Others have gone so far as to label him a “victim” and multiple news sites have urged us “not to victim-blame” him.
Heaven forbid we call out the actions of a man who murdered his children.
Heaven forbid we be critical of his choices.
If this man murdered two children who were not his own, if he murdered two children at random, if he murdered your two children, no-one (and I mean NO-ONE) would be urging us to withhold judgement.
Nor would we be expected to tiptoe around the fact that what he did was a crime.
But because we live in a society where women and children are still seen as an extension of the men they are related to, and because women and children are often expected to passively absorb the violent outbursts of the men they ‘belong’ to, we’re being told not to say anything critical about this man’s choices.
Instead we’re expected to limit our conversation to polite discussion about depression and mental illness.
But here’s an inconvenient truth: most mentally ill people do not kill others. And mentally ill people are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators of it. Moreover, the difference between a man who suicides, and a man who murders his children before suiciding is not how mentally ill he is: it’s how proprietary he is in his attitude towards women and children.
Not only does this attitude often feed in to why these crimes are committed in the first place, but our culture’s proprietary attitude towards women and children also feeds in to the public’s minimising and excusing of these family murder-suicide events.
The problem is that when we view women and children as a mere extension of a man, it becomes more socially acceptable for that man to ‘take those women and children with him’ when he self-destructs. Somehow, the murder will be treated as less heinous, and there will be tacit understanding that the man was merely wanting to take ‘what was his’ with him.
Thus the whole thing will be written up as one ‘terrible tragedy’, he’ll be cast as some kind of tragic victim, and the public will be put on notice “to be careful not to victim-blame” him.
But again, consider for one second how different the reporting would be if he’d murdered two children at random. Once you remove the proprietary claim, you can guarantee that no-one would be issuing edicts, instructing us to tiptoe around the fact that what he did was a crime.
Assistant Professor Carolyn Harris Johnson, a leading expert in familicide and the author of Come With Daddy: Child Murder-Suicide After Family Breakdown, says that the media frequently sanitises these sorts of crimes, and may often romanticise them by suggesting, for example, that the perpetrator acted out of love.
According to Prof Harris Johnson, this is often done to soothe audience anxieties because the subject matter of child murder is either too taboo, or too confronting for many people. But the problem with this, is that this romanticisation of the crime distorts the public’s understanding of why these events occur and the extent of the perpetrator’s responsibility.
“One of the [common] myths is that familicide is caused by love, that the extreme love the father feels for the children means that he can’t bear to be separated from them, and that somehow he kills them out of that kind of emotional response”, says Prof Harris Johnson.
“But these crimes aren’t caused by love. They are caused by violence, a need to control, and a proprietary attitude. They are done to the most vulnerable people, usually to people who are children and who cannot defend themselves.”
Discussing the way the media sanitises these crimes, Prof Harris Johnson points to one case involving a father who gassed his children to death in his car. While some people were tempted to paint an almost peaceful picture of a family who “drifted off to sleep together, never to awaken”, she says that the reality was very different, and very brutal.
“It appeared from scuff marks on the ground outside the car, and bruises and scratches on the bodies of the two older children, that they had struggled to escape, but that their father had used force to restrain them.”
These sorts of grim details are often edited out of news stories to save people’s feelings. But they are also omitted because they do not conform to the romantic narrative of a tragic, misunderstood father (or mother) who was merely trying to spare his or her children the pain of living without them. (This is also why people were so shocked to eventually learn that Geoff Hunt’s daughter, Mia, woke up and huddled against the bedhead moments before the Lockhart father shot her in the face.
Up until this detail was released, the media had painted Geoff Hunt as a caring benevolent dad, who for some sad reason had simply turned out his family’s lights one day. This detail shattered that illusion and forced people to confront just how terrifying the children’s murders were).
According to Prof Harris Johnson, another common myth (also perpetuated by the media) is that these crimes are spontaneous and that the perpetrators “just snap” one day. But to the contrary, the research shows that these crimes tend to be meticulously planned, “sometimes for days, weeks or months in advance, and in some cases, they are even rehearsed”.
Yet despite what the research demonstrates, many people continue to believe that male and female perpetrators of these crimes simply ‘snap’. Indeed, they prefer to believe this, for the exact same reason that they prefer to believe that a mother or father who killed a child “did so out of love”. That is, they prefer it, because it’s far easier to come to terms with (and excuse) a crime, if you believe the perpetrator wasn’t in full control of their actions.
But there is good news here. The fact that these criminals don’t simply ‘snap’ out of the blue, and the fact that in every single case Prof Harris Johnson has examined in her research, there were at least some ‘red flags’ or signs of premeditation along the way, means that these crimes are potentially preventable.
But if we’re ever going to have a conversation about what those red flags are, how to spot them, and how to prevent these murder-suicides, we’re going to have to stop romanticising and mythologizing those responsible.
If you find yourself in need of help, for any reason, crisis support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14.
If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.