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Keeping It Out of the Family

“Annihilation” is a good word for a spelling-quiz. But it’s a bad word in other places. Literally it means “making into nothing,” but an act of annihilation often leaves a lot behind. Dead bodies, for example. Lives have been turned into nothing and although the dead can no longer suffer, those who witness the scene may be mentally scarred for life.

That’s what often happens after a “family annihilation”, one of those rare but shocking crimes in which a family is murdered by one of its own members, who then often commits suicide. And although this crime is rare, the ideal would be to make it even rarer. How can we do that? As with many problems, the key is to collect information and analyse it. Like a growling dog or an ominously creaking bridge, if we can spot the warning signs we have a chance to stop trouble before it strikes.

When cases of family annihilation are analysed, one pattern is obvious and not unexpected: most of the perpetrators are men. Violence is something that men are much more inclined to commit, whether it’s directed at others, as with murders and assaults, or at themselves, as with suicide. It is the fathers, brothers and sons in a family who present the most risk of committing a family annihilation.

But family annihilators are unusual men. Often they have been under intense psychological pressure in some way, like the British businessman Christopher Foster, who had made himself a millionaire before the age of fifty. But then his businessmen nose-dived and he became a different kind of millionaire: he was £4m in debt when he murdered his wife and daughter, then killed the family’s horses and dogs, then set fire to the expensive family home. 

A man who has an image of himself as a successful provider can find it very difficult to experience failure. Christopher Foster’s warped reasoning may have been that he was protecting his family from a descent into poverty. Or he may have murdered them because he saw them as witnesses of his failure. Many acts of violence are triggered by threats to our status and our place in a hierarchy. You can see the same thing among chimpanzees and other close relatives of human beings among the apes. Humans and chimps both know about status. We want to climb higher in the hierarchy. We don’t want to fall.

Chimps also know about revenge, which can be another motive for family annihilations. One of the most horrible forms of revenge annihilation is that in which a father, or much more rarely a mother, murders their own children after a separation or in response to the threat of it. This is a way of striking back at their partner in the cruellest and most painful way. And it’s often the case that there have been warning signs. Men who commit this kind of crime have often shown themselves to be possessive and egotistical. They may have no real interest in or love for their children except as symbols of their own status or as tokens in the psychological game they are playing with their former partners.

But it can be the case that family annihilations, whether partial or complete, can be committed by those who are genuinely crazy rather than warped but rational actors. Brain tumours and other kinds of brain disturbance can alter the personality or allow suppressed tendencies to to dominate. Human behaviour is complex and rarely has simple or single causes, but the more we know, the more we can take precautions and try to make a rare crime even rarer.