Familicide

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The experts are calling it “family annihilation” or “familicide. ” A parent kills his or her family and then commits suicide. An entire family is wiped out, just like that. I had never heard these terms until yesterday when I encountered them in the British mystery I was reading (The Wrong Mother , by Sophie Hannah) and again when I turned to a newspaper article about a local man who just killed his two daughters and then himself three days ago. This was the fourth “familicide” in Columbus this year. A total of six children were murdered.

The newspaper article cited these statistics:

  • Between 1.000 and 1.500 people die in murder-suicides each year in the U.S.
  • Nearly three-fourths of murder-suicides nationally involved “intimate partners” — spouses, ex-spouses or girlfriends or boyfriends
  • More than 90% of all familicides are committed by men.
  • Two out of three fathers who kill their children and themselves also kill their wives.

The novel went into more detail about the motivations behind this acts. One is when the parent feels that he has somehow failed his wife and children (often financially) and wishes to “end their suffering.” Another is for revenge, when the family has broken up and particularly if the other parent has custody of the children. Women who commit familicide are more likely to be suffering from severe depression or psychosis rather than from anger or disappointment. Both men and women are attached to and protective of their children and may feel that they just can’t leave them behind.

The newspaper article was interesting, but the novel put a human face on the problem. Apparently there is another novel titled Loverboy, by Victoria Redel, which is about the same topic. Kyra Sedgewick starred in a 2006 movie of the same name. I’ll have to look one or both up. And then there is Beloved , Toni Morrison’s account of a mother who commits “protective murder.”

Sorry for such a morbid topic, but this seems to be an increasing problem–and apparently not just in the U.S. It’s hard to know how to identify, let alone help, a suicidal parent, but the first step is to have some idea of the tragedy that could occur if help isn’t forthcoming.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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