Solving the complex problem of familicide requires a fight against the recession, argues Louise Harrison.
Last Tuesday, a family of four were found dead in their house in Hampshire; the woman, a 31-year-old nursery manager and mother to two young girls had been murdered alongside her children, apparently by the father who was later found to have hanged himself.
This horrendous incident took place only days after a nurse died having had her throat cut outside the hospital where she worked. The police are now questioning a colleague, her ex-boyfriend, with whom she had recently had a baby.
In 2008, Christopher Foster killed his wife Jillian and their 15 year old daughter, Kirstie. He then burnt down the house and committed suicide. Watching the news you could be forgiven for thinking that these heartbreaking acts of violence were not only random and unpredictable but also unrelated, forming no pattern worthy of cultural or political analysis.
In fact, we have in the past been almost cajoled by the British media into believing, however horrid these incidents are, that there is nothing society can do to stop the violence within families that leads to the deaths of over 100 women, 52 children and 12 families each year. Understandably, author Sophie Hannah asked, ‘why weren’t whole editions of Newsnight being devoted to discussing how we, as a society, could ensure such crimes were never committed again?
Naming and defining this type of murder helps begin the process of understanding why it occurs with such regularity in western societies. Professionals and academics in Britain have described the act committed by men (as it usually is men) who kill their entire family and then themselves, has ‘murder-suicide’ or ‘familicide’.
Though this is rarely referred to by name in the UK, in the United States, it is commonly and somewhat sensationally known as “family annihilation”. Valuable research and debates there have helped to shed light on this unusual but increasing common form of crime. Firstly, evidence highlights that perpetrators on both sides of the Atlantic are primarily white middle class males, seemingly successful ‘family men’, with properties and businesses that give them high status within the community and the opportunity to create a ‘normal’ functioning family. These goals often disintegrate on the rocks of debt, bankruptcy and unemployment leading to a financial, social and emotional rupture which in turn leads to a psychological breakdown.
Jack Levin, an American criminologist, suggests family killers are usually men who have “a profound need for control that drives them to destroy their family, when they can no longer provide for them financially or when the family has been divided by divorce”. Since the recession began in America, family murder-suicide rates have jumped 9%. In Britain, the rate over the past decade jumped from one every eight weeks to one in six to now to one a month.
There are those who argue that poverty isn’t the main trigger for murder suicide, or murder at all, but Levin importantly points out that family annihilation is likely to become more common in tough economic times, with murders in the home and in the workplace increasing. For this reason, Dr. Richard Gelles, the Child Welfare and Family Violence chair for the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that family annihilations, though unusual, should be seen ‘as the canaries in the violence mineshaft’.
He stresses the point, there is always a lag factor with violence in communities hit hard by job losses and public service cuts. Police, teachers and social workers will start to see the horrific effects of the recession in six to nine months time. It’s not the case, he says, that on Monday a man loses his job then on Wednesday he becomes a wife beater. Therefore, his argument that services should be focused on communities hardest hit by job losses is not only a preventative initiative, it is a humane strategy.
In Britain that would mean investing resources for instance in Yorkshire, where private sector jobs have been worst hit in the country since the recession began; furthermore, it suffered over the last 30 years as a consequence of the Tory pit closure plan. For these two reasons, it has frighteningly high statistics for violence and abuse already.
The problem academics have with understanding family annihilations is that they tend to look just at the problem of economics and male power, ignoring the glaring fact that women still suffer from sexism. And it is this that underpins such gender specific violence. Full-time working women earn on average 17% less than men, and part-timers can see a difference in wages of up to 30%. This has a huge ideological effect on the standing of women within the family and society as a whole. It perpetuates the myth that women’s work is inferior and secondary to their role in the home. However, this is far from true. Women’s work has been an essential part of the economy and their wages are very much needed by the family in order to fulfil its role as a unit of consumption.
Therefore, economics can’t fully explain why it is that women and children suffer the most from abuse and violence in the family. Even during the so-called ‘good years’ of the Blair administration, two women and one child a week died at the hands of someone they knew. Author Lindsey German highlights the problem with the family in a capitalist society: There are ‘contradictions inside the family, which means it cannot fulfil the expectations of its individual members for much of the time. The household is seen as the repository of love, calm and respite from a cruel world. The reality is rather different. The family contains within it personal and sexual tensions, some of which spill over into violence. The majority of murders take place in and around the family. Children are more at risk of abuse within the family than they are from strangers’.
So, for the man who sees himself as the ‘head of the family’, with other members in a subservient role, his inability to maintain the family and solve its problem is compounded by his huge fall in status. This pressure leads directly to the act of murder-suicide. For men like Foster, who aspire to the fragile family dream, they are unaware that it doesn’t matter how hard they work, they are still part of a machine; a rotten system that allows families and individuals within it to go to the wall mercilessly. Looking at families trying to survive in mining communities after the closures, it was plain to see that the family worked only while the government supported it.
People, whether in families or not, need to be valued and given the opportunity to live without fear of poverty, loneliness and failure. For a long time I hated the men who committed these crimes. Now I realise they are victims too. There is no warmth or comfort in a society like ours from institutions that people try to rely on in times of need. We receive little support from the benefits system, the job market, the banks or politicians. Now, more than ever, we have to fight for jobs and services nationally and support those internationally, this is the only way to protect our communities and the ones we love.
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