Sunday, April 26, 2009

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?


At April 26, 2009 at 4:00 PM , Blogger John said...

The connection between familicide and domestic violence of other sorts seems to me to be incomplete/unclear/fallacious--these actions don't seem to be an escalation of abuse to deadly levels, but rather sudden acts of killing without any violent behavior necessarily preceding and have a sort of altruistic if completely misguided motive, which seems inconsistent with most abuse.

At April 26, 2009 at 5:20 PM , Anonymous Angela said...

I think that the men *chose* to put themselves in the breadwinner position. In today's enlightened society they could well have chosen otherwise (for example by marrying an empowered working woman), and if that means they irrationally feel more guilty about failing in their sexist role, too bad for them.

As for Andrea Yates and the other cases of mother killing their children, we can't hold them responsible for their decisions. The Patriarchy *forced* them into the position of motherhood that corroded their judgment.

Once again we see apologists for the Patriarchy trying to drum up sympathy for men, when what we have once again is male aggression and female victims.

At April 27, 2009 at 2:16 PM , Anonymous Dan said...


So you think men choose to be breadwinners, eh? You think "today's enlightened society" allows them to choose otherwise, eh? What planet are you living on, Angela? Even those of us who did marry an empowered working woman are expected to pull our weight and earn a good living. That is because our families depend on the income we earn, eg. to pay down the mortgage.

Of course, none of that can justify killing another human being. And that makes me wonder how those people ever got the idea that killing was preferable to facing the consequences of bankruptcy.

As for your assertion that, when it comes to women who kill their children, "we can't hold them responsible for their decisions" I most emphatically disagree. You aren't doing women any favours by claiming they shouldn't be held accountable for their actions. I'm left wondering whether you are actually being serious.

How can you blame "the Patriarchy" while simultaneously claiming that we live in an "enlightened society"?

At April 27, 2009 at 9:55 PM , Blogger Christina said...

John: I grant right off the bat that I probably wasn't as clear about that connection as I should have been. Just so you know where I was coming from, in the first article that the post links to, it says: "He describes familicides as "canaries in a mineshaft" — sensational cases that herald an uptick in more common forms of domestic violence." The 'he' referred to is Richard Gelles, who is a dean at the University of Pennsylvania and is The Joanne and Raymond Welsh Chair of Child Welfare and Family Violence in the School of Social Policy & Practice. The logic is that, if extreme financial stress can cause a person to snap in such a horrific way as to kill his whole family, it's most probable that other people are snapping in less extreme/fatal/final ways, e.g. taking out frustrations on their wives or children when they get into arguments or when they've had a particularly trying day or whatever else might motivate someone to hurt loved ones. And, while I'm not sure on this, it would seem to me that the domestic violence referred to here is not necessarily systematic, patterned domestic abuse. Not that that makes any form of domestic violence any less excusable, but I think it might indicate a different mindset from that of the typical abuser.

Dan: thank you; you make great points.

Angela: I'd ask you to read my second-to-last paragraph again. I am *not* trying to apologize for these men's actions, or for the actions of any people who cause harm to others. I'm not trying to "drum up sympathy" for these men, especially not at the cost of marginalizing the victims (who, by the way, were not all women: the children killed in the first instance included two young boys). I'm simply trying to point out that it's in everyone's--let me repeat, women, children, and men, everyone's--interest to tone down male gender roles and not give all our focus to female gender roles.

As for Andrea Yates' specific case, we don't hold her (legally) responsible for what she did because she was clinically insane. Because of her unfit mental state, she was ultimately acquitted, not because society's "forcing" her to become a mother gave her an excuse or justification to drown her children. Nor is her insanity an excuse, per se, for her actions; it's a mitigating factor that means we ought to hold her responsible in a different way (by putting her into a mental hospital so she can get better) from a sane person who kills their five children (this character would go straight to jail). However, had she not been insane, she would have absolutely been held responsible for her crimes, and rightly so. Feminism isn't about creating a separate standard for women: it's about creating one standard for all. As Dan said, arguing that women are less responsible for their actions than men doesn't do any good, even though a specific woman may be held less responsible than the vast majority of the population (men and women) because of insanity.

One last thing: arguing that society forces women into the role of mother while arguing that these men "chose" their role of breadwinner is highly inconsistent.


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