Robert Franklin, a co-blogger at Glenn Sacks’ blog, complains that mothers who kill their own children get treated more sympathetically than fathers:
Her behavior, according to the story was “a cry for help.” If a father had murdered his toddlers, would we say he was crying out for help? I’ve never seen it and I frankly don’t expect to.
So this story falls into the familiar pattern – when women behave badly, we seek to understand why; when men behave badly, we judge and condemn them. One approach is love and understanding; the other is condemnation. The difference is based on the sex of the bad actor.
I’ve seen this complaint made by many MRAs, and I was initially inclined to agree with it — after all, all else being equal, there’s no reason to have any more sympathy for female than male criminals. Plus, I fully believe that the media is sexist. And maybe the media’s sexism is biasing their coverage of filicides. But there’s another reason for the imbalance Franklin notices: mothers and fathers murder for very different reasons.
“Filicide” means the murder of a child by her or his own parent. And all the research agrees: paternal filicide (murder of kids by fathers) typically has very different motivations from maternal filicide (murder of kids by mothers). The typical father-killer is a longtime abuser, and is motivated by a desire to control his family, or by jealousy because he believes (rightly or wrongly) that his wife is cheating on him or leaving him. (He is, however, sane, in the legal sense that he has an understanding of right and wrong.) The typical mother-killer is committing neonaticide in a context of postpartum depression, denial, and social isolation; or, if she’s killing an older child, she’s doing so out of a deranged belief that the child is better off dead.
Is it unfair that our society looks down on revenge-killings of children, more than we look down on killings done in postpartum madness? Maybe. But that’s not an argument that Franklin makes. And it’s usual in our society to find killings done by people who understand right and wrong more reprehensible, and deserving of a greater level of condemnation.
Research published in The Journal of Family Violence found:1
The data on motives indicated major differences between the two groups of offenders: Men were more likely to kill their children as a means of reprisal against their spouse, whereas women were more likely to kill their children for altruistic reasons.
(“Altruistic”? How can murder be “altruistic”? Well, obviously it’s not genuine altruism: but the killers believe the murders to be altruistic.)2
Let’s take sex away from this. Which is more sympathetic — a parent who kills a child because the parent has come unhinged from reality; or a parent who kills a child for revenge on a cheating or divorcing spouse? Is it really unjust if the latter parent gets treated more harshly by the press, and by the courts?
In an article in The Guardian, Jack Levin, a professor at Northeastern University, profiles men who kill their famililes:
“He doesn’t hate his children, but he often hates his wife and blames her for his miserable life. He feels an overwhelming sense of his own powerlessness. He wants to execute revenge and the motive is almost always to ‘get even’.” […]
In the majority of cases, if the perpetrator fails in his own suicide, as in the Hogan and Hall cases, they almost always plead some form of insanity.
But Levin rejected this: “These are executions. They are never spontaneous. They are well planned and selective. They are not carried out in the heat of the moment or in a fit of rage. They are very methodical and it is often planned out for a long time. There are certain people the killer blames for his problems. If a friend came along, he wouldn’t kill him or her. He kills his children to get even with his wife because he blames her and he hates her. The killer feels he has lost control. Annihilating his family is a way of regaining control. It is a methodical, selective murder by a rational, loving father. That’s why it is so terrifying.”
This is a case in which reality is not sex-neutral. Although there are individual exceptions, if you read about a filicide in which a parent is going mad from social isolation and depression and kills their infant, odds are overwhelming that that parent is the mother. If you read about a filicide in which a parent kills their infant because they’re trying to control the other parent, or get revenge because the other parent wants a divorce, odds are overwhelming that parent is the father.
That said, I’m not arguing that sexism has nothing to do with it — actually, sexism has a lot to do with the differences in how mothers and father murder. Writing in Child Abuse Review, Ania Wilczynski argues that sexist social conditioning accounts for the difference in how women and men commit filicide:3
Marked sex differences were also apparent in filicide motivation. While men tend to predominate in the retaliating, jealousy and discipline categories of filicide, women tend to be found in the unwanted child, altruistic and psychotic categories…. The literature reports comparable results on both these findings.
The gender differences in filicide motivation indicate that an understanding of the social construction of masculinity and femininity may be crucial to an adequate understanding of filicide. Men are socialized to be unemotional, aggressive, dominant and sexually possessive. Therefore their filicides tend to most commonly involve retaliation, jealousy and discipline. Conversely, social norms encourage women to be passive, nurturant and self-sacrificing. Hence women’s filicides tend to be found in the altruistic, psychotic and neonaticide categories. Thus, while filicide is often seen as an aberrant and inexplicable act committed by someone who is either evil or mentally deranged, it is important to place the crime in its social context and to see that it represents in extreme form the playing out of traditional gender roles.
MRAs like Robert Franklin might do more good if they concentrated on fighting the sexist model of masculinity that harms nearly all men, but also leads a tiny minority of men to feel that they have to murder to maintain control of their families. If men felt less need to be “aggressive” and “dominant,” fewer men would be murdering their families. To this end, we should be looking at changing the culture of violence and bullying that too many boys are raised in, and too many adults (of both sexes) accept or encourage.
Men who commit felicide have very often been abused themselves, when they were children. Obviously, our society needs to do more to fight child abuse. But it would also be worthwhile to try and provide counseling and services to adult survivors of child abuse. Men are frequently socialized to avoid admitting when we need help, so outreach programs for male survivors of child abuse are also extremely necessary.
What about reducing felicide among mothers? The lowest-hanging fruit here is neonaticide, the murder of very young infants by their mothers. Mothers who commit neonaticide are usually poor, usually teenaged, usually socially isolated, and are often in denial about having been pregnant. Increased sex education, and increased availability of free prenatal care — including confidential care for minors — would be good steps to take. I’d also speculate that it would help if society was more accepting of teenage pregnancy, so that pregnant girls might feel less desperate and isolated.
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- Léveillée S, Marleau JD, Dubé M (2007) Filicide: a comparison by sex and presence or absence. of self-destructive behaviour. Journal of Family Violence v22 n5 p287-295. Link. [↩]
- From Psychiatric News: “In ‘altruistic’ filicide a parent—almost always a mother in this category—kills her child or children as an extension of a suicide attempt. ‘These mothers see their children as an extension of themselves,’ he said. ‘They do not want to leave a child motherless in a ‘cruel’ world as seen through their depressed eyes.’ In a second type of altruistic filicide a child is killed to end his or her real or imagined suffering. ‘These mothers may project their own unacceptable symptoms onto the child,’ he said.” [↩]
- Wilczynski, Ania (2005). “Child Killing By Parents: A Motivational Model.” Child Abuse Review v4 365-370. Pdf link. [↩]