Killer dads – why they do it
An Australian killer father
Fathers who murder their children exact the ultimate revenge on an estranged partner, writes Karen Kissane.
HE IS a bottler. He holds in his anger and other emotions. He might seem to be an easy-going, appeasing sort of man but he is what psychologists call “over-controlled”, a person whose silent fuming might one day explode into violence.
Add to this a marriage break-up in which he is the spurned partner � and a new partner for his wife before he has adjusted to his changed circumstances � and the rage can fester into vengeful obsession.
“Obsession deprives people of a sense of proportion to such an extent that, in the end, they can countenance their own death and the death of others they love in pursuit of that obsession,” says Professor Paul Mullen, psychiatrist and clinical director of Forensicare, the Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health.
A man who has become obsessed with revenge against his partner and who is pathologically jealous of her can allow his children to become caught up in his delusions. His feelings about her fidelity can morph into doubts about the paternity of the children.
“Men may become convinced that the children are not theirs, and part of the killing of the children is the acting out of this rage at the (supposed) infidelity, and at being saddled with children who are ‘not yours’ when in fact they are yours,” Mullen says. The killing is also about destroying the whole relationship and the products of that relationship, he says. And it is payback against the woman who has rejected him, the children’s mother. “Apart from anything else, he’s telling her essentially that she’s responsible. This is one of the ways they get back: ‘Look at what you’ve made me do.”‘
This might be part of the answer to the question now being asked about Robert Farquharson: How could he do it?
A Supreme Court jury on Friday found that Farquharson deliberately drove his three boys, aged from two to 10, into a dam near Winchelsea on Father’s Day 2005. His wife had left him 10 months earlier and had begun a relationship with another man.
Cindy Gambino told the court that her ex-husband had been a good father and was a “softie” who always agreed to do what she wanted over matters such as whether to have another baby.
The court was also told that Farquharson was angry about the break-up, child-support payments and the fact that his former wife had the better car and a new partner. One of his oldest friends said that a couple of months before the killings, Farquharson had spoken of an accident involving the children in which they would die, so that his former wife would suffer for the rest of her life. It would happen on a special day � such as Father’s Day � so that she would be tormented every year on the anniversary, he allegedly said.
Farquharson pleaded not guilty. He claimed that he blacked out in a coughing fit and the car veered out of control and into the dam. He is yet to be sentenced, and his lawyer has said he will appeal against the verdict. Dr Lynne Eccleston, director of the forensic psychology program at Melbourne University, says killing children “is the ultimate harm (angry men) can inflict on the woman that they think has wronged them, for whatever reason. It’s a higher order of revenge, because the woman is left alive to deal with the grief � that is his intention.”
She says such men often have a detailed plan that they perfect over a long period, “working up to the time when they will finally take action”. The killings are often related to relationship breakdown. A man who has pre-existing emotional problems and poor coping skills can also become angry because he feels his rights as a father have been taken away.
Forensic psychologist Professor Bob Montgomery, of the University of the Sunshine Coast, says most men who try to kill their children have distorted thinking as a result of severe depression. They believe they are failures and that they have failed their children. They see no way out other than suicide and taking the children with them so that they are not left to suffer further.
“In most cases, the guy tries to kill himself as well,” he says.
Cases such as Farquharson’s are much rarer. “If (a father is) just killing the children and making no attempt on himself, he has a different motivation, like, ‘You took my kids away from me � well, I’m going to take my kids away from you,”‘ Montgomery says.
“That’s a very much smaller group. They are sad reflections of the view that children are your possessions, your property, rather than people who have their own rights and interests.”
A psychologist who had been treating Farquharson told the court that his depression had seemed to improve.
Montgomery says it is common for deeply depressed people who have decided upon suicide or murder to experience a lift in mood because, in their disordered minds, they believe they have a way out of their problems: “Now I know what to do, I don’t feel so bad.”
Cases such as Farquharson’s arouse intense interest because they seem so rare and so unnatural as to be bizarre. In fact, says Mullen, they are not such an unusual form of homicide: “The commonest form of multiple killing is not serial killing, as you would think from watching the telly. It’s family slaying � the man who kills his partner and his children.”
It is also not uncommon for such a killer to have previously been viewed as a good parent.
“When you look at the mothers who do this, you often find they were noted by their friends and neighbours to be particularly caring, assiduous parents who spent more time with their children than other parents did.”
Ten per cent of all Australian homicides involve children as victims. If the child is under six, the killer is most likely to be in the child’s care network, says Ken Polk, professor of criminology at Melbourne University and co-author with Christine Alder of the book Child Victims of Homicide.
The most typical male killer of children is the batterer who attacks a step-child because he finds the child difficult, partly because he does not have reasonable expectations of the child’s behaviour for his or her age.
Biological fathers are much less likely to kill their children, but this does happen in an emotional game in which “the child is a pawn � you sacrifice the pawn to get to the main piece, and that’s the woman”, Polk says.
For every man who goes on to kill, there are many more who carry an angry sense of grievance that makes them want to lash out.
“We get lots of calls from men who are very recently separated and hate the world and are furious at the perceived conspiracy against them,” says Danny Blay, manager of No to Violence, the Male Family Violence Prevention Association.
“And we know that women and children are most at risk of violence from their former partner or father during the early stages of an acrimonious separation.
“There are lots of men � who, for one reason or another, are in a place where they don’t see a way out and are wanting to punish the people who they see as putting them in a predicament, rather than taking at least some responsibility for their predicament themselves and asking why it is that their partner wants to leave, or why they have been denied access to their children.”
At the same time, Blay says, most men who are violent within their family are mostly good people, aside from this aspect of their behaviour. “They are not psychopaths. They form intimate relationships and have friends, they are engaged at work, members of the footy club.”
In Farquharson’s case, he confided his thoughts of murder to an old friend who did not believe he was serious and who is now tormented by what happened.
Filicide-Suicide: Common Factors in Parents Who Kill Their Children and
Susan Hatters Friedman, MD, Debra R. Hrouda, MSSA, Carol E. Holden, PhD, Stephen G. Noffsinger, MD and Phillip J. Resnick, MD Dr. Hatters Friedman was a Fellow (now Senior Instructor) in Forensic Psychiatry, Ms. Hrouda is Doctoral Candidate, and Dr. Resnick is Professor of Psychiatry and Director of Forensic Psychiatry, University Hospitals of Cleveland, Department of Psychiatry; and Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH. Dr. Holden is Director of Evaluation Services, Michigan Center for Forensic Psychiatry; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. Dr. Noffsinger is Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Northcoast Behavioral Healthcare Systems and Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH. Address correspondence to: Susan Hatters Friedman, MD, University Hospitals of Cleveland, Department of Psychiatry, Hanna Pavilion, 11100 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44106. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org