February 15, 2010

Family Annihilators Don't Do It Because They Love You


Newsweek runs a story, Inside the Minds of Family Annihilators.  It describes the results of a ten year followup study which found that family murders spike when the economy is down.

The study is not out yet, but the article hits most of the key words:

seek to create an idealized version

The general thesis is that "when the economy is in decline, jobs are scarce, tensions are high, and the control these men seek becomes harder to maintain."

The article then describes two kinds of family annihilators.  One type is:

driven by rage: they are controlling and sometimes abusive figures who derive self-worth from the authority they exert at home. But that behavior typically plunges the marriage into crisis, often prompting the wife and children to try to leave. The resulting lack of control triggers feelings of humiliation, eventually leading the father to reassert his power in a final paroxysm of violence.
Fair enough, easy to spot.  But where the article (describing the study) goes wrong is the leeway it offers the other kind: the "altruistic" killer:

The "civil reputable" killer, on the other hand, is motivated by a perverse form of altruism. "His entire identity is in his family"...Murdering his family members, then, becomes a way of rescuing them from the hardship and shame of bankruptcy and suicide.

The idea here is that the guy doesn't want his family to suffer, so he kills them. Wrong.  He's not sparing them the shame of bankruptcy, he is sparing himself the shame of having to face them every day, as a failure. 

This may seem like a trivial distinction, but it is very important.

If, as the researchers would agree, these are murders motivated by narcissism, then doing something "altruistic" (including murdering them), doing something for the other, independent of how it would affect himself, would entirely be inconsistent with that mental process.   In narcissism there is no action unless there is benefit to identity.

For example, why not just kill himself only?  Because it ends the movie as "he was a  failure."  There's no rebuttal, there's no redemption.  That's your identity forever.  That doesn't work for him.

However, he could himself so his family could get the life insurance.  That would work, provided that the family knew he killed himself for the insurance money.  Movie ends: tragic hero, sacrificed himself for others.  That's a fine ending.

Except, in most cases, insurance doesn't pay for suicide.  So in order for it to work, the man would have to tell no one about his plan.  It would have to look like an accident to everyone.  No one could know.  That selfless act-- i.e. a total denial of himself, his identity, and his motivations, would be impossible for a man whose acting from a narcissistic perspective.

This is going to seem obvious, but: for this reason, if he fails to kill his family, and then feels great remorse, you should not trust him.   When he sits before you sobbing, how could I have done this, forgive me! in some bizarre way I thought I was protecting you!  I'm so so sorry!-- don't believe it, that's not remorse because there is no guilt.  He's revealed his true self, and it shames him: when the going gets tough, he will protect his identity before anything else.


In an interview, the researcher, said:

This seems to come out of nowhere. It's shocking and you can't predict it--there really aren't any red flags. They don't have a character or personality disorder.
There is one predictor; but because familial murders are so uncommon the 50% or so that this one does predict isn't going to get you any mileage.  And, unfortunately it predicts precisely because, and only if, it is undetected: the man has a secret.

The article describes how financial problems, loss of a job, etc, are precipitants, but what these murderers have in common is that the financial ruin reveals the Ponzi scheme of their life.  He didn't just lose his job; he lost his job and he had debts his wife didn't know about.  Or that he was really embezzling the money. Or he lost his job as a bartender so he can no longer pretend he's a bar owner.  That's why these men don't murder coworkers, whom they may blame or be jealous of; they murder the people they were trying to deceive.

Hence, the prevention of family murders isn't psychotherapy, it's exposing the lie.   They murder because they're afraid they are about to be revealed.  You can defuse this by getting past the terror of "about to be."  The lie closes you in; having it exposed is painful, but it allows for possibilities, hope.

If you're that guy-- and you know who you are-- own up now because the lies only get bigger.  You have already shown yourself to be less than your lie; if it gets bigger, it will be out of your control.  You don't know where you'll end up or what you'll be capable of... in ten years. 

If you're the wife, subtly make it easy for him to own up, or at least back out.  He thinks his main value is in the keeping up of appearances.  Repeatedly show him that that ,"the thing," is unimportant to you; show him you love him for something else, hell, in extreme cases suggest to him you've always wanted to live the simple life in Nicaragua.

Or run.

But there are very few things in life that are certain.  This is one: if your father or husband tries to kill you, he's not doing it for you.