Family Annihilators – Why Men Murder Their Own Children, September 2008


On the night of November 27th, 2005, Gavin Hall woke his three-year old daughter Millie and gave her some antidepressant pills to swallow. He cuddled her close, and then he soaked a rag in chloroform and held it over her mouth until she died. Then he texted his wife: “I’ve dealt with your deceit for two months, now you have the rest of your life to deal with the consequences.” A year later Hall was sentenced to life for her murder.

On Father’s Day weekend this year, Brian Philcox, 53, a security guard and karate instructor, recorded a message on the phone of his estranged wife Evelyn, 37, saying: “I have left you a present – I’ll make the papers, just you wait”. He then drove his children Amy 7 and Owen 3 to a remote Snowdonian hillside, connected a hose from the exhaust to the vehicle, sat on the back seat and gassed both children and himself. A neighbour had previously heard him complain of his divorce battle: “I would rather burn down the house than give it to that f****** bitch”.

Just two in a series of paternal filicides that have shocked the nation, among them six-year old Liam Hogan, killed after his father leapt from a hotel room balcony in Crete with his children in his arms; the Riaz sisters, burnt to death along with their mother by their father in Accrington, Lancashire in November 2006; and two separate cases of suspected filicide this May in Scotland, in which severely disabled Michelle Thomson and her seven-year-old brother were discovered dead at their father’s house in Buckhaven in Fife, while in East Dunbartonshire Paul and Jay Ross, six and two respectively, were found stabbed to death at a beauty spot, alongside their father, who attempted to take his own life.

These cases and dozens more that have captured headlines in Britain in recent years share similar profiles: children murdered by a father, who often attempts to take his own life, against a background of marital discord and break-up. Each new case is greeted with the same mixture of incredulity and horror. A parent who murders his own children – this seems the ultimate betrayal, the ultimate crime. Fathers are supposed to be willing to give their lives to safeguard their children, yet in these horrific offences we witness a grotesque inversion of the paternal urge to protect.

Filicides appear patently incomprehensible, yet as they crowd the headlines they demand an explanation. How can a father move so far beyond the bounds of morality as to respond to marital breakdown by murdering his own children? How could Gavin Hall so distance himself from his young daughter’s existence, and all feelings of compassion, as to turn her into a mere utensil of retribution against his partner? In 2003, Samantha Tolley’s husband Keith Young drove his four children up on to a lonely mountain pass, called his wife to tell her, “I hope you are happy. This is all your fault,” and then started a lawnmower that filled the car with toxic fumes, killing all five passengers. In her plaintive cry of incomprehension we hear echoes of our own bewilderment: “I keep asking how any father could do something so wicked, but no one can give me an answer.”

Family annihilators
To attempt to answer Tolley’s plea we need to take a closer look at the phenomenon we’re discussing. In America, where such crimes occur at the jaw-dropping rate of 10 per month on average, experts call it ‘family annihilation’. These are cases where a relationship is breaking down or a family is breaking up, and the man responds by murdering his children, either because he plans to kill himself and wants to take the children with him, or in order to get back at his partner. It’s important to distinguish this particular crime from other types of filicide, such as so-called ‘honour killings’, where a parent (usually a father murdering a daughter) believes that filicide is a way to restore his family’s honour; and post-partum infanticide, in which profoundly depressed mothers kill their children. Although the different types are probably related and there is a degree of overlap, the distinctive pattern of ‘family annihilation’ clearly marks it out.

Cases of family annihilation are found all over the western world, and contrary to the impression created by the spate of recent, high-profile reports, this is not a new phenomenon nor an increasingly common one. From 1992 to 2002, an average of 78 children under 16 were murdered each year, and in about 70 per cent of cases the father was the killer. Common features recur again and again in the profiles of these men; they often have a history of violence, abuse or abandonment in their own childhoods, they are jealous, controlling and show tendencies to outbursts of vicious rage and violence. In a ludicrous paradox, they are frequently described as devoted family men and caring, loving parents. At his trial John Hogan protested, “I was the best dad those children could have. Every time I was with them we did something special…” Oh boy. But this, surely, is the key to understanding their actions: these are men for whom the role of pater familias or head of the family is intimately bound up with their sense of identity and self-worth. When this is threatened, the very foundations of their psyche begin to crumble. They remain convinced there can be no future in their absence.

Mad or bad?
Firstly we need to dispose of the explanation of simple psychosis. Apart from a very small minority of people with ‘organised’ schizophrenia, these men do not appear to be mentally ill or psychotic; they are responsible for their actions, actions often premeditated and carefully planned out. As Professor Jack Levin of Northeastern University in Boston has said: “These men don’t talk to dogs. They don’t hear voices in an empty room, they don’t suffer from a profound disorder”. If we look beyond madness and try to unpack the dysfunctional psychology of these killers, we see that they break down into two main groups.

The first group is what we might call ‘altruistic’ filicides. This is where the father believes that the breakdown of the family unit is the end of the world – of his world at least – and that in killing his children he is sparing them pain and possibly removing them to a better place. Often the father takes his own life, and sometimes his partner’s too. Monstrous self-obsession leaves the father apparently unable to perceive his children as separate entities, so that in his own mind they are him – after all they probably share his name – and this leads in turn by a kind of twisted logic to the conclusion that if his life must end, then so must theirs.

Psychodynamic theory, a development of Freudian ideas about psychology, offers up various descriptions of this process. According to object relations theory, the father becomes a ‘self-object’, with a catastrophic loss of psychological boundaries in which the distinction between self and ‘object’ (i.e. other people) becomes blurred. In Gestalt Therapy this is called ‘confluence’. Behaviourists stress that while the man’s thoughts may be distorted the concepts are genuinely believed.

Instead of placing boundaries around individual family members, the boundary is perceived as between the family group and the outside world. Individuals merge into a collective identity rather like Star Trek’s ‘The Borg’. I guess we’ve all met people who ‘keep themselves to themselves’ or share a common shyness, social dysfunction, or extreme religious or racial defensiveness. Sometimes their dysfunctional thinking is dressed up with a weak, quasi-spiritual justification: the belief that the family unit will be reunited and perfected in the afterlife. Gavin Hall, for instance, claimed that his daughter Millie repeatedly insisted that she wanted “to come with Daddy.”

The other type of family annihilator is known as the ‘revenge’ killer. This is where a father murders his children because he knows it is the ultimate injury to his partner; that she will have to live with the pain of her loss for the rest of her life. Hence Keith Young’s bitter final words, or Gavin Hall’s vile text message. Sarah Heatley’s children Jack and Nina, three and four years old respectively, were strangled by their father in 1993 while she was trying to divorce him. “As far as I am concerned, he killed them in a desperate attempt to prove to me he was still in control. By killing them, he ensured he had the last word and that his actions would control the rest of my life. He has destroyed it.”

The case of Brian Philcox is even more of a steroetype – the forceful, dominant man, referred to as “a great Dad”, his parenting credentials apparently illustrated by the way he takes his kids on weekend outings, but who in reality has a history of being “a violent and erratic man”. Vengeful and spiteful towards his estranged wife, he uses the children as a tool of revenge, murdering them in a chillingly similar fashion to at least one other recent filicide in Scotland, by driving them to a remote highland beauty spot and asphyxiating them in the car. Possibly he also suffered from the ‘altruistic’ delusion that he was doing the kids a favour, but mainly this is a classic ‘revenge’ filicide. Compare “I have left you a present” to “I hope you are happy” from the Keith Young case.

Revenger’s tragedy
Revenge killings present an even greater affront to conventional morality, and thus an even greater challenge in terms of explanation. Can we find answers in the realm of myth, which is supposed to help us make sense of this kind of terrible drama? Does the Bible help? The most obvious precedent is the story of Abraham: ‘God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”‘(Gen. 22:1-2). Abraham, of course, stopped short of filicide, and anyway he hardly seems to fit the profile of the possessive husband wreaking revenge on his spouse though this story does little to enhance the reputation of God.

The story of Hercules comes closer to the mark. He killed his wife Megara and their son and daughter in a mad rage, after being afflicted with temporary insanity by the goddess Hera (divine affliction was a common motif in Greek myth, used to explain otherwise bizarre or uncharacteristic behaviour). But again there are significant differences. Hercules seems to have had no specific motive of jealousy, suicidal despair or revenge, and, as we’ve already discussed, psychosis is not a relevant factor in most cases of family annihilation.

Ironically, the classical reference that best fits the profile of the vengeful family annihilator features a woman, the sorceress Medea. In the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Medea was the princess of Colchis, a powerful magician who helped Jason complete his quest and protected him against his enemies. Medea bore Jason two sons, but when he abandoned her for another woman she murdered them to wreak a terrible revenge. Her crime seems to have shocked the ancients in the same way that its modern imitations appal us, and depictions of her perfidy were etched on tombs and monuments, and recounted in plays and poems. In her story we can recognise the same elements of jealous rage and bitter vengefulness.

In fact in early psychoanalytic accounts of family annihilation, the perpetrators were said to suffer from a ‘Medea complex’. To Freudians the murderous fathers were expressing repressed rage they felt towards their children for displacing them in the mother’s affections. Later, in object relations theory, the father’s dysfunction was explained as a failure to see his children as whole objects (i.e. separate people), possibly as the result of abuse in his own childhood which fatally retarded his psychological development, which ties up with what I said earlier. Today, as a therapist, I might point to the father’s inability to perceive his children in anything but an ‘instrumental’ fashion – in other words, they exist only as tools for achieving his twisted ends – and to a general breakdown of the capacity for moral judgment and restraint of action, in which everything becomes subsumed by a monstrously inflated ‘self’. Simply put, these men are incapable of looking beyond their own hurt, bewilderment and rage; they are solipsists and narcissists; their core beliefs (eg “If others don’t recognise my special status, they should be punished”) become law.

Laying the blame
Possibly this analysis is over-complex for a distressed public clamouring for reassurance, but the search for more palatable interpretations has had some unpalatable consequences. In particular, in the reporting of some cases there has been a distasteful emphasis laid on the infidelity of the bereaved mother. When Gavin Hall killed his daughter Millie, much was made of the fact that he had discovered explicit email correspondence between his wife Joanne and her lover, as if this somehow ‘explained’ his actions. Superintendent John Jones, the policeman who led the subsequent murder inquiry, was angry about this bogus connection, pointing out that, “Affairs happen all the time and people don’t (usually) respond by killing their children.”

Is this simply misogyny at work? Partly, but it probably says more about our need to fit such distressing and challenging phenomena into some sort of comprehensible framework. In the reductive world of the tabloids, where complex psychologies are required to be reduced to single word ciphers like “crazed” or “betrayed”, there is perhaps a knee-jerk tendency to apply the misogynistic template of the faithless wife as the agent of her own tragedy. This offers, in turn, the comfort of believing that bad things only happen to bad people, and that parental fidelity can ensure the safety of children. Maybe this is easier to swallow than acknowledging the chilling reality that a sane man can murder his own children, motivated by something as banal as spite.

Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

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