Analysis: Family annihilators driven by issues with power and masculinity

Dr Ciara Staunton examines the underlying psychology and triggers behind familicide
Analysis: Family annihilators driven by issues with power and masculinity

The Garda search team at the Hennessy family farm at Curraghgorm near Mitchelstown, North Cork, where brothers Paddy (60) and Willie (66) were found dead. Photo: Dan Linehan

The cases are starting to appear all too familiar. Another community left despairing in the aftermath of an apparent mindless crime. The initial reaction of shock, horror, confusion, and sympathy slowly disappears, unfortunately, until the next tragedy makes the headlines. 

These major crimes attain notoriety due to the utter tragedy involved and the images of once-smiling families obliterated at the hands of, usually, the father or in the most recent cases, a male sibling. Some of these incidents would not be lost in the plot of a Shakespearean tragedy. 

A family annihilator is perhaps the most appropriate term in such instances, because as unpalatable as it is, these crimes are usually pre-meditated. If the perpetrator does not die by suicide, they would justifiably be charged with the crime of murder, or manslaughter with mitigating circumstances.

The latest suspected murder-suicide in Lixnaw comes less than a year after the murder of Mark O’Sullivan in another North Cork town, Kanturk, by his brother and father. There has been plenty of armchair pondering as people try to make sense of what happened. But here is what we do know from psychological research and evidence.

Except for predatory serial killers, the banal reality is that the motives for most murders can be boiled down to four basic human emotions: love, lust, revenge and greed. 

Understanding the “why” of a murder or murders is crucial for a criminal investigation, but the “why” doesn’t always present us with a satisfactory psychological explanation because as human beings, we can all identify with and experience those emotions. So the question then becomes, why don’t more people commit more murders more of the time?

The issue really is one of capacity. What has happened or is happening to this person that a logical solution to their problem was to eliminate the perceived problem? When we consider the question in this way, it opens up a whole new way of understanding serious crimes and those who commit them. 

It leads us to enquire about the underlying mental processes that shape the perpetrator’s thoughts and logic, the hidden intensity of the emotions that are being experienced, the probably heightened level of impulsiveness and maladaptive logic that is wreaking havoc with his internal state of mind. This does not happen overnight. 

Something has been simmering for a very long time, a slow burn, and it reaches boiling point. There is usually a trigger that will push the person to the final act of catastrophe.

When it comes to cases of familicide, four different types of scenarios have been identified. In a study of British family annihilators over three decades, Prof. David Wilson of Birmingham University and his colleagues established four profiles of familicide offenders: self-righteous, disappointed, anomic, and paranoid. 

Primary motives were family breakdown, appearance, financial distress, mental illness, and protection. Features included domestic violence, financial distress, mental illness, divorce, affairs, custody disputes, jealousy, and substance use. 

Instead of motives here, think triggers, because as I say the real issues are deeper and longer lasting than the final act might reveal.

For example, when we look at familicide in a different context, a new picture emerges. In a month when the issue of stalking has been brought to the fore with Una Ring becoming a vocal advocate, this is yet another example of gender-based violence. 

In the case of familicides, research shows they are almost exclusively committed by men in heterosexual family relationships. According to a Women's Aid Femicide Watch Study published in 2019, since 1996, 230 women have died violently in the Republic of Ireland. 61% were killed in their own homes. 

In the resolved cases, 56% of women were murdered by a partner or ex-partner. Another 31% of women were killed by someone they knew (eg brother, son, neighbour, acquaintance). Thus, almost nine out of 10 (a total of 87%) women were killed by someone known to them. 

This is a stark indicator of the real level of threat that many women face within their own homes. One key risk factor occurs when a woman is leaving or communicating their intention to leave a relationship – a well-documented precipitator for intimate partner homicide or intensified violence.

A history of mental illness and/or domestic violence are key issues here. However, the issue of mental illness is contentious because using it as an indicator of a possible aggravating factor ignores some of the deeper issues of gender-driven violence. 

Ciara Staunton: There can be a myriad of issues to consider and doesn’t make it easy to establish a unified profile of perpetrators of familicide
Ciara Staunton: There can be a myriad of issues to consider and doesn’t make it easy to establish a unified profile of perpetrators of familicide

It also presupposes that murderers may be unhappy or frustrated men with a long life history of failure. This isn't borne out in the literature as many perpetrators have been shown to be highly successful in both their lives and careers prior to the murders. So there are deeper psychological issues at play. 

The subtlety of coercive control comes to mind here. What also strikes me is the real sense of entitlement entrenched in these crimes. The perpetrator appears to view his family members as property, and as such seems to think that he has the right to end their lives. In a recent piece I wrote for this newspaper on stalking, I mentioned the elements of power and control. 

While not altogether as obvious in cases of familicide, the same underlying forces are apparent and sometimes potent. A desire for a sense of entitlement to control the family unit or the family finances can be a common denominator. 

Perpetrators need to maintain their masculinity, which is tied to the family unit, as well as control and power over their family members. 

When these factors are threatened, they act out against the family violently and fatally. Familicide often occurs in the face of a spiralling loss of control over these areas.

Underlying all of this is a loss of control over 'masculine' domains which is often at the heart of familicides, even where there is no clear history of domestic abuse. Some perpetrators whose actions may appear 'out of the blue' have been described in research studies as having their lives unravelling in ways that are acutely tied to their gender identity. 

So, in fact, there can be a myriad of issues to consider and doesn’t make it easy to establish a unified profile of perpetrators.

Understanding the different profiles and the associated features of familicide can help protect at-risk families by identifying the warning signs and intervening before the crime takes place. For this, an integrated approach between agencies is needed, for example, between An Garda Síochána, TUSLA and other community based services. 

Psychological risk assessment and management services are pivotal. We need to look to best international practice in identifying, preventing and responding to such crimes. While it may appear that these crimes happen out of the blue, there is undoubtedly something simmering beneath the surface for the perpetrator. 

The trick is to catch it before it results in catastrophe for innocent lives.

- If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please click here for a list of support services.

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