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Men who kill their families and the invisibility of masculinity in news reporting

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During the run up to Christmas and into the New Year, our attention in the UK was brought several times to what worryingly seemed like a recurring story in the press about a man who had just murdered members of his family.

The first version of the story in December took the form of a newly unemployed policeman -Tobias Day- who killed his wife, his six-year-old daughter and seriously injured his two other children before then killing himself.

Then came the death of Natalie O'Donoghue two days later, her Uncle being arrested on the scene.

Around the same time, less than one hundred miles away, another man kills his wife and two sons before taking his own life.

On Christmas day itself, a woman was found stabbed to death, her husband charged with her murder.

Then, on New Year's Day evening after returning from the pub where he had been with his partner and extended family, 42 year old Michael Atherton shot and killed his partner, her sister Alison Turnbull and his niece before turning the shotgun on himself.

And finally on the 14th of January yet another woman and her daughter are found dead, with her partner and the girl's father in police custody.

Here are six men murdering members of their families in the space of six weeks. These of course are only the cases that are being reported, and only those that I have seen. In fact, on average in the UK alone two women are killed every week by a current or former partner (Povey, (ed.), 2005; Home Office, 1999; Department of Health, 2005.)

The heightened degree of media coverage these stories received may be due to the fact that the Christmas period is so associated with family that the idea of men murdering their families at this time of year is somehow more shocking or upsetting. The truth is that it should come as no great surprise that domestic violence continues to occur at Christmas just as it does throughout the rest of the year. In fact police forces in numerous areas of the UK predict rises in domestic violence during the Christmas period with the extra stresses and anxieties that Christmas brings and the fact that people spend more time in the home, being cited as reasons for the expected increase.

However, what is perhaps more out of the ordinary in the cases reported in the last six weeks is the fact that half of them are incidences of men killing members of their families -sometimes their whole family- before taking their own lives.

Such cases are rare, but common enough for trends to be recognised amongst incidents of familicide/murder-suicide. The National Institute of Justice in the US held a seminar around 18 months ago entitled 'Men Who Murder Their Families: What the Research Tells Us'. At this event speakers suggested that such perpetrators are not as like other men who are violent or abusive to their partners or children as one may think. “These atypical cases are not the possessive, controlling husbands [that are responsible for much domestic violence]” but rather they are the result of a radical change in someone’s circumstances that is often coupled with an ‘overenmeshment’ of the perpetrator into his family.

‘Overenmeshment’, as Richard Gelles of the University of Pennsylvania puts it, is a condition in which perpetrators either view "their family members as possessions that they control or [they] don't see any boundaries between their identity, their wife and their children”. This is an attitude that obviously stems from the values found in traditional/hegemonic masculinity which finds much of its identity in the control over and ownership of women and children.

What is incredible is that any discussion of masculinity’s role in these killings has been completely absent in the UK press over these past six weeks. With such awful crimes being committed with such frequency as well as occupying a large media presence it really should be a wonder that there’s been a complete lack of reflection in the public consciousness.

In the UK we are currently in the midst of the Leveson Inquiry, a judicial inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the media in the UK following the Murdoch press hacking scandal. In effect, from several incidences of phone hacking for journalistic purposes, the public appetite for answers has resulted in a lengthy and thorough inquiry with as broad a remit as the culture, practices and ethics of the media.

While it not comparable in any direct way, it remains a valid question to ask why, from several incidences of men murdering their partners and children before killing themselves, there has been no talk of an inquiry into the practices and ethics of a culture within which such horrendous crimes are committed. The fact is that traditional or hegemonic masculinity remains largely invisible to many, even to those who would scrutinise the context within which racially motivated violence occurs or some other such crime with a clear cultural dimension. The more that we as men speak out about such oversights; the less invisible hegemonic masculinity will become when similar killings are reported and discussed, and the wider social importance of such changes should not be underestimated.