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Filicide, or the murder of one's own child, is an unfathomable crime. With Andrea Yates's return to trial in the summer of 2006, filicide once again came to the forefront of psychiatric issues in the media. One positive outcome that may be derived from this tragedy is practitioners' heightened awareness that parents may, for a variety of reasons, be compelled to kill their children. This article aims to educate mental health providers about the concept of filicide by presenting a broad overview of the topic, including a discussion of its history, definitions, classifications, outcomes, and the research surrounding it. This knowledge will hopefully bring about clinicians' increased exploration of patients' thoughts of harming their children, which may ultimately lead to the prevention of these senseless crimes.
Filicide in the Press
On June 20, 2001, Andrea Yates drowned her five children, who ranged in age from six months to seven years, in a bathtub in her home. Prior to this, she had manifested symptoms of depression with psychosis, which were exacerbated in her postpartum periods. She had been hospitalized four times and was catatonic and mute during one admission. In statements made following the crime, she indicated that she believed that she was a bad mother and that she had concerns that her children would not grow up properly secondary to her shortcomings. She noted that she killed them to save them from eternal damnation.
In early 2002, she went to trial in Harris County, Texas, and entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI). The jury hearing her case was death qualified, meaning that all jurors supported the philosophy of the death penalty and would be willing to use it in sentencing. Though she ultimately was not sentenced to death, she was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, making her eligible for parole in 40 years. In 2005, due to an error made by the prosecution's expert witness, the conviction was reversed, and the case was remanded back to the trial court. In June, 2006, Andrea Yates returned to trial and again entered a plea of NGRI. On July 26, 2006, the jury handed down a verdict of NGRI.
This decision marked a surprising change in the course of events. A number of theories have been posited as to why the plea of NGRI was accepted the second time around. The most obvious is that five years had passed since the commission of the crime, and the passage of time may have allowed the community to forgive her for her crime. Another theory involves the idea that the jury was not death qualified and may, therefore, have been more liberal. There were also two other women found NGRI for harming their children in Texas between the time of her first and second trials. Regardless of the reason, Andrea Yates will now spend the duration of her confinement in a maximum security hospital in northern Texas until she is deemed to no longer pose a risk to herself or others.
The History of Filicide
Filicide has existed since the dawn of mankind. In ancient Greco-Roman times, a father was allowed to kill his own child without legal repercussions.1 Despite the later rise of Christianity and its greater respect for life, filicides continued, often perpetrated by the mother, who may have claimed the child accidentally suffocated in bed.2 Reasons for wanting to end the life of a child, particularly a newborn, included disability, gender, lack of resources to care for the child, or illegitimacy. These reasons still hold true today. However, without our current systems of documentation, including records of birth and death, it was far easier to succeed in completing a filicidal act in earlier times without the knowledge of authorities, who may have turned the other cheek regardless of the laws in order to strike a balance between population growth and resources available in impoverished areas.
In 16th and 17th centuries, a drastic change in the opinion on child murder occurred in Europe. France and then England established laws that made filicide a crime punishable by death. Both countries also presumed that the mother who was on trial for the crime was guilty until proven innocent, meaning that she was responsible for proving to the court that her child was not the victim of murder.3 The tide changed again with the establishment of the Infanticide Acts of 1922 and 1938 in England. These laws recognized the effect that birthing and caring for an infant can have on a mother's mental health for up to 12 months after the event. These acts outlawed the death penalty as punishment for maternal infanticide, making the punishment similar to that of manslaughter. Several other Western countries have adopted similar laws, with the exception of the United States.
Filicide has a presence in literature from all eras. Perhaps the most famous is also the oldest, and that is the story of Medea, a woman who killed her children to punish her husband for his affair. To him, she says, “Thy sons are dead and gone. That will stab thy heart.”4 Even fairy tales meant for children, such as Snow White and Hansel and Gretel, are filicidal in nature, telling of evil (step) parents who cast their children out into the world with the hope of eradicating them.
Definitions of Filicide
A number of terms have been used somewhat interchangeably in the description of child murder (Figure 1). Often, filicide refers to any murder of a child up to the age of 18 years committed by his or her parent(s) or parental figure(s), including guardians and stepparents. Infanticide commonly applies to the murder of a child under the age of one year by his or her parent(s). Neonaticide, a term coined by Phillip Resnick in 1970, refers to the unique circumstance in which a newborn is killed by his or her parent(s) within the first 24 hours of life.6 It is important to recall that filicide can be committed by both men and women, though far less literature exists on paternal filicide than maternal filicide.
Classification Systems of filicide
In an effort to aid in understanding a parent's motivation for killing his or her child, multiple classification systems of filicide have been devised based on the type of crime and the gender of the perpetrator. The systems serve to better delineate the motives behind these crimes. The first classification system identified in psychiatric literature was published in 1927 and divided mothers who committed filicide into two groups: Those who perpetrated the act while lactating and those who did so after the end of lactation. Of the 166 cases the author reviewed, he believed that 70 percent were related to exhaustion or lactation psychosis.7 Though this system has fallen out of favor, it is founded on the important idea that filicide may be motivated by the hormonal changes and stressors associated with childbirth and caring for an infant.
A 1957 study established two groups of homicidal mothers who killed their illegitimate infants in the first day of the infants' lives. Group one was identified as young, immature primiparas who submit to sexual relations and have no history of legal trouble, while group two consisted of women with strong primitive drives and little ethical restraint.8 The large majority of women who commit neonaticide fall into the first of these categories. This study made significant strides in identifying neonaticide as a distinct crime involving very different circumstances when compared to other filicides.
One of the most influential classifications of child murder was created in 1969 by Phillip Resnick.9 He reviewed 131 cases of filicide committed by both men and women that were discussed in psychiatric literature dating from 1751 to 1967. He developed five categories to account for the motives driving parents to kill their children:
Altruistic filicide—The parent kills the child because it is perceived to be in the best interest of the child.
Acts associated with parental suicidal ideation—The parent may believe that the world is too cruel to leave the child behind after his or her death.
Acts meant to relieve the suffering of the child—The child has a disability, either real or imagined, that the parent finds intolerable.
Acutely psychotic filicide—The parent, responding to psychosis, kills the child with no other rational motive. This category may also include incidents that occur secondary to automatisms related to seizures or activities taking place in a post-ictal state.
Unwanted child filicide—The parent kills the child, who is regarded as a hindrance. This category also includes parents who benefit from the death of the child in some way (e.g., inheriting insurance money, marrying a partner who does not want step-children).
Accidental filicide—The parent unintentionally kills the child as a result of abuse. This category includes the rarely occurring Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
Spouse revenge filicide—The parent kills the child as a means of exacting revenge upon the spouse, perhaps secondary to infidelity or abandonment.
The most common motive in Resnick's study was altruism. In total, this category accounted for 49 percent of the cases reviewed. The least common motive was spousal revenge, which accounted for only two percent of the murders. This comprehensive classification system can be applied to both female and male perpetrators. In 1973, Scott devised another classification system based on the impulse to kill. This was the first classification system in the literature based solely on the actions of fathers. The system was derived from his research involving 46 fathers who killed their children (Table 1).10 In 1999, Guileyardo published a classification system based on Resnick's system, which was enhanced to reflect a broader range of motives (Table 2).11 In 2001, Meyer and Oberman created a classification system identifying the causes of maternal infanticide (Table 3).12 While there certainly exists some overlap between the classification systems proposed over the last several decades, the development of these systems contributes some important points to the growing body of knowledge related to filicide.
An Unthinkable Crime
Since 1950, child homicide rates have tripled, and homicide is within the top five causes of death for children ages 1 to 14 years old.13 In 2004, 311 of 578 (53.8%) children under the age of five were murdered by their parents in the US. Between the years of 1976 and 2004, 30 percent of all children murdered under the age of five were killed by their mothers and 31 percent were killed by their fathers.14 Male and female children appear to be killed in equal numbers, though one study did find that fathers are more likely to kill sons while mothers more frequently kill daughters.15 See Table 4 for an overview of characteristics associated with filicidal parents.
The theory of evolution allows for a more objective and less emotionally charged evaluation of filicide. The goal of any species, including humans, is to procreate, and those factors that allow for the creation of the next generation are advantageous. In a world with limited resources, the offspring who are weaker (those with obvious physical deformities) or are not created by the careful selection of a mate (those that are the product of rape) are more likely to be sacrificed in favor of stronger candidates.16 Younger offspring are more likely to be eliminated because less time and energy has been invested in their care. Finally, younger females are more willing to sacrifice offspring with the understanding that they have a longer period of fertility remaining in comparison with older females. It has been suggested that mental illness and the disorganization that it creates may be the main factor that causes parents not to follow the trends predicted by evolution.17 Maternal filicide. Most research concerning filicide has focused on the mother and has looked at the crime from a variety of different perspectives. In 2005, Friedman, et al.,18 published an extensive analysis of the existing literature on maternal filicide. While they were able to reaffirm characteristics common to those women who committed neonaticide, it was unfortunately much harder to define the type of women who murders her infant or child. There are a number of reasons for this. Most importantly, circumstances vary greatly among the different populations of women assessed in each of the studies, depending on whether the information was gathered from general, psychiatric, or correctional populations. Also, the studies analyzed were all retrospective, and some contained a small number (n) of participants. The age of the child changes the potential for filicide as well. Despite these limitations, some general conclusions were reached. The strongest general risk factor that was identified through an analysis by Friedman, et al.,18 was a history of suicidality and depression or psychosis and past use of psychiatric services. In the general population studies (those that used administrative records including coroners' reports or national statistics), it was determined that mothers at highest risk of filicide were often socially isolated, indigent, full-time care providers who may have been victims of domestic violence themselves. Overall, those from the psychiatric population were married, unemployed, used alcohol, and had a history of being abused. Women from the correctional population were more often found to be unmarried and unemployed with a lack of social support, limited education, and a history of substance use. See Table 5 for a synopsis of this data. Although no specific study exists, the literature also supported the idea that younger children are at greater risk for fatal maltreatment (accidental filicide) while older children are more often the victims of purposeful homicide.
Risk factors for maternal filicide based on the Hatters-Friedman, et al., 18 study population
Two studies in the literature highlighted the importance of the mother's own childhood as a factor in her crime. A number of women who went on to commit filicide received inadequate mothering secondary to their own mothers being unavailable to them due to a variety of reasons including alcoholism, absence, physical or verbal abuse, or mental health problems.19 In another study, Friedman, et al.,20 reviewed the developmental histories of 39 women who were adjudicated insane following charges of filicide. They found that 38 percent had a history of physical and sexual abuse (5% were incest victims) and 49 percent were abandoned by their own mothers. These figures may represent low estimates given that some of the information about these women was unknown.
Several studies have identified certain characteristics found in mothers who commit filicide.9,15,20–23 The number of women evaluated in each study ranged from 17 to 89. The average age of the women was 29 years. Two thirds of the women were married. The victim was, on average, 3.2 years old. Many of the women had psychiatric diagnoses. A separate study indicated that those mothers who are mentally ill were generally older when they committed the filicidal act, and the children killed by these women were typically older as well.17 Based on the six studies, an average of 36.4 percent of filicidal women attempted or committed suicide. Another study showed that 16 to 29 percent of all mothers successfully commit suicide following a filicidal act.24 The most common methods of murder identified in the six studies were head trauma, drowning, suffocation, and strangulation. In addition, Rouge-Maillart, et al., made the connection that women who accidentally killed their young children during an episode of abuse shared many characteristics with mothers who commit neonaticide, including being young, poor, unemployed, single, and without a suicide attempt following the act.25
Paternal filicide. Fathers are less often considered as the perpetrators in filicide cases, and consequently, there is much less focus on them in the literature. However, they are responsible for a large portion of child murder and worthy of independent investigation. Six pertinent studies were identified in the literature.9,15,26–29 The number of men evaluated ranged from 10 to 60. According to the literature, it appears that most men were in their late 20s when the crime occurred. On average, the children were typically older than those killed by mothers. It is important to note that fathers are rarely responsible for neonaticides. It is difficult to delineate a common motive because, as with maternal filicide, the data for these studies originated from different locations. It was striking, however, that a few of the studies noted that the murder was based on the father's interpretation of the child's behavior (e.g., a father becomes jealous because the child prefers the mother).28,29
Psychosis seems to be common in men who commit filicide. Two studies from psychiatric populations found the rate of psychosis was 40 percent,27,28 while two studies from general populations found it to be about 30 percent.9,26 The rate of suicide or attempted suicide was also quite high, usually around 60 percent.15,26,27 In 40 to 60 percent of paternal filicide cases, men who murdered their children were also likely to kill or attempt to kill their spouses (familicide).15,27
Throughout the literature, fathers consistently used active and violent means, such as shooting, stabbing, hitting, dropping, squeezing, crushing, or shaking, in order to kill their children. Finally, these men were often determined to be poor, uneducated, unemployed, and lacking a social support network. In Resnick's 1969 study, he compiled data on both paternal and maternal filicide, and this data is summarized in Table 6.
A comparison of mothers and fathers who commit filicide based on Resnick's data9
Filicide by stepparents. Parenting can be challenging, and it may be even more so if the child is not the parent's own. As mentioned before, in evolutionary terms, the reward for investing the energy in raising a biological child is the opportunity to advance one's own genetic information.30 Given that stepparents do not share any genes with their stepchildren, they may be less tolerant of them.31 This may explain why two studies found that stepparents kill children at a much higher rate than biological parents.16,32 More specifically, stepfathers were roughly eight times more likely than biological fathers to kill their children, and stepmothers were almost three times more likely than biological mothers to kill their children.32 In addition, stepparents were found to be more likely to beat or bludgeon their stepchildren, whereas biological parents often shot or asphyxiated their children. The more violent actions of the stepparents may be explained as a manifestation of the hostility, resentment, and rage that they may feel toward their stepchildren.16,32
Infanticide. Despite the frequent use of the term infanticide in the literature, few studies have focused solely on child murders in the first year of life. In 1998, Overpeck, et al.,33 reviewed 2776 child homicides that occurred during the first year of life between 1983 and 1991 in the US. This study is particularly potent given the large number of cases reviewed. However, the perpetrator of the crime was not often specified in the data. The mother of the infant was often young, single, lacking prenatal care, and poorly educated. One quarter of the crimes were committed prior to the end of infant's second month of life, one half by four months and two-thirds by the end of the sixth month. Battering or assault was the most common means of death, occurring in about 60 percent of the cases.
Later that year, Brewster, et al.,34 published a smaller but more comprehensive study of infanticide. The results were based on the analysis of 32 cases of filicide followed by the United States Air Force, which were perpetrated by both mothers and fathers between 1989 and 1995. Presumably, secondary to the extensive records maintained by the military, much previously unattainable and unexplored data was presented. Nearly all (97%) of the households were composed of two parents who were living together and married (unusual and most likely a reflection of the military population). Three quarters of the crimes were committed by the biological fathers, while 17 percent were committed by the biological mothers. The average age of parent was 23.8 years old. Half of the perpetrators were first time parents. One quarter had a personal history of childhood abuse.
On average, the victim was five months old, and there was an even division between male and female children. Pediatricians noted that around one third of these infants had colic; whereas, interestingly, the mothers only felt that was the case 10 percent of the time. These infants were documented to be on the low end of normal in regard to their heights and weights. A little more than half (55%) of the children had been abused before. The most common cause of death was head injury, and on average, the infant survived approximately 8.5 days following the trauma.
Three quarters of the time, the acts were committed in the home. The perpetrator was alone during the commission of the crime 86 percent of the time. On average, the act occurred around noon. They were perpetrated equally on weekends (Saturdays and Sundays) and weekdays (Tuesday through Thursday); no crimes were committed on Monday or Friday. The incidents were evenly distributed across the months. Slightly more than half (58%) of the crimes were precipitated by the infants crying.
Neonaticide. In the literature, neonaticides stand out as very different crimes from other filicides. In 1970, Resnick6 presented the most well-known set of data regarding the murder of newborns. This was based on his evaluation of 37 cases in the world literature between 1751 and 1967. He found that the crime is most often perpetrated by a young mother who is acting alone. Frequently, the mother is unprepared for the birth of a child. She rarely has a history of mental illness. The mother is most often motivated to commit the crime because the child is unwanted, perhaps because she is not married or is married to a man who is not the father of the child. Suffocation is the most common method of death. Unlike filicide, in which 40 percent of murdering mothers come to the attention of a physician, mothers committing neonaticide rarely seek medical assistance, including prenatal care.6 See Table 7 comparing Resnick's statistics on neonaticide and filicide. Table 7
A comparison of Resnick's data on neonaticide and filicide6,9
Many of Resnick's6 findings have been corroborated in subsequent studies. Four other studies targeting neonaticide were identified in the literature.35–38 The number of women evaluated in each study ranged from 7 to 53. Three of these studies were derived from data concerning the general population, while one was based on women seen secondary to court referrals for psychiatric evaluation. The average age of the women was 21.2 years old. Few were married (11.3–20.6%), and most were nulliparous prior to the birth (65–81%).35,37 Asphyxiation, drowning, and exposure were identified as the most common means of completing the act.35,38 Three quarters to 100 percent of the women concealed or were in denial of their pregnancies.36,38
Five percent of all homicides in the first year of life (infanticides) occurred on the first day of life. Of those newborns killed, 95 percent of those were not born in a hospital.33 Given the secrecy surrounding the occasion of the child's birth, it is highly likely that some instances of neonaticide remain hidden. Denial or concealment of pregnancy is quite common in women who commit neonaticide. Passivity appears to be a trait that clearly differentiates mothers who commit these crimes from those who seek to terminate the pregnancy.39 These neonaticidal mothers expect that the problems created by the pregnancy will simply disappear, perhaps by having a miscarriage or a stillbirth. They neither make plans for the arrival of the baby nor do they anticipate harming the child.6 Once they have unexpectedly birthed a live child, the harshness of reality sets in and causes them to silence the infant's intrusion into their lives forever.
The justice system. Society's opinions about parents who kill their children are often strongly held but quite ambivalent. On one end of the spectrum, society feels justice must be served for the senseless loss of innocent lives. On the other end, even without having a full understanding of the complexities of mental illness, society believes, on some level, that something must be terribly wrong with a parent who kills his or her own child. This presents some explanation for society's mixed emotions regarding the use of the insanity plea in filicide cases.
The NGRI plea varies significantly from state to state, with some states going so far as to abolish it. All states that allow this plea require the defendant to be mentally ill. This mental illness must then cause the defendant to not be aware of the wrongfulness of the act. This can refer to legal wrongfulness, moral wrongfulness, or both. More lenient states allow the defendant to qualify for the insanity plea if they meet another criterion, the volitional arm, which means that the defendant, due to mental illness, could not resist the impulse to commit the crime. Mothers who were adjudicated NGRI were more likely to have attempted suicide and had psychotic symptoms.40
In the case of Andrea Yates, experts testifying for both the defense and the prosecution agreed that she was severely mentally ill. However, the point on which they disagreed was the issue of wrongfulness. The prosecution's expert believed that Ms. Yates was aware of the wrongfulness of the act, whereas the defense's expert stated that although she was aware of the legal wrongfulness, she had an overriding moral justification for her actions (e.g., to save the souls of her children).
Disposition. The placement of filicidal parents depends upon the outcome of their legal proceedings. Those who were determined to be NGRI are technically acquitted of the charges, though they are almost always committed to a forensic psychiatric unit until their mental illness has been properly treated. Those found guilty of murder will most likely serve their sentence in a prison. Mothers who commit filicide are much more likely to be shown mercy by the courts when compared to fathers. Men are more frequently sent to prison and executed when compared to their female counterparts.9
Treatment. Given all the variables that play a role in a parent's decision to kill a child, no clear treatment plan can be proposed. If the parent is mentally ill, treatment of the underlying illness is certainly warranted. Often after this occurs, the parent who committed the crime has a very difficult time emotionally processing the devastating event that has occurred and may require extensive counseling and/or psychotropic medications. Filicide is irreversible, and this is why prevention is so crucial.
Prevention. Various efforts had been made in the United States to decrease the number of filicides that occur, particularly those involving newborns and infants. Safe Haven laws allow parents to anonymously surrender unharmed infants to the custody of the state without legal repercussions, including being charged with child abandonment. Since the first law was proposed in Texas in 1999, safe haven laws have been introduced in 46 other states. In 1970, Resnick hypothesized that more liberal abortion laws would decrease the occurrence of neonaticide. This became a reality when the Supreme Court, in the 1973 Roe v. Wade41 decision, struck down a law banning first trimester abortions. Though not conclusive proof of this theory, one study showed that fewer neonaticides occurred in the 10 years following the decision when compared to the 10 years preceding it.42
Though it is certainly not always the case, the prevention of filicide may be achieved by physicians who interact with a patient prior to his or her commission of this devastating act. Psychiatrists have one of the best opportunities to do this when caring for mentally ill parents, and this is particularly true when psychiatrists are caring for women in the postpartum period. Andrea Yates received regular psychiatric care just prior to the murder of her children. Because of her psychotic beliefs at the time, Ms. Yates did not disclose her recurrent thoughts of harming her children. However, other patients may be willing to confide in their physicians.
A particularly challenging time in the life of parents involves the arrival of a new child, especially for women. Traditionally, the mother is expected to be the primary care giver, which can be quite difficult when her hormones are fluctuating and may have a deleterious effect on her mood or thought process. In her lifetime, a woman is at the greatest risk of developing mental illness during the postpartum period.42 Despite this, soon after the birth of their child, mothers may have considerable difficulty admitting to symptoms of mental illness given that they are expected to be happy and fulfilled. Another issue that arises in recognizing depression in new mothers is the lack of a clear definition of what postpartum illness actually is. The DSM-IV TR applies the postpartum specifier only to diagnoses made within four weeks of delivery;44 however, most clinicians would agree the postpartum period extends beyond that short period of time.
The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale is a brief rating scale that can be used to quickly screen for depression in a postpartum women.45 Because postpartum depression affects 10 to 15 percent of new mothers and recurs after 20 to 50 percent of subsequent pregnancies, screening is certainly warranted.46 If postpartum illness is particularly severe, a clinician may even recommend to a patient that she consider avoiding future pregnancies, which actually occurred in Andrea Yates's case. Even mothers who do not suffer from postpartum mental illness may experience stress to the degree that thoughts to harm their children occur. Levitzky and Cooper showed that 70 percent of mothers of infants with colic had “explicit aggressive fantasies” related to their children.47
A psychiatrist may be provided with an early opportunity for prevention of harm to an infant if he or she has the chance to interview a woman prior to giving birth. At this point, the clinician may inquire generally about the mother's attitude toward the baby or more specifically about plans for the baby during and after its arrival. This line of questioning may also include asking about thoughts to harm the baby. This may prove to be especially important if the woman indicates ambivalent or negative feelings about the pregnancy (e.g., if she has some delusional thoughts concerning the baby or if the pregnancy is unwanted).
Psychiatrists may underestimate the prevalence of filicidal thoughts, when in fact greater than 40 percent of depressed mothers with children less than three years old endorsed thoughts to harm them.48 Even if it occurs to clinicians to inquire about filicidal thoughts, they can be prevented from doing so for a number of reasons. They may feel that it will have a negative impact on the therapeutic alliance or place ideas in the heads of parents who otherwise may not have considered the notion of filicide before. It may simply be that it is a difficult topic to address with a patient secondary to the psychiatrist's own discomfort with the notion. Given the prevalence of parents who intend to commit filicide prior to their own suicides, it is important to inquire about plans for the children in parents who endorsed thoughts to harm themselves.49 Much as asking about suicidal or homicidal thoughts has become second nature for psychiatrists over time, so too should inquiring about filicidal thoughts.
Filicide is a complicated and multifactorial crime. Given its complex nature, it is difficult to establish traits that consistently apply to its perpetrators and victims. However, through careful evaluation of the existing literature, certain trends can be identified. Mothers and fathers who commit filicide are, on average, in their late 20s and typically do so with equal frequency. This differs remarkably from neonaticide, which is almost always committed by young mothers. About 35 percent of filicides committed by both mothers and fathers are associated with suicide attempts. Filicidal men and women are often socially isolated and unemployed. Mothers may have a personal history of abuse, whereas men are more likely to attempt to kill their spouse in addition to their child. Neonaticidal mothers often deny or conceal their pregnancies and usually are not mentally ill, thus they generally avoid contact with medical professionals.
Mental illness, however, clearly plays a role in other filicidal acts. Therefore, psychiatrists may have some exposure to these parents prior to the commission of the crimes. As clinicians, it is important that we ask these patients the difficult and uncomfortable questions that concern their filicide thoughts. If patients are willing to share these thoughts with their care providers, the next step involves safeguarding the parent and child through hospitalizing the parent or linking them to community resources that can provide support to overwhelmed parents. Filicide, tragically, is a permanent act, and the key to avoiding the devastating effects, for the perpetrator, the victim, and the community, is prevention.
A young man facing beheading and crucifixion in Saudi Arabia was tortured and sentenced for political reasons, according to rights groups and a source close to his family calling for a halt to his execution.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 when he was 17 years old for participating in a protest. He was later sentenced to death for joining a criminal group and attacking police forces in proceedings which a United Nations body said "fell short of international standards."
The conviction was upheld this week by Saudi Arabia's highest court, and the execution could take place at any time. Al-Nimr's family has appealed for Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz to issue a pardon during the current Muslim holiday period of Eid.
"We hope that the king will not sign [the execution order]," al-Nimr's father Mohammed told Agence France Presse, warning that his son's grisly execution could also provoke a violent reaction in the minority Shiite community.
"We don't need that, we don't need even one drop of blood," he said.
The crucifixion sentence means that al-Nimr will most likely be beheaded first and his body later displayed on a cross in a public location, according to campaigners.
The fear that al-Nimr could be executed at any time has taken a steep toll on his father and other relatives, a source close to the family told NBC News.
They are "acting like they are okay, but I know the family and they are not," the source said, adding that Ali was defiantly "dreaming about the future" and was still hoping to study psychology one day.
A group of United Nations experts on torture and capital punishment urged Saudi Arabia to halt the execution, saying that al-Nimr was a child at the time of his offense and that the proceedings against him were flawed.
"Any judgment imposing the death penalty upon persons who were children at the time of the offence and their execution, are incompatible with Saudi Arabia's international obligations," they said in a statement, citing Saudi Arabia's ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Human-rights charities Reprieve and Amnesty International claim that Ali was tortured and forced to sign a confession after being arrested.
Maya Foa, director of Reprieve's death penalty team, called Ali's fate "an outrage" and said it was "deeply troubling" that the United States and other allies of Saudi Arabia were "staying silent" over the case.
"The international community must stand firm against this utterly unjustified sentence," she said in a statement.
Repeated approaches by NBC News to the Saudi authorities for comment have not received a response.
Ali was convicted in 2014 on range of charges including being part of a terrorist organization, carrying weapons and targeting security patrols with Molotov cocktails, the charity said. Additional charges included encouraging others to protest using his BlackBerry and explaining to others how to give first aid, they added.
Reprieve said Ali raised the torture claims at trial but that no investigation took place and the court used the confession to sentence him. Ali's final appeal was held in secret, according to Reprieve.
Ali's lawyer, Dr. Saqeb Mohamed tweeted on Tuesday that the defense team had not been able to visit his client or object to the sentence, adding that he was "surprised" the court had ratified the conviction.
He also called for Saudi authorities to investigate the case.
In the wake of the March 2011 Arab Spring, thousands took to the streets to protest decades of discrimination and religious and political repression by the country's Sunni dynasty, House of Saud, which has controlled the Arabian Peninsula since the 1930s. The uprising was met with a violent crackdown from the government.
The source close to the family admitted that al-Nimr had attended demonstrations and anti-government protests in his hometown of Qatif — but that the young man was not political.
The source suggested that political "revenge" was behind the charges laid against the young man — who is the nephew of Shia cleric and activist Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, also separately facing execution.
Al-Nimr's cleric uncle was sentenced to death in a separate trial on terrorism charges and for "waging war on God" because of his speech during anti-government protests in Qatif, according to Amnesty International.
Amnesty called Sheikh al-Nimr's trial "deeply flawed" and said it was "part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those defending the rights of the Kingdom's Shia Muslim community."
There have been 134 executions in Saudi Arabia this year, compared with 90 last year, they said.
The younger al-Nimr had no ambitions to follow his uncle's footsteps, the source close to the family said — describing a normal teen, who liked motorcycles, movies and photography.
Now the family hopes his life will be spared so they could spend more time with him.
"We are praying to God," they said. "It is all we can do. We are hopeful."
Maybe the real problem is a lack of positive paths to manhood
It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. We were said to be approaching the demise of a certain type of swaggering, predatory masculinity: let’s call him Homo Obnoxious.
As men like Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Anthony Weiner, and Billy Bush scrambled unsuccessfully to find cover in the old-boy bastions of privilege, Homo Obnoxious appeared to be lumbering around like a dinosaur under the weight of his own cultural baggage. His habitat was shrinking: it seemed as if men who defined themselves by devaluing women, putting down men who didn’t think like them and treating sexual relations — and most everything else — as power-tripping performances might be ready for mounting in a Museum of Masculinity Past.
Books like Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men hailed an era in which women, and men of a different mold, would rapidly pull ahead in every arena. In The Future of Men: Masculinity in the Twenty-First Century, Jack Myers heralded a seismic shift in human relations. “We are entering a new age of female dominance and a reshaping of the male psyche, the male libido, and the male ego,” Myers wrote. “This is the new reality, and it will gain greater and greater momentum. Nothing in the history of humanity can prepare us for this newly upside-down world.”
Reality check: Homo Obnoxious is moving into the White House. The world is upside-down, but not for the reasons Myers anticipated.
The president-elect is signaling to boys across the country what it means to be a successful man. He gets more thuggish with each passing day, appointing knuckle-dragging members of his tribe to run the country. Meanwhile, alt-right dudes who cope with masculine anxiety by proclaiming superiority over women and people of color are feeling validated, enjoying influence they could hardly dream of a year ago. As one self-identified “neomasculine” blogger put it, “I’m in a state of exuberance that we now have a President who rates women on a 1-10 scale in the same way that we do and evaluates women by their appearance and feminine attitude.”
Yikes. But before we concede that toxic masculinity has suddenly reasserted itself as the dominant force in the cultural universe, let’s pause to take a breath. Let’s admit, for example, that although arenas of male experiences differ depending on where you live and how much money you have, Homo Obnoxious was never just a creature of any one party, class or region. The truth is that he is nurtured at every stage of an American boy’s journey into manhood, and without trying to understand what our society does to promote his development and how boys and men might be persuaded to reject his allure, he will continue his rampage across the land.
Let’s take a look at three breeding grounds where Homo Obnoxious cuts his teeth.
So many have a story like mine. It was a day soon after I had transferred to a new public high school in North Carolina. Two popular senior boys — baseball stars on a winning team — approached me across a crowded stair landing. I smiled, then felt rough hands shove me against the wall as the two sang obscene lyrics in my ear. That was not the last or the most violent encounter I had with Homo Obnoxious-in-training during my education.
Aggressive misogyny, of course, permeates many school sports teams, as the recent case of the men’s soccer team at Harvard illustrates. There, at America’s most hallowed university, a spreadsheet compiled by male players portraying members of the women’s team in degrading sexual terms was brought to light. A student explained the commonplace nature of the behavior to the New York Times: “I think Donald Trump is so extreme that we like to believe that these extreme incidents of sexism and discrimination are, like, isolated to him,” he said. “But it’s important to recognize that they’re just as rampant in our generation.”
Responding to recent revelations of decades-long sex abuse by both faculty and students at St. Georges, a New England prep school where Billy Bush was an ice hockey star, a former student described the warped sexual atmosphere and lack of guidance from adults in a letter to the rector of St. Paul’s, another elite prep school where a tradition of predatory sexual competition bred danger:
“I went to St. George’s School in the ’80s and am a heterosexual, success-oriented, competitive guy. I remember being self-conscious about my not getting any action while some of my male friends got tons. I felt less-than, like a loser when it came to girls and sex…Nowhere in my development …did any adult ever reinforce in me that it is all right to go at your own pace, that sex isn’t competition. The cultural norm was that sex was another place to be competitive, where you could be classified as a winner or a loser.”
Let’s think about that. When competition is the preferred mode of group interaction, it’s no wonder boys end up stuck with obsessions about the number of their sexual encounters and a tendency to degrade the objects of their pursuits.
In A Bigger Prize: Why Competition Isn’t Everything And How We Do Better, Margaret Heffernan discusses the destructive role that competition plays in American education and how it turns kids off of many potentially valuable collaborative activities. A large percentage end up not wanting to participate anything, including sports, in which being the winner or loser is everything.
Heffernan points out that if we teach kids that success is all about individual performance, they grow up to be what she calls “heroic soloists.” In relating to others, they tend to focus on what’s in it for them, suppressing the instinct to be generous or share credit or empathy. Our president-elect, steeped in the values of self-interest capitalism and competition in everything from football and beauty pageants to reality TV tournaments, is the epitome of a heroic soloist — one who has been rewarded richly in celebrity, power and money.
Teaching kids the value of creative collaboration and offering rational guidance on sexuality or gender relations at school has to be a part of cultivating a different path to manhood. American sex education, for example, if it is taught at all, often consists of either shaming abstinence lessons or alarming medical discussions of STDs and pregnancy, with little acknowledgment of the need to develop compassionate ways to express sexuality or the importance of challenging sexual stereotypes in media and culture. It doesn’t have to be that way; in a New York Times op-ed, Pamela Druckerman highlighted how topics like the complexity of love are openly discussed in French sex-ed, while Dutch teachers work to inculcate respect for people who don’t fit traditional sexual and gender molds.
If they don’t have blueprints of masculinity that allow for confidence and strength without domination in the playground and in the classroom, boys grow up thinking that a hero is somebody who is in everything solely for himself. This does not mean that we send male students to re-education boot camps, as certain right-wing pundits have warned is the true agenda of coastal elites. It means that adults take it upon themselves to guide students, whatever their sexual orientation or gender identity, in imagining ways of being men that are not destructive to themselves and others. It means not shaming them because they are male, but rather encouraging them to develop pride in characteristics and values that are socially beneficial, like putting others before themselves, honesty and strength in caring and self-restraint. That would be a start.
When I arrived at the University of Georgia in 1988, a sophomore from my hometown issued a helpful warning not to ever hook up in a certain popular fraternity house. The guys, I was informed, videotaped girls through holes in the walls and watched the tapes together on Sunday morning. This foreshadowing of the age of digital shaming and abuse was my introduction to the group norms associated with Greek life. Some misogynist rituals were performed under the radar, but others were out in the open and normalized, from parties where lists trashing women in sexual terms were posted on walls to “mixers” with sororities in which fraternity guys inscribed phalluses and misogynist phrases on the T-shirts of freshman girls.
There is nothing wrong with guys wanting to hang out, share common interests and form lasting social bonds with one another. But as young men begin to leave home, there aren’t enough opportunities for them to do this in a way that breeds healthy, socially responsible attitudes and behavior. Beyond the sports field, college fraternities are another place where antisocial activity is too often the norm, a lot of it targeting women. The “Animal House” frat image grounded in the degradation of women, based on fraternity life at Dartmouth in the 1960s, has been ascendant for decades, linking manliness to out-drinking peers and egging them on in sexual exploits. (Was Donald Trump in a fraternity? Of course: he was a Phi Gam at Fordham.)
The negative image is based in reality. On alcohol consumption, a U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Center survey shows that 75 percent of fraternity members engaged in heavy drinking, compared with 49 percent of other male students. Some — including many college presidents — have argued that since the drinking age was raised to 21, alcohol consumption has gone undercover, causing students to associate drinking with transgression and pushing it far from the supervision of older adults and more open social events. Lowering the drinking age, they suggest, might bring alcohol back into a more normalized atmosphere where students mix with older adults in supervisory roles, thus obviating the need for secretive binge-drinking and its attendant hazards and regression.
Some say fraternities should accept girls, and in a few cases, colleges have banned frats altogether, arguing that they are obsolete. At Amherst in Massachusetts, where fraternities were prohibited in 2014, students and faculty have discussed ways to create social groups that get rid of some of the destructive things associated with fraternities while providing the cohesiveness and sense of belonging that make them attractive, like residential communities with selective membership centered around a particular theme.
This is all well and good, but how likely is it to spread into regions of the country far flung from elite coastal universities? Places where fraternities have emerged as a way of attracting less affluent students to college with the promise of bonding and bacchanalia, to be translated into fundraising dollars after graduation?
College men — and young men who don’t go to college —need to have positive narratives that allow them to feel good about being men and being men together. Challenging sexual assault is important, but they need to learn much more than “no means no”: they need guidance in emotional honesty and intimacy, the challenges of navigating relationships and masculine ideals to strive for in which cultivating large numbers of women as hookups and drinking into oblivion are not the marks of masculine status. Beyond this, they need to see that life offers them more than the prospect of being a loser in the workforce that awaits them when schooling is done, and they also need opportunities to see that work in areas like caregiving, for example, are rich in positive masculine values. When a male nurse can be viewed as stronger and sexier than a Wall Street parasite, we will have gotten somewhere.
Popular culture reflects a hunger for a vision of masculinity that rejects Homo Obnoxious. Jesse Pinkman, the young meth cook in the TV series Breaking Bad, illustrates the despair of recession-era young men without decent job prospects who search for status, meaning, and self-worth. There’s a lot wrong with Jesse, but in his evolution as a character we see his growing resolve to form intimate, caring bonds with the women in his life and the men in his posse, too. The blockbuster franchise Fast and Furious shows the need for even the most testosterone-driven men — racecar drivers in this case — to develop respect and lasting relationships with the men and women in their social group.
These fictional guys hunt for alternatives to a brutal, global capitalist system that casts them as losers. They want to find the dignity that dissolves when we mire them in student debt, consign them to dead-end jobs and say, Oh well, globalization happens. If we continue to do this, they will bond together in ways that can quickly become dangerous to society as a whole, and they will look for outsider narratives that offer something more that the empty promise of upward mobility currently on offer from politicians who think that the paltry social safety net and worker protections currently in place are over-generous (politicians from both major parties). Sometimes, in the case of the white supremacist groups that have begun to creep out of the woodwork, that something will be very scary.
There has been a lot of recent research on how online porn and video games are helping to inculcate alienation and destructive patterns in boys and young men. Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s book Man (Dis)Connected): How Technology has Sabotaged What it Means to be Male provides insight onto how Homo Obnoxious gets his brain wired.
Zimbardo discusses how young male brains can become shaped at a cellular level in ways that inhibit their social development through excessive time spent on gaming and porn, even losing their ability to read the social cues of face-to-face contact. Many, he points out, are drawn to these realms as a seemingly safe and easy way to gain a sense of achievement that may not be available in the winner-take-all competition of school and the workforce. These virtual worlds are tailored to provide an addictive system of goals and rewards that produce guys who are afraid of intimacy. They end up eschewing real-world experiments that might result in rejection, and real-time spontaneity that leaves them disoriented and frightened. Drained of self-confidence, they search for narratives of manhood that provide at least the simulacrum of power and dignity.
Some go on to find self-help, intellectual and political forums online collectively termed “the manosphere.” Some of this has merged with the recently designated “alt-right.” In the more benign forums, we find guys like mild-mannered Brian Begin, co-founder of Fearless Man website, who invites guys to join a brotherhood of men who have learned the secret of confidence and self-love. A shy video gamer who found himself working in a miserable office cubicle and unable to talk to women, Begin eventually threw away his games and launched a self-help journey that revealed to him he needed to learn to “feel” — to experience emotions at a deep, visceral level and connect to others despite fear of rejection. Although Begin’s quest for dignified masculinity rests in part on the fantasy of making piles of money and dating beautiful women, his hunger for self-esteem and the experience of genuine emotion seems real, as does his impulse to see women as something other than a collection of body parts. He doesn’t want to be a nervous “beta” male, and while much of his rhetoric is traditionalist and half-baked, he is on to something in pointing to the critical need for connection. In his workshops, the first thing he does is to hug the men who participate.
Unfortunately, much in the manosphere openly promotes the far more noxious stuff, like sexual predation in the pickup community, where guys give each other creepy tips on “mind-controlling” women and duping them into sex. Other sites, like Mensactivism, boil with anger at feminists and take a paranoid stance against what they imagine is an epidemic of false rape claims and women who will take advantage of them at every opportunity. Mensactivism buzzes with articles like “Men are the downtrodden sex” and blogs expressing hope that a Trump presidency “could radically change colleges’ response to sexual assault.” In these sites, loneliness and fear are vented as rage — the rage that comes when people don’t know what to do with their suffering.
Yet for all the bluster and bullying on such sites, you don’t have to dig far to find clues to what is bothering these young men so profoundly at their core. The blogger who likes Trump’s rating system for women asks a series of questions in a meditation on so-called neomasculinity, which despite its name, is mostly a throwback to outdated myths of male superiority: “What code of morality or principles should guide men in their daily lives? Is there a deeper life meaning that can help us set better goals?” The answers he comes up with may be bitter and sad, but the questions themselves are not stupid, and they point to a lack of compass to give direction. Online, the lost boys find each other, making up the missing codes themselves out of a mixture of bravado, hurt and bitterness.
The road ahead
When I sat down to write this article just after Trump’s election, I felt angry and confused swallowing the reality that the country is going to be led by a man who brags about sexual assault. But gradually, I’ve come to feel something else, a sense that the Trump election may in part be a sign that a giant population of American men — particularly the Trump voters but also men across regions and classes — are in turmoil, and that most are looking for a way out. If we simply shout them down and disparage them, we can be pretty sure that the worst among them, the already-committed members of Tribe Homo Obnoxious, will gain strength, not lose it. Some are likely already too far down the road of hate for redemption, but I believe these are a small minority. The rest are struggling, watching, looking for signs, searching for stories that might give them a sense of a more positive path ahead.
Over Thanksgiving, I attended Sunday services at a conservative Southern Baptist megachurch in Raleigh, North Carolina, partly because I wanted to hear and see for myself what men in that context were thinking and talking about it — men who were the most likely in town to have voted for Trump. If I were to believe the assumptions of some of my liberal friends in New York, where I currently live, they would be spewing racial hatred, misogyny and homophobia — a seething collection of “toothless rednecks,” as one New Yorker put it on my Facebook page.
That’s not what I heard. The sermon was delivered by a young minister with the demeanor of a kindly basketball coach, one who was not afraid of emotions and wept at times as he spoke. His message, it seemed to me, was tailored to deliver balm to the heart of hurt manhood. God was the benign father and Christ was a brother — even a lover — who valued those gathered so deeply he would give his life for them. Men were presented as the ones who went out into the world while moms stayed home, a 1950s trope to be sure, but they were also asked to give up their self-centeredness, their narcissism. The minister urged them to see power as something that could be used to confront their own shortcomings, to serve and protect others. The solo adventurer was not vaunted here. Trump was not the emblem of the kind of masculinity valued here.
As much as I reject his outdated gender framework, the minister appeared a man with whom I shared some basic concerns—about the allure of consumerism, for example. He was not an alien, but a person trying to confront the ills of modern society, many of which bother me as much as him, though our emphasis and answers are different.
Men are confused, and how could they not be? Ever since the 1950s brought women into the workforce en masse, and the Pill released them from reproductive shackles in the ‘60s, a profound change in human relations has been happening in painful fits and starts. In the grand scheme of history, a few decades is an incredibly short amount of time to adjust to such a cataclysm. No wonder we’re still flailing about trying to figure out how to cope. Identity, expectations, culture and hormones are a complex dance. Social construction is a dynamic process, and hardly linear.
And let’s face it: Hillary Clinton’s election was not likely to bring a great gender renaissance in America, or any kind of renaissance for that matter. If Clinton were on her way to the White House, there is much reason to believe that ordinary men — and women— would see little improvements in their lives. That would be the case as long as those in charge are stuck in paradigms of dysfunctional capitalism and neoliberal blindness. Anger would continue to fester, and many working-class white men, in particular, would become even more entrenched in their reactionary rage.
As America’s boys see Trump acting out, some will feel their own worst instincts validated. But for others, the idea of “being a man” might mean distancing themselves from his kind of behavior. I do believe that men—and women—are less likely to assert power by denigrating and dominating others when they have a sense of real agency in their lives. It may not be helpful to talk about the end of men, or the rising dominance of women, but rather to remember that for all of us—men, women and transgender—our ability to manifest prosocial behavior depends a lot on having a sense of power and purpose in our lives. Growing inequality, the gig economy, strangling oligopolies, widespread poverty, a shrinking middle class, and government policies geared to appease the rich do not promote this outcome.
For those who reject Donald Trump, figuring out how to achieve a better life for everyone in our society instead of condemning “deplorables” is, in my opinion, a more productive way to go. The co-creation of a more peaceful and fulfilling world requires our most dedicated efforts in imagination, connection and listening to those who do not share our particular vision. Homo Obnoxious will only have the last word if we forget our common humanity.
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