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The Role of Emotion in Familicide


Neil Websdale, PhD is Professor of Criminal Justice at Northern Arizona University and Principle Project Advisor to and former Director of the National Domestic Violence Fatality Review Initiative.  His book, Familicidal Hearts: The Emotional Styles of 211 Killers, uncovers the stories behind 196 male and 15 female perpetrators of this shocking offense, situating their emotional styles on a continuum, from the livid coercive to the civil reputable.  Websdale attempts to answer to important questions, why do individuals kill their families and why does familicide appear to be on the rise? In the excerpt below Websdale looks at the role of emotion in familicide.

Familicide is one of the consequences of modern 9780195315417emotional formations.  It remains a mystery why many men, and in all likelihood a (much smaller) number of women, experience this insurgent array of emotions and yet do not commit familicide.  The insurgent array of negative emotions in the the familicidal hearts seems profoundly linked to the ways men and women live out various ideas about masculinities and femininities.  It is almost as if these gender prescriptions offered an all-too-important lifeline for social order.  This observation raises the question of whether some offenders “perform gender” as they commit familicide.  It is possible to argue that when Marcus Sims killed his estranged wife, Gloria, with his barbells, he was doing his version of manhood, his particular form of masculinity.  Sensing that Gloria had abandoned him for another man, Marcus temporarily discharged his unbearable sense of shame with humiliated fury.  Similarly, Mandy Miller, replaced in her husband’s life by another woman, stashed her bullets in her sewing basket, a place were her husband Andrew would not go.  She bided her time for several weeks, then wrote Andrew a letter reminding him of her contributions over the years, her child-rearing, her housework, and their lovemaking.  Unlike Marcus Sims, Mandy did not use violence or fly into a rage at her departing husband.  Her approach was more considered, her emotional style more subdued and civil, even reputable.  Mandy told him she wanted him to be proud of her modest achievements in the field of volunteer work.  Andrew moved on anyway.  As she committed familicide, did Mandy perform the gender work of the humiliated housewife and mother, rejected for another woman?

The insurgent array of emotions that plagues the lives of perpetrators of familicide reflects the way these offenders were unable to life up to the gendered cultural prescriptions of their day as breadwinners, lovers, fathers, mothers, wives, and nurturers.  It is probably no accident we see these killings (where data exist) in homes evidencing a traditional or conventional sexual division of labor, with women being principally responsible for child care and housework and men for primary breadwinning.  Perhaps it is among these nuclear family forms that we see the greatest potential for profound shame and painful disappointment about the seemingly inadequate performance of gender scripts.  It is the failure to fulfill one’s perceived responsibilities within intimate interdependencies that strikes me as particularly important.

The failure of offenders like Marcus Sims and Mandy Miller to maintain intimacy with their departing spouses robbed them of a mechanism that the modern self avails itself of for bolstering its own authenticity.  The appropriate living out of gender prescriptions identifies the self as lovable, deserving, and socially acceptable.  For Marcus and Mandy to lose this avenue of affirmation and social integration eroded their standing in their own and others’ eyes.  The familicidal hearts had to deal with the exacting demands of modern-hyper-individuality and the ever more elaborate calls to cultivate self-identity.  When contextualized against the rigors of these modern prescriptions for individuation, the attack on the precarious self-identity of the familicidal hearts proved catastrophic.

The power relations of the modern gender regime are a necessary although not sufficient condition for the perpretration of familicide.  Embedded in this wider exercise of power, modern nuclear families life provides a contextual framework  for familicide, one flush with innovative notions such as the self-made man, the breadwinner, the isolated and intensely nurturing mother, the increasingly dependent and precious child…

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