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Monday 3 September 2012

Tragedy (n.): Drama with unhappy ending.

THERE are many misused words in the world - sorry when someone isn't, bitter when you mean angry, love instead of fond.

Most of them can be overlooked, because the net effect is usually to make people feel better.

Tragedy is different.

It is a word misused in every newspaper, and on every TV news bulletin. It is used, variously, to describe such things as football matches, lost telephones, musical releases that don't reach number one, children drowning in ponds, elderly people dying from neglect, and genocide.

On my first local paper I included the word in a quote from a town councillor about something or other and was taken to task by my chief reporter who said tragedy was a word only ever to be used about murders. Whether the councillor had said it or not did not matter; the fact he was an idiot was not a reason for us to propagate his abuse of the English language.

The boss was right that you cannot in all seriousness use the same word to describe a missing child and a missed goal. But as it can apply to any tale in which the hero is overcome by circumstance or their own failings, there are plenty of murders it doesn't suit either.

Journalists are often accused of making things worse than they are, but when a parent murders their partner and children the word 'tragedy' somehow makes it better: it softens the horrific events into a sorry mess of warped parental love.

It becomes linked to a partner's affair, depression, or money worries. It is talked about in pubs and at coffee machines as the sort of thing none of us could imagine doing but 'poor sod... obviously pushed to the edge'. Sometimes people will pass comment about how it's all down to divorce laws being in favour of women, and we'll tut and go back to work.

Everyone involved says 'tragedy' - the police, journalists, relatives - because the other options are a bit grisly.

Words that would be more accurate include 'slaughter', 'multiple homicide', 'carnage', 'butchery', and in the case of Damian Rzeszowski who killed his wife, daughter, son, father-in-law, wife's friend and her daughter too on Jersey last August, 'massacre'.

None of those words would make us tut, blame divorce laws, or make it easy to forget about it and get on with work. Nor, if we used them, would we be able to ignore the phenomenon of familicide as easily as we do.

There are no statistics on it in the UK, because we do not care to count them. Research from the University of Manchester showed 39 such events between 1996 and 2005 - an average of about five a year, or one every 10 weeks.

There have been six in the past nine months which made the news, and perhaps a few more that didn't. That's one every six weeks, on average.

There was police inspector Toby Day, who was sacked from his job over misusing work computers to see if his wife Samantha was having an affair. In December he killed her and their six-year-old daughter, while two teenaged children escaped to raise the alarm.

A few days later Richard Smith stabbed his wife Clair, their sons aged nine and one, and set fire to their house which they had recently taken out a bigger mortgage to move to.

After Christmas Michael Atherton, who had been violent and suicidal, used a shotgun to kill his girlfriend who was planning to leave him, then killed her niece and her sister before turning the gun on himself.

In May bankers' wife Felicia Boots smothered her children aged one and 10 weeks and then tried to take her own life. In July Ceri Fuller stabbed his three children aged 12, eight and seven before jumping off a 65ft cliff.

And this weekend Graham Anderson, who had recently split with the mum of his sons aged 11 and three, was found hanged in a flat alongside his children's bodies. The police have, predictably, called it "very tragic".

It's not tragic. It's not sad. It's not a combination of circumstances. It's brutal, selfish, murder.

Even in the US with more relaxed gun laws and a lot more people there is not a lot known about family annihilation, which is a very small part of its murder statistics. But they do know more than us, because they officially count and study it in the hope of understanding how it happens.

Ninety five per cent of perpetrators are male. Women who kill their children rarely kill their partners too; men generally kill their partners first.

The killers are usually white, working, middle-aged, and rarely have any previous convictions. They're ordinary in every way, except for the fact they identify their manhood with how outwardly successful they are - whether millionaires or manual workers, they want to be seen as happy, sound, and able to provide for their families.

Often, but not always, they've bullied, coerced, or been violent to their partners. Then something happens which threatens to reveal them as 'less of a man' - their wife's had enough, they're being chased by the taxman, they lose their job. Sometimes all of them.

They usually begin with an argument between a man and his partner - 75 per cent of familicides happen in a bedroom. He cannot face the world if it knows whatever she knows, so he kills her. Then he cannot face his children because he's killed their mother, and kills them, and finally the guilt swamps him and he kills himself.

Not all are the same, but fundamentally all such killings come down to a point where someone who strives to be seen as successful has a change in their life they cannot adjust to, and when they lose control they seek to take it back with murder, before atoning for it with suicide.

However they or those who survive say it's due to loving their families a little too much, it has exactly the same cause as all domestic violence: not a wish to hurt, just a need to be in control. A belief that in your own home you can keep all the troubles of the world at bay.

In fact, the home is where the worst of those troubles will occur. Home is where your heart will get broken, your children will crack their heads open, you will learn a loved one is sick or dead. Home is where you choose the wallpaper and life will come calling whether you like it or not.

Because we see it as a tragedy, we think of these people as trying to protect their families rather than to punish, obliterate, or constrain them. And we don't look at it, don't worry about it, or do anything to stop it happening again.

But it will keep happening and for as long as the economy is struggling there will be a rising number of them. A 10-year study in the US found that the rate of family annihilations increased in the same proportions as the rate of unemployment.

The UK rate of unemployment was 5.1 per cent in 2008, and 8.1 per cent in April.

But the Chancellor of the Exchequer's not about to make policy to appease a handful of people with self-image issues, which means any hope of tackling the problem comes down to us.

Family annihilators are either completely ordinary people who feel their life is crumbling around them, or violent, abusive types whose partners, relatives, and often the police and social services are aware of it.

Domestic violence has to stop being a private matter, and start being something we all discuss. Male and female victims need to know it's not their fault, they don't have to stay, and it's not just a silly row that got out of hand. It's bullying, and if you wouldn't let it happen to a friend or child you shouldn't let it happen to you. If the victims face it head on then so might the police.

And if you're a middle-aged, outwardly successful person who doesn't know where to turn - if you feel you're hanging on by your fingernails and you're losing your grip - then tell someone. A mate, your partner, the Samaritans. Shouldering a burden is all very well but not to the point where it squashes you out of shape, and you might be surprised by how understanding people can be.

Either way, ask for help. People can overlook the horrific reality of murder-suicides, and they will find it just as hard to spot you're in a hole if you don't shout about it.

A silly human failing, which means when the news says "it's a tragedy" they're talking about us being too blind to have done anything about it.

 Oh, and don't have rows in the bedroom.