Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

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.


lizzie roper said...

Yes, I totally agree with everything you say here. I also think These family massacres reported by the media also perpetuate them as in the reporting of Columbine style Massacres. see this eloquent argument in Charlie Brookers Newswipe.
I'd also like to see our media replace the quaint phrase 'Honour killing' with murder.

Anonymous said...

I found this article very profound on all levels,the use of language,how people view themselves etc.How do you spot such people,the ordinary people,the ones you pass every day and walk with.Perhaps we could start using terms and words in their correct context to highlight this.I don't know if its not that people don't care but don't really want to think about it to deeply.

captainblue said...

Sorry Foxy, but for any remaining family members, I'm sure these events are tragic. It may be an overused word, but try asking the bereaved if they think it's a tragedy...

Brian O'Keefe said...

Some famiuly annihilators do it because they want to do away with themselves but are so arrogant that they think their family can't survive without them and so kill all of the family members. They (the killers) should be exposed as such.


Anonymous said...

As someone who a year ago was probably a month away from complete and utter financial ruin - loss of house, HMRC chasing, unpaid bills, massive debts, short term "loan sharks" etc I can understand the feelings of despair that can lead a person to take their own life.

Equally I knew that taking my own life would have have made an already virtually impossible situation even worse for my wife and children who would not only have lost a husband and father but also would lose everything else. At that point you, as an individual, have two choices - work through it and try to get out the other side or give up completely.

Some of these cases will be husbands who snap, kill everyone else then escape through suicide - those are murders pure and simple. others could be those who are buried by depression and see death as their only solution and through some form of self pity feel that the best solution for their family is also death - again murder but a more tragic form. Depression can stop people thinking logically and make the thought that the best solution is "to end it all" seem almost sensible.

This world, where success and money seem so intimately linked and poverty and failure even more so can make it hard for people (and particularly men) to seek help as that is seen as an admission of "failure"

Anonymous said...

A thought provoking article. Why people who kill their own children aren't tarred with the same crush as Myra Hindley and Ian Brady I don't know. They're all child killers, selfish, bringers of their own destruction and vicious takers of innocent lives. How they can look at the children they love as they cut them down or smother them I don't know. It's absolutely beyond my comprehension. Tragic doesn't seem a big enough word for it when it's violent, heartless, selfish, cowardly all these words rolled into one. I hope the ones who fail to take their own lives live a long and horrible life

shinyscalp said...

'Honour killing' is actually 'Shame murder'. Not quite so noble, now, eh?

Alconcalcia said...

I'm surprised you've not used the word 'spite' in your article, as I'm sure there must be an element of that involved in some of these cases where one partner kills themselves and the kids but leaves the other one to try and live with that fact for the rest of their life. i.e. if I can't have the kids, neither can you. I tweeted on Sunday when I read about the latest one "So cruel & selfish to kill a child just because your own relationship has broken down. Let them live their life and make their own decisions". Clearly the mind of whoever decides to kill themselves is unbalanced, but above all for me, whatever the circumstances leading up to the act, it's particularly cruel and selfish to deprive a child, any child, of the chance to make their own mind up on the world.

Anonymous said...

I always thought that tragedy, at least in the classical sense, always involves inevitability.

Anonymous said...

This is the ridiculous crap you've ever written.

Do better.

Anonymous said...

I agree that spite has a large part to play. A very close friend's daughter was stabbed to death by her husband two years ago. He's now doing a minimum of 21 years but it's all his wife's fault, he doesn't accept responsibility. At least one of the children saw the killing. It's a massive tragedy, for his wife and her family, his own parents but most of all for the young children who have been deprived of both parents.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with all that Foxy's said, I always think that if someone wants to kill themselves, why kill the partner and children too, she's got it spot on.

Bercher said...

We all have low periods at times, some severe, some not. There are a few who are near the edge then bang, over they go! It's mental illness when you kill family members and children, temporary or otherwise in my view. Lots of situations arrive at bad conclusions in life, and this is chance, not normal, a bad scenario, nightmarish even. This is all hard to accept and understand to a normal well balanced individual, even a depressed one. It's a horrible mixture of power, control, feeling of inadequacy, jealousy,all mixed up in a big pot of inevitable sadness. Yes tragic for the victims and relations left in emotional ruin at the gruesome scenario they never deserved or wanted.

Anonymous said...

Thought provoking article - the importance of the use of language, the media coverage of familicide, and our perception of these crimes. The Boot's case strikes of post-partum depression. However, I suppose depression could be a significant factor in s number of these murder cases. I think there's a distinct difference between murders in which spite is a major factor - divorcing couples, warped payback - to those in which the killer is in complete dispair and clinically depressed. Ultimately, taking the lives of innocent children is never justifiable.

ispaton said...

We need to look at this urgently. It seems to happen again, and again, and it's clear that there is something beyond what could be termed as "evil": hate, rage, anger or spite. Family pressures can be immense and the risk of losing job, home and family has not been higher in our lifetime. Same with those who kill infant children in a fit of temper after incessant crying. There needs to be a big "HELP" button, behind the glass, 24/7 to try and stop people losing it completely when on the brink. And that recent article in the Daily Mail was woeful ... the crippled woman who killed her child after being exposed handing medical details to ambulance-chasers: the fact it was all over the Mail in the first place probably didn't help. The appalling phenomenon has many causes, internal and external, and we can do with trying to tackle the external to prevent more tragedies, rather than wringing hands and judging afterwards.

Anonymous said...

People are dying in the most horrible ways at the hands of those who should be protecting them. And your main point is the incorrect use of grammar, snob!

Anonymous said...

From reading the above, you seem to have opened a can of worms with this article!! Everyone is an expert it seems. Well I think its a good article, well done... I dont usually read stuff through to the end unless Im gripped and I read this and all the anonymous comments too!!

HerbsandHags said...

I think you've missed out one very large element in family-annihilation, which is that of punishment. Quite often the perpetrator is punishing his (and it is usually his) ex partner for daring to walk away from him, it is a taking back of control; he knows that if he kills this woman's children, she will have to live with that for the rest of her life. There's no greater means of controlling and inflicting punishment on someone, except actually taking their life too.

We need to look at why so many men (and a minority of women) feel such huge ownership of a partner, that they feel they have the right to inflict such terrible punishment and to exert such strangling control over them. This is merely the extreme end of a continuum that starts with "if you really loved me you'd..." and we need to look at that continuum of control and power.

erik fischer said...

With the reference to the economy and US research, I actually flashed the thought of bankruptcy attorneys talking to those families days prior to their deaths. Maybe they just went over the hedge because of financial losses.

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