September 8, 2010

8 Characteristics of Family Annihilators

guess why

The case of Hugh McFall (from the BBC):

[He] beat his wife and daughter to death with a rubber mallet before hanging himself...

Hugh McFall, 48, of Oswestry, Shropshire, was found hanged on 5 February, hours after wife Susan, 55, and Francesca, 18, were found dead.

An inquest heard how he left a note by his body saying "I hope I rot in hell".

Why did he do it?  More specifically: why does the news report say he did it?


No one is surprised when the news reports murders; they're interesting in a pornographic way.  ("Now I have these feelings, whatever shall I do with them?")

But the murder is secondary to the report; the murder is an excuse to release an already worked out narrative.  Murder suspects and victims become unpaid actors for a reality show  CBS calls "The News."

An example from this week:

"Hundreds Attend Vigil for Slain Kansas Cheerleader." 

When you click on the link, what do you want to see?

Here is a picture of a tiger and nitrogen while you consider your prejudices:

monkey and sky.jpg

Be honest: you want to see a picture of a cheerleader.  You sure as hell don't want to see a picture of a vigil-- but "vigil" = "pics of her while alive." Also: "Kansas"= white, which means she's hot.  Otherwise they wouldn't have used the word "Kansas," they would have used the word "Trenton."

And what kind of a guy would kill her?  How about "Rocco?"

Three burly cops="violent predator."  Do I need to tell you what his criminal history is?  If I told you that Rocco has a history of burglary but no prior rapes or sex offenses, would that make you suspect him less?  No, because we all understand how a cheerleader might end up dead.  Well, how did you come to understand that? 

GREAT BEND, Kan. -- A 14-year-old central Kansas girl whose charred remains were found at an asphalt plant last week was a vivacious teen who loved bright colors and preferred wearing flip flops over any other type of shoes, according to those who knew her.

Hmm.  Doesn't really match the cheerleader type.  In fact, this girl wasn't really a cheerleader-- she was going to be a cheerleader when she started 9th grade in the fall.  She was also going to be in geometry class, but they left that out.

That he killed a cheerleader makes sense; but killing some random 8th grader-- was he a first time pedophile?-- makes less sense.

Calling her a cheerleader certainly draws in the viewers, but at a huge societal cost.  Most of us learn about murder through the news, and empirical evidence (news stories) tell us they're right, so we adopt their narratives.  Narratives aren't necessarily bad-- unless they're wrong.  I'm not saying he did/didn't do it; I am saying that when you put "cheerleader" in the headline, I am surer that he did it in spite of my attempts at being objective.  I'm surer because you're surer.

And narratives are hard to unlearn.  Now that we know that she's an 8th grader and that he has no history of prior sex offenses, do we double back and give him the benefit of the doubt?



Filicides, the killing of your kids, is no different.

There are broadly five types: altruistic, psychotic, unwanted child, accident by neglect, spousal revenge.  Although filicide is perpetrated in equal numbers by mothers and fathers, spouse + kid murderers are overwhelmingly men.

That said, the media like to report on only three of these types of filicides: mothers who are psychotic (weak) ; women who are looking to get/please a new man (evil); and fathers committing "altruistic filicide" in which the father thinks he is sparing his family worse suffering by killing them (snapped).

The case of Hugh McFall (from the BBC):

A florist beat his wife and daughter to death with a rubber mallet before hanging himself amid fears he would lose a big customer, an inquest heard.

Hugh McFall, 48... was found hanged on 5 February, hours after wife Susan, 55, and Francesca, 18, were found dead.

An inquest heard how he left a note by his body saying "I hope I rot in hell".

We're about to get a standard altruistic murder story highlighting the role of the employment, which completely misses the important subtleties.  Here are the more important ones, with  some interventions. 

1. He's not losing a job, he's losing his ability to keep up the lifestyle:

The self-employed flower salesman was facing accusations of invoice discrepancies from his main customer - which had suspended his contract - and feared a police investigation into his accounts... "His financial world had collapsed, his source of business income or at least 90 to 95% of it, had disappeared in a moment.  Their lifestyle, as he knew it, would be over."

1b. The lifestyle often involves some kind of "soft" illegality (accounting irregularities, the use of drugs, etc).   The news may cite jail as the main stressor; but the general fear is the irrreproducibility of the lifestyle (e.g. even if he doesn't go to jail, he'll never be able to make that kind of money again, legally.)

2.  A sudden, temporary, but unshakable realization that there is no way out of this. "This is the end of me," "it's over," "I'm dead," etc.

Business associates told the hearing that Mr McFall had considered himself "finished" after a meeting about alleged invoice discrepancies the day before his death.

If you hear a man say, "I'm finished", believe it.   Especially if it doesn't seem as bad as he thinks it is.  It's his inability to see alternatives (which would require another person's perspective) that makes him dangerous.

3.  While anyone can see how severe the problem is, no one else sees the problem as insurmountable-- except him.   "Why didn't he just...?"

West Mercia Police said the case would probably not have ended up in court but an investigation would have been started if the owners of Stans Superstore had taken their concerns to police.

This is his inability to see things from another perspective except his own.  What's obvious to you is not obvious to him, and opportunities to intervene can be missed if you think he "would have thought of that himself."  Be concrete, be basic.  "Look, are you a legal scholar now?  Let's get a lawyer."  A lawyer? Really?  "Yeah-- I know a guy-- and let him tell you what he sees; if they can get OJ off, they can get you off.  If nothing else, it's going to buy you some time..."

The longer he can experience his shame, the longer he will be able to live with his shame (or create a rationalization that will let himself live with it.  The goal isn't to solve his problems, but delay him until he can think straight.

4.  Media says family murders= financial problems, but the money is merely the cover for the real shame:

The coroner said Mr McFall's fears about his sexual health may have been "going through his mind" when he killed his family, as well as his business worries and concerns over his "social standing".

And from another article:

A computer expert and senior forensic investigator told the inquest he had examined two computers as part of the investigation, one from the McFall's home and the other from his business premises.  [An investigator] said someone had been accessing pornography, escort and massage parlour sites and seeking advice for diagnosing HIV.

Illegal activity, affairs, drugs...  the money is important because it hides those things, allows him to present himself as something he wants to be. 

Sometimes the financial narrative is so compelling it seduces even experienced criminologists.  Criminology professor David Wilson:

"They've previously had wealth, had possessions, they went on foreign holidays. The annihilator feels 'given that I can't give my family any of this any longer' as an act of almost mercy, as they would see it, 'I'll take their lives so as to prevent them having experiences of any hardship'."

Wrong, always.  It is impossible to think your children are better off dead unless you are unable to see their perspective.  If you asked them, what would they say?   Why wouldn't you believe them? Why do you think you know better than they do?

They aren't better off dead; you're better off if they're dead.  That's the secret that must be undone.

5.  SHAME.

"I can't give them what they deserve" is a deflection from "I can't give them what they deserve."    The panic is about them becoming aware of your failure.

[the criminologist] believes where they lived was a factor: "Oswestry is a face-to-face society. Those kinds of societies often provide a great deal of support, but if the wheel comes off in this type of society, then everybody knows your business... It's not like they are in a big city where they can simply disappear and become anonymous.

The same applies to honor killings.

The money is most often the final straw; without the money, you can't keep up the appearances...

Murders happen before the exposure, before "everyone finds out."  Once they've found out, there is no reason for the murder.  So either tell his family, or make him think you have.  But then:

6.  Sometimes he kills himself, and sometimes he doesn't.

He kills his family because he can't face them knowing.  He kills himself because he can't face that they know.

The other reason for the suicide is the sheer number of people who are going to know-- can't kill 'em all.

The likelihood of suicide increases as guilt increases, and decreases the more you can be convinced other people won't know/won't care.

7.  A very fine line: it was both spontaneous, and premeditated.

Two years ago another family murder took place near Hugh McFall's town, and McFall was horrified:

I remember Hugh saying 'How could you do that? How can it get so bad that you could do that to your family?...  It just doesn't make sense, surely there's other ways out however bad things get?'"

And certainly he wasn't thinking about killing his family before the financial problems hit.  But as soon as he decides he's "finished,"  he starts planning the murders-- weapons/tools obtained, the biggest threat is killed first (i.e. wife before kids), etc.

7.  Get out of the house, or at least the bedroom.

75% occur in the home, usually in the bedroom.  It is extremely unusual (6%) for the man to kill only the children and not the wife.  Since the purpose of this is to avoid shame, leaving the wife alive would be contrary to the point.

If you're the wife, don't go home, especially if he says he'll kill the kids if you don't.  


More on family annihilators 

A case of one such man

A case of American honor killing