A most sinister toll
by Christina DiGasbarro
I don’t think there’s much doubt about it: the kind of news we hear most often—on evening broadcasts, on the radio, online—is the bad kind. Maybe that’s inherent to the business: lots of terrible things happen, but even if they didn’t, news sources would have to keep finding stories of catastrophe and tragedy, or people would stop paying attention (and paying for those services). It’s only when things are going wrong that we have a true need to be informed.
So even though it’s probably fair to say we’ve been desensitized, over the years, to the horror, tragedy, etc., of many news stories, every so often we hit a week where the worst kinds of stories seem to cluster. Two separate familicides occurred in Maryland earlier this week, just days apart, and the horror of these cases has garnered a great deal of attention. In both cases, the father killed his wife and children before committing suicide.
In the first case, the family was $450,000 in debt, and the father, who apparently suffered from depression, left notes which suggest that the extreme financial stress was his motive for the killings. The police aren’t yet entirely sure of the motive for the second father, but it appears that he was having financial troubles as well, and the FBI is investigating his business. Nor have these been the only familicides in recent months, even though, on average, familicides occur very infrequently. The increased prevalence of familicide also suggests that domestic violence of all kinds has probably increased as well, again due to the financial stress of the recession.
As the two Maryland cases suggest, the reason for familicides is often financial stress, and, in a recession, there’s certainly plenty of that stress going around. And, most often, it’s the father who kills his wife and children in cases like these. Why, though? Both men and women suffer from financial stress; both men and women can become depressed or unhinged by stupefying amounts of debt or the prospect of utter failure. Are men simply more violent than women? Do they somehow value their families less?
The answer to those questions is a resounding no. By all accounts, the two families killed in Maryland seemed happy and loving to outsiders; the killings came completely out of nowhere. There are cases of women killing their families too—remember Andrea Yates?—albeit usually for different reasons.
But, in our society, men are still looked to as the providers for the family; they are still expected to be the breadwinners. They are judged by their economic success or failure much more harshly than women are; they are judged by their career arcs much more harshly than women are. A dad who’s lost his job seems to shock us more than a mom who’s lost hers; stay-at-home dads are rare while stay-at-home moms are ubiquitous. A man is expected to have a job, plain and simple, in a much stronger way than a woman. Considering this conception of the male gender role, and the simple fact that expectations and the prospect of judgment can create huge pressure, it seems entirely possible that some men could view financial distress as a true disaster from which there is no recovery. If strong enough, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to guess that the results of financial or career trouble or failure—shame, loss of self-worth or self-respect, feelings of inadequacy, the perception of a dead end—could derange a person to the point at which death seems like the best option. I’ll be honest: I don’t know why death would seem the best option. Perhaps to release the family from the burden of crushing debt? Perhaps to bring an end to shame? Perhaps because the world has seemed to deteriorate so far that escape seems the only plausible way forward?
I’m not trying to offer an apology or rationalization or excuse for the people who commit such awful crimes against those closest to them. I just know that, as feminists, we tend to focus on expectations and gender roles in the context of women, and we talk about expectations and gender roles in the context of men far less often. But the expectations and gender roles assigned to men in our culture can clearly have devastating consequences for everyone, not just for men.
The question then becomes: are men open to revision of their traditional gender roles? How can we make the changes that will benefit everyone? And in the meantime, how do we keep families safe as they continue to struggle through this economy?