a side investment business.
  • Also in April, a gruesome crime scene: In Middletown, MD., another young father shot his three children (all under six) and his wife as they slept, then killed himself with a shotgun the next day. The children’s necks had been severely cut with a kitchen knife and a pruning saw, police said.
  • On March 30, six people were shot to death — including at least three children — and another person was critically wounded in another apparent murder-suicide at an upscale home in Silicon Valley, CA.
  • Then there was the guy who, after murdering his wife and kids in the suburbs of Washington, DC, torched his house, then killed himself.

Many more stories like these have cropped up in the news since the beginning of the year. Horrific stories of fathers slaughtering the people they supposedly love the most. The wife he vowed to honor and protect; the children that he at one time cherished more than life itself perhaps. The neighbors and co-workers shaken in stunned disbelief.

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These men have done the unimaginable, the unthinkable. So what happened? In each of these cases, there did not seem to be any evidence of drug or alcohol abuse and no history domestic violence. What causes a seemingly happy family man to commit such a bloody and violent act? Think about the actual deed: taking a gun and walking toward the bed where your children slumber in the completely trustful, deep sleep only little kids can enjoy, then raising your gun and firing, walking away, then going the next child, raising your gun and firing, then going to the next child, raising your gun and firing, and doing it again and again-five times, six with the wife, seven with the self-inflicted, final shot.

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I write this not for shock value, but precisely because it is shocking. It is incomprehensible for most people to consider such a violent act as the best solution to overwhelming problems. In some of these cases, there were huge financial strains-the backgrounds of the families do seem eerily similar. And these are not trailer-park, hard–drinking, welfare-abusing stereotypes. These are families you likely find on any suburban block-a nice home, one or two cars, young kids, well-liked in the neighborhood. What everyone would call a “nice family.”

The link, or potential link, between the rash of murder-suicides and the current economic tailspin is an area of study for the Violence Policy Center, which works to “enhance” gun control, in Washington, DC. “We’ve been looking at this issue of whether there are more murder-suicides…[and] a pattern is starting to develop that may point in that direction,” says Kristen Rand, the center’s legislative director. “Between the Texas Tower shootings in the 1960s until the McDonald’s massacre in 1984, it was extremely rare to see these types of mass shootings. Now we’re seeing them much more often, and they do seem to happen in spurts.”

But why do these otherwise sane men feel they have to take everyone out? Are they so deluded they think the family is better off dead? Well, yes. According to a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, (JAAPL), these actions are called Altruistic Filicide, which means it is murder committed out of love so as to relieve real or imagined suffering on the part of the child or of the family.

There are, by the way, two subcategories, according the JAAPL: psychotic altruistic and non-psychotic altruistic.

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“A psychotic altruistic motive would include taking a child’s life because of the delusional belief that the child was in acute danger of a worse fate. Alternately, a non-psychotic altruistic case would be taking the life because of a belief that a severely medically ill child would be better off.

Also, filicide may occur within the context of familicide-the extermination of the entire family, which is precisely what we have been seeing lately. To add to the pain, parents, “upon realization of the gravity of their act…may attempt suicide even if it was not planned.”

While there have been multiple studies of filicide that classified types of child murder and as well as the mental state of the offender, little research has focused on identifying common factors that lead to Altruistic Filicide in the general population.

Which begs the question: Why? Why is filicide the only solution these men can visualize when there are so many outlets for help? There are job centers, foreclosure counselors, mental health professionals, church leaders, and local and state-backed social-service programs ready and able to provide whatever services are necessary to help keep families afloat. Why didn’t these men take advantage of available resources?

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Patricia A Pacynski, a Washington, DC-based clinical therapist, says men don’t think of the world in relational terms as women do. Instead, they tend to see themselves in more “positional” terms: how they fit into society. Men also tend to judge themselves by how they are positioned to care for their families, and they may even compete with other men, feeling the need to provide more, be a better parent, have a greener lawn. When a man loses his position, Pacynski says, they can lose their sense of self. In economic times as rough as these, some men end up acting out in a most extreme manner. These are men, she says, with very little support or resilience.

Since the Industrial Revolution-but intensifying with the Digital Revolution-Pacynski says society has become more isolated, causing some men to feel they have nowhere to turn during challenging times. Typically, she says, men feel more socially isolated than women, who tend to talk more and are more inclined to get their feelings out. They often have girlfriends, clubs, groups-all kinds of social networks that serve as a kind of verbal safety net. Consequently, women are likelier to seek outside help, whatever it takes to solve the problem. While men may feel that, as theoretical head of the family, they have sole control over the lives of family members-that it’s their responsibility, theirs alone.

Curiously, the news reports covering the aforementioned murder-suicides don’t mention the existence of ongoing mental-health issues. That said, Abigail A. Marsh, assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University, suggested that there is a possible copycat aspect to the current explosion in case. After Kurt Cobain’s highly publicized suicide in the 1990s, she notes, there was an uptick in similar suicides. So it it that men who are contemplating suicide, after reading about other men committing suicide, are more likely to go through with it? Does the presence in the home, moreover, of a gun (or guns) make the idea of violence more accessible? Could all of this be about cognitive accessibility: the likelihood you will do something terrible when there is easy access to a weapon?

Echoing Pacynski’s point of view, Marsh stated that men who suffer from depression are less likely to seek help than women. Men suffering from depression are also more likely to see their problems as intrinsic to themselves-distorted thinking patterns are a basic feature of depression, as is distorted thinking itself. Men, Marsh adds, are also typically less able to verbalize their emotions, so untreated and/or undiagnosed depression can also be an underlying factor in cases that turn violent. Also, men who do commit suicide are much more likely to use more violent, foolproof methods. Women take pills; men use guns or knives.

Marsh noted that incidents of familial murder-suicide haven’t received a lot of attention among family researchers because they are still relatively uncommon. She suggested that actual year to year statistics may be inflated due to increased attention in thepress, or, to put it conversely, it may be that these events have been happening for years with little or no publicity. A good collative, for example, are cases of child abuse. When it seemed as if they were on the rise, it wasn’t because there suddenly were more abusers, but because more cases were being reported. Our worldview, for good or ill, is widening.

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I wouldn’t be surprised to see an increase in violent incidents over the next few years as the economic strain on families provokes or magnifies depression and desperation. In periods of economic depression, there is a traditionally a slight uptick in the overall suicide rate.

To be sure, however, the view of men as the inevitable and mandatory head of the family, chiefly responsible for everyone’s welfare and happiness, is out of touch and, as we have seen, potentially harmful to the physical safety and mental health of all concerned. It’s an enormous amount of pressure to put on anyone. Men must feel at liberty to express their worries, problems and depression. They must not feel weakened in the eyes of their loved ones or their community, closer to those who love them and who they, of course, love as well.

Elizabeth Burke, a New York-based actor, has been involved in politics since her first campaign at age 16. Burke’s Law does not necessarily represent the views of The Clyde Fitch Report.