Familicide – the killing of one’s intimate partner and children followed by suicide of the perpetrator, is a societal problem that plagues us. Familicide is also called murder-suicide, family murders, homicide-suicide and family annihilation and is often considered mass murder due to the number of victims involved. It is horrifying in the extreme, sad in the extreme and it is thought to be increasing every year. In Australia according to the Institute of Criminology there are about twenty murder-suicides each year. In USA it is difficult to ascertain enough definitive information to record the rate of this type of murder and commentators indicate a need to treat family annihilators as a separate category of killer in order to collect specific data which will help answer the question of Why do a small minority of men commit this act while others just move on and find another victim to violate?
Current statistics show that one woman is murdered a week in Australia at the hands of her domestic partner. That is not to say that violence is not perpetrated upon men by women - but this situation is actually very rare. In fact, 9 out of 10 fatalities as a result of domestic violence are caused by men. And although we are all horrified when we hear about such an incident, more and more frequently these days, we often do not stop to think about the number of women who are not actually killed but are left dreadfully injured with lifelong problems facing them physically and mentally.
What do we know about the personality type of men who commit murder-suicide? Research into family annihilators is still in its infancy. Very often the perpetrator is not alive in order to help build a profile of the murder-suicide perpetrator. Nor are the victims who may provide the most pertinent information. Sparse, biased and perhaps not very accurate information from those close to the family and the perpetrator such as in-laws, friends and work colleagues might but used by researchers.
Some studies have shown, and upon which there seems to be a degree of consensus, is that the family murderer is typically aged between thirty and forty, has a white-collar job, is apparently in a stable family situation, has a good background and has not had prior contact with the criminal justice system. As highlighted by Professor Jack Leven, Professor of Sociology and Criminology Emeritus at Northeastern University in Boston, the profile of a man who kills his family “is a middle-aged man, a good provider who would appear to neighbours to be a dedicated husband and a devoted father.”
This may be contrary to what we might at first think is the typical profile. In the US a gun is the most common weapon used, in the UK the murders are more likely to be due to stabbing, arson, strangulation, poisoning and inhalation of carbon monoxide. In Australia, murders are mostly executed using sharp instruments, weapons to hand and beatings. The incidents are more likely to occur at home or in an isolated countryside spot.
Professor Neil Websdale, a Professor at Northern Arizona University is one academic who has studied these crimes in his book, Familial Hearts: The Emotional Styles of 211 Killers. The livid coercive killer is described as one who is motivated by anger and rage. Used to being in control and having authority over his family, when his partner tries to leave with their children, he feels his control slipping away and a type of humiliated rage ensues. He feels deep shame. He starts to think along the lines of, If I cannot have my own children, then I’m damned if she is going to have them. What is she thinking that she has taken this unilateral decision to remove my children from me? How dare she? This cannot happen…
His authority questioned, his identity threatened, his focus is that she has dared to defy him. Wronged him. And his humiliation is now public. Not only that – she has removed his children, his property without his permission. If there is an AVO taken out against him or court restrictions are imposed about accessing his children, he is further enraged. In a bid to reclaim his self-respect, his authority and his property, he decides to resort to the most drastic of measures. It is his right. He will kill them all and then himself – because of the shame. Narcissistic rage, jealousy, and fear of abandonment are characteristics of this type of offender, also referred to as the hostile type – the jealous offender who is motivated to kill their family out jealousy and revenge with the primary victim being the spouse. The revenge aspect occurs when he wants to inflict extreme pain and leave the mother alive to suffer after he takes the lives of her children. He may physically injure but not kill her.
In the well regarded research of Yardley, Wilson and Lynes, male family annihilators were divided into four groups. First is the self-righteous group: the men who blame their partner for the pain they feel in being unable to control and provide for their family. They cannot accept the reality that is now their life where they are substantially worse off than they were before the partnership terminated, and they attribute all of their misfortune to their partner. Fear of abandonment sits alongside jealousy of anticipated males who will take their place. They decide to punish their partner and leave her suffering the lifelong pain of losing her children, whom he carefully plans to kill – usually within a few months of the separation. More often than not, the killer will tell others that he wants to kill his partner or family.
The second group is the disappointed category. Men in this group believe that they have been let down by their family and, or partner and that they don’t deserve how they have been wronged, betrayed or displaced. Honour killings fall into this category. The killer often feels trapped in a frustration- nurturance cycle, where he experiences intense frustration leading to a deep rage when he kills his family. Then he takes his own life because the source of his nurturance has been destroyed.
Anomic killers are deeply and overly enmeshed with their families and when social and economic circumstances change dramatically, such as financial catastrophe or ruin, or the loss of job and status, these men believe that the perceived humiliation, shame and disaster is experienced by the whole family. They seek to remove this pain for those they feel responsible for by ending all of their lives. There is a strange type of altruistic thinking in the minds of these men who plan to save their families from the pain and ignominy they are experiencing. This group is similar to the despondent type – the despaired offender who kills as an extended suicide.
Last is the paranoid group. These men believe that their family is under threat from external forces, real or imagined, and that they can’t perform their task of protecting them. They feel that there is only one way to solve the situation and that is to kill their families and themselves. Black and white thinking is common here, as is mental ill health in the killers.
Other risk factors found to be common features of men who commit murder-suicides are the presence of a stepchild in the home, escalating disputes over time about the workings of the adults’ relationship, gun possession, marital breakdown, estrangement, financial hardship, substance abuse and unemployment (although this last is not present in some research as suggested above). But noted as by far the number one risk factor for murder-suicide is prior domestic violence perpetrated by the male partner on either his partner or both his partner and children. Researchers and commentators agree that much more research is needed on the risk factors.
Commonly cited psychological profiles of the killers include male dominance and control in a relationship, inequality of power, entitlement, cultural or societal expectations to be served and serviced by women, gender stereotypes and norms and objectification of women. Often the degree of violence of the acts in a murder-suicide is more extreme than that in ordinary homicides and can involve the murder of others than the family at the scene as well as the family pet.
All of these interwoven and related issues are combined in varying degrees to result in the most dreadful of consequences for the victims of family violence ... familicide. – Jan 2021
Karrlson, L. Antfolk, J. et al. Familicide: A systematic Lierature Review Sage Perspectives. Jan 2019. <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1524838018821955>
Auchter, B. Men Who Murder Their Families: What the Research Tells Us NIJ Journal / Issue No. 266 < https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/230412.pdf>
Aho, A. L., Remahl, A., & Paavilainen, E. (2017). Homicide in the western family and background factors of a perpetrator. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 45(5), 555–568. doi: 10.1177/1403494817705587
Yardley, E. , Wilson, D. and Lynes, A. (2014), A Taxonomy of Male British Family Annihilators, 1980–2012. Howard J Crim Justice, 53: 117-140. doi:10.1111/hojo.12033