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We are shaped by how we choose to view violent crimes

Lyn Bender |  17 January 2016

The horror of the murder of small children is terrible to contemplate. Still more abhorrent is murder by a parent.

The Little familyIn the early hours of a brand new year, two small boys had their lives extinguished by a purportedly depressed father. In their confused desire to not stigmatise mental illness, commentators have sought to describe a man who killed his children in a calculated, premeditated act, as a 'good man'.

I tend to sympathise more with anti domestic violence campaigner Phil Cleary, who desribed it as 'a horrendous, appalling, brutal violent act'.

For me this event brought to mind two cases from a past life, when I was the manager of Melbourne Lifeline. One was a woman who disclosed that she had killed her two small children more than a decade earlier. She had survived her attempted suicide and served a prison term.

It was one of the most ghastly revelations I had heard in my counselling career. I recall my feelings of despair when I was shown the photo of two golden haired children. This woman was living a life of endless psychological and moral torture.

In a second case, I intervened in a possible murder suicide plan. A belligerent suicidal man was referred to me by an employer who was concerned about his odd behaviour and remarks. In the course of the conversation I became alarmed at his rage towards his former partner, who was about to remarry.

He revealed his intent to 'make her suffer' for what she had done to him. He was due to have access to the children that weekend. I asked pertinent questions. Would he harm his children? 'Yes.'

I froze. I consulted a colleague, and we set about having this man admitted for psychiatric assessment. We also alerted his former partner to the danger, and advised her not to allow him to have the children.

These were gut-wrenching incidents. But my horror at the Damien Little murder-suicide is more than visceral. It comes from an awareness of the impact on our community of how we choose to view and depict acts of violence in the media. It can make the community safer, or plant seeds for copycat acts.

Research-based guidelines for media reporting on suicide state that it should avoid sensationalising, excessive dramatic coverage, admiration of the person who has suicided, details of the method, oversimplification of motives, insensitive early interviews with the bereaved, and attributing noble intent to the act. At the same time it should emphasise the importance of getting help, and provide information on how to recognise signs of suicidal distress, and how to access help for the bereaved.

For murder/suicide acts, similar cautions apply: avoid sensationalising, glamorising, or imputing heroism, tragedy, or courage regarding the act; avoid giving a sense of power and notoriety to these acts; avoid focus on the perpetrator, and instead focus on support to the victims and the bereaved.

Those who feel powerless and enraged may view dramatically portrayed acts of violence as a pathway to revenge and power. This can be a strong motive, even though the perpetrator may not be around to see reactions: the impact can be fantasised, and has already been observed in the results of the reported, sensationalised violence. The person may identify with, and aspire to, the violent act.

We should be alert to those who express admiration and envy of the perpetrator. Men who feel powerless following the breakdown of a relationship may seek to punish the mother of their children, who they blame for these feelings of powerlessness. They take from them what is most precious.

The act of filicide rightly provokes feelings of disbelief and revulsion. The deaths of two boys aged four and almost-one are a tragedy. Their murder is a crime. The community must unequivocally denounce this as a monstrous act. We must support and comfort the bewildered family, whose own anger may be denied amid protestations that Little was a 'good bloke', 'loving father and friend' and 'great footballer'.

We can feel compassion and horror at the same time as we face the reality of this heinous act. It was not merely misguided. It was an irreparable criminal waste. We must focus on prevention.

It is not 'weak' to seek help. And violence is not strength.


Lyn Bender headshotLyn Bender is a Melbourne psychologist. Follow her on Twitter @Lynestel



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Submitted comments

This is excellent analysis. Thank you, Lyn Bender. And thank you, Eureka Street. Looking forward to more insights, although preferably without the grim news focus.

Alan Austin 16 January 2016

There is a particular horror and revulsion when children are involved in a murder/suicide. The trust and helplessness of a dependent child/children has been utterly betrayed. For the family involved, there would be much anguish as the perpetrator was also a loved family member. This connection can not be overlooked. It is the worst kind of crime that I can imagine. And we can only learn from these terrible crimes and invest in helping those who exhibit warning signs.

Pam 17 January 2016

Thank you Lyn - great article. You're 100% right about the media focus on the perpetrator serving to 'heroicise' them. It would be preferable to portray them as violent weaklings with punitive agendas.

Christine Nicholls 18 January 2016

thanks, Lyn - well said. You and other ES readers might be interested in a really good article by historian Amanda Kaladelfos, 'The dark side of family life' that provides an historical perspective on the patterns you outline. https://aussiemasculinitystudies.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/the-dark-side-of-the-family-paternal-homicide-in-australian-history.pdf

Anne 18 January 2016

"We are shaped by how we choose."......We also choose by how we are shaped. While we do not have complete control over how we are initially shaped, by the time we are responsible adults, we should have developed sufficient awareness and control to shape our considered choices, at least in normal circumstances. There may be circumstances beyond our control. but with self-discipline and enlightenment and patience, we should hopefully develop the ability to avoid those dark primitive impulses that result in tragic outcomes, and hopefully be in a position to detect and defuse them in others.

Robert Liddy 18 January 2016

I remember reading the newspaper headline of a story once about the murder-suicide of a man who had killed his four children. It said, "The Man who Loved Too Much" and went on to describe the man's devastation at losing daily access to his children after a marriage breakdown. There was no question as to who was the victim in that story. This poor bloke was the victim, not those innocent children, nor their bereft mother. It was chilling and, at its heart, is a thinly veiled misogyny. The mothers are to blame when this sort of stuff happens, bringing such loss upon "a good man". If he's the"good" one, evil must lie somewhere else, when innocents are murdered, and *she* is where it resides.

Brenda 18 January 2016

This is a really thoughtful analysis coming from someone with real and obviously painful experience of this phenomenon. I appreciate better the argument that this type of filicide has to be condemned by the community (before reading the article I felt many commentators with a similar view were being really heartless and ignorant of the reality of mental illness). What I continue to struggle with emotionally in this case is contemplating the extent of the father's mental illness. There seemed to be no implication that he was trying to punish his wife and the mother of his children. This leaves me to think that his mental illness was of such magnitude as to drown out what would have been the normal feelings of revulsion he should have felt even at the thought of such a despicable act. As a father of two young kids and being close to people in my life with mental illness (as we all are) I find this event so perplexing and sad. But, for the first time after reading this article, I am wondering if, as Lyn Bender says, there is a confused desire here not to stigmatise mental illness: by pointing to the fathers goodness based on an assessment of his life up to the awful decision. Misguided? It might be so.

Anthony 18 January 2016

I'm appalled. This man was on all the evidence very seriously mentally ill. Does that somehow negate his goodness? Render him unworthy of love? If we blithely say he 'should have sought help' would we say the same about everyone who does not seek help for cancer until it is too late? I am beginning to wonder whether old fashioned references to insanity or 'balance of mind disturbed' were actually fairer and more accurate. Ms Bender next time I descend into madness (and believe me it is a frightening and sometimes very sudden event) I truly hope for a more compassionate counsellor. And yes I do know how to distance myself from the possibility of harming anyone else. But not everyone is that lucky.

Margaret 19 January 2016

This is one of those areas where "hate the crime / love the individual" or "I like you, but I don't like what you do" comes into play: separating the individual from his / her actions.

Paddy 21 January 2016

Lyn I get the strong impression that you have not paid any attention to what the surviving mother has said about the father in the course of your dissertation about what needs to be done to support her. She said the father was a good man! She, both families and their community want to deal with this tragedy in their own way. You should respect that, instead of coming in over the top with a one size fits all panacea for events of this kind.

Ted 21 January 2016

Thank you, Lyn. I do not read your article as judgmental or condemnatory of a person suffering severe mental illness. In fact, you seem to be pointing out how mental illness overwhelms the goodness and right feeling that characterize the 'normal' father. Avoiding mentioning this does no justice to the victims (in this case the children and their mother) or the perpetrator (who is not well served by such avoidance). Yes, he was a good and loving man, but see what utter devastation his illness has wrought! Thank you for your clear thinking on this matter.

Joan Seymour 21 January 2016

I agree with Lyn that we need to condemn this as an evil act. And I believe we need to separate the man's mental illness from these murders - and ask ourselves how those who are just as severely mentally ill or "disturbed" or "insane" or psychotic manage to cope, with or without treatment. And to Margaret, I believe it's not the mental illness that negates his goodness - but the murder of his children certainly does. While his wife maybe have reminisced about his goodness, in a broad sense I don't think it's fair to the murdered children for anyone else to mention or endorse that.

AURELIUS 21 January 2016

An excellent article by Lyn Bender addressing the truth of what was a despicably violent, criminal act against two innocents. Their mother's inability to comprehend the man she loved doing this to her children is understandable, but it would be unjust for the rest of us not to call his actions what they were, both violent and criminal.

Carolyn Ost 22 January 2016

Well said. A despicable act.

Sue 22 January 2016

thank you Lyn for the insights to other cases I needed to hear of your horror at this crime.

Nola Viney 22 January 2016

To understand that someone can be a good and loving person and still commit an act of violent destruction, I think, is what the reportage at the time was trying to convey, and this is a really important point for the community to realise. This man's family knew that he was struggling and urged him to get help. The problem is that 'getting help' is much easier said than done. For people who have not experienced mental illness the depths of the darkness cannot be imagined. These tragedies bring that terrible fact into the glare of public attention. In the dark place that this parent was he may well have thought he was saving his children not destroying them. The public need to understand how people think when they are in despair, and that it can happen to normal everyday people.

Cheryl 24 January 2016

More people understand what 'infanticide' means than the latinized 'filicide'. It's better to use a term people are familiar with and which is self explanatory. Otherwise it looks as if the issue is being intellectualized to make more manageable. How that works I dont know, but intellectuals continue to mystify me. But it seems unhelpful. Otherwise its a good article and there should be more. But call a spade a spade. A cowardly betrayal of trust. There is no other explanation or excuse. Not for an adult who has taken on the responsibility of bringing children into the world.

Jillian 09 February 2016

'... living a life of endless psychological and moral torture.' The writer might consider using 'termless' rather than 'endless'. The associations clearly different; considerably richer, more down to earth: allowing for a, surely necessary, sense of possible psychological change. 'Endlessness' synthetically, facetiously even, evokes 'eternally' - recall that knowing 'eternity' necessitates knowing death. Why is '... what she had done to him' not committed to inverted commas. It is, at the very least, in status of allegation. '... a pathway to revenge and power' involving malignant, even salacious, indulgence of malice prepense activities: blithering 'alerting/s' of the victim/s to impending heinous act/s: therein some of the precursory lustful indulgences. (Might they be reported to authorities ...? Where is value-added credulity? Where dignified belief? in our communities.) I note too, the fact that sating, relief and thrill seeking are not mentioned in this context. Is the tradition of victim-blaming behind such an omission? 'Oh he was a 'good bloke' - a braggart loaded with slick jokes, braggadocio, even a repertoire of sleaze bag songs; a bit of a boozer, a touch of the black dog; and not mention of AA and Al-Anon … in the same paragraph or panegyric. Prevention please!

(Ms) Margaret T. Newman 13 April 2016

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