Katherine van Wormer

(WOMENSENEWS)–Consider these recent headlines:

"Teen Escapes as Father Kills Family" (in Florida)

"Maryland Town Anguished, Baffled After Man Kills Wife, Three Children and Self"

"Four Dead in Baltimore Hotel"

"Police Continue Probe into Murder-Suicide of Wilmington Family" (California)

"Despondent Dads Driven to Kill Loved Ones" (California, Washington, Maryland)

Until recently, cases of a parent killing his or her whole family were extremely rare. According to Kristen Rand, legislative director of the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Violence Policy Center, these cases "were so rare we didn’t bother to count them as a separate category."

But 2007 saw several such cases, in which fathers were usually the killers. In Alabama, one father threw his children off a bridge; in New Jersey, a man drowned his daughters, then hanged himself; and a California man shot his wife and two daughters in a parked car before turning the gun on himself. Over the next two years such mass killings have escalated.

Harsh Economy a Factor

A scan of news reports shows these horrible crimes becoming even more common, occurring at the rate of one every week or two.

If that rate holds up, the increase is huge. The previous rate was one or two every three months, according to Rand of the Violence Policy Center.

A doubling in murder-suicide from one or two per day–the average for the United States–to more than two or three a day is also evident from my news tracking this year.

Most experts cited in news reports emphasize the correlation between the killings and the economic downturn. And in our book, "Death by Domestic Violence: Preventing the Murders and the Murder-Suicides," my co-author and I did find that unemployment and other financial difficulties were themes in whole-family murder-suicides.

This fact may help explain why in some places that have been hard hit by this severe recession–Atlantic City, N.J., and throughout Florida–the increase in murder-suicides has been particularly acute, as indicated by my investigation of news sources.

But while the harsh economy may be making things worse, it’s not the whole story behind these grizzly murders.

Looming through all the horror stories is the fact that this is overwhelmingly a male-on-female crime. The question is why. Why do men who are in despair and suicidal strike out against the women and children in their lives?

Dominance, Violence, Jealousy

The research literature, as summarized in our book, shows that the patterns of murder-suicide of a man and his wife or partner are of two basic types.

One involves an elderly couple in which the man is the caretaker of a woman who suffers from dementia. Not wanting to send her to a nursing home and finding himself too frail to care for her himself, he kills them both.

More commonly, the crimes involve an abusive, extremely possessive man. When the woman threatens to leave him, he kills her and himself.

Dominance, explosive violence, jealousy and a pathological fear of rejection by his wife or partner are among the key features of male-on-female domestic homicide that we found in our research.

Common to every single case that I have studied is a precipitating crisis and the failure of the man to call out for help.

In two similar cases–one in Iowa City, IA, and one in Baltimore–for example, men killed their wives, children and then themselves. They took this action apparently out of a twisted belief that they were all better off dead and that they, the men, were entitled to "protect" their families in this way. Both perpetrators were heavily in debt and had trouble pending at work connected to financial dealings.

Mental Illness Involved?

Psychiatrists interviewed in news stories single out mental illness as the cause. It’s easier to make sense of such cases when we define the perpetrators as sick, as normal people would not commit such atrocities. And yet, most of the recent whole-family killings have been committed by men who were previously high functioning professionals.

Sociologists point to the economic crisis combined with the impact of suggestions from news coverage of other mass killings.

Access to a gun in the home further increases the likelihood of deadly violence.

All these factors may be involved. But there are women too who suffer from mental disorders and who are in economic distress, and yet there are no reports of any of them wiping out their entire families.

For a holistic understanding of the nature of the plague of murder-suicides we need to look critically at gender. We must examine this culture that defines what it means to be a "real man" in our society and that produces men who react to personal crisis with such premeditated violence against the women and children in their lives.

Katherine van Wormer, professor of social work at the University of Northern Iowa, is co-author of "Death by Domestic Violence: Preventing the Murders and the Murder-Suicides"(Praeger, 2009).

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For more information:

Violence Policy Center

The National Domestic Violence Hotline

The National Violent Death Reporting System

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