Why do men kill their children?

This most tragic, illogical crime begs a vital question.

WE WILL never know for sure what went on in Stephen Carter's mind as he killed his three children at the weekend. Lucy, aged seven, Thomas, aged four, and three-year-old Holly died in the family car. It appears that they were drugged before Mr Carter set the car alight. Then he hanged himself from a nearby tree. Suddenly, a family had been wiped out, leaving the mother, Teresa Carter, to live with her terrible loss. Mrs Carter has been left utterly powerless, with no possibility of setting matters right and, because her husband is also dead, no chance of thoroughly understanding why he killed their children.

The danger is that the rush to explain will lead to blame being settled upon the bereaved, who are already overburdened Psychobabbling is entertaining, but it can be dangerous. Those who lose family through a suicide are much more likely than the average person to kill themselves. We need to bear Mrs Carter's welfare closely in mind.

Yet you can already see the story being constructed in terms which say that everything would have been all right had Mrs Carter been a loyal wife. A tragedy is fast being turned into a morality tale.

Mrs Carter had left the family for a year, then had become reconciled only seven weeks ago. Her husband apparently feared that she was about to leave again. That must have been very distressing for him. But it is worth remembering that it is commonplace for women and, indeed, men, to be left alone with their children, deserted by their partners. They usually survive. Suicide and murder rarely follow. So to understand why everything turned out so terribly wrong in this case, you need to know the complex psychological details of this particular family, this particular man.

This is also true of other cases, for although such instances of mass killing are unusual, they happen with some regularity. In February, Kenneth McKay slit his throat after knifing his two children, while their mother screamed for help. McKay died. The children survived. The couple had had a long history of domestic disputes and had split up some months before.

In January, Paul Madin, a 37-year-old mechanic from Derbyshire, died in a burning car with his two children, a month after his partner had left him. Mr Madin had been depressed and had talked of suicide. When passers-by tried to pull him from the burning vehicle, he pushed them aside.

We may never discover the secrets of such tragedies, but it is possible to resolve one paradox: how can a man love his children, and yet kill them? There are many possible reasons for such extreme action. There was, for example, once a patient at Scotland's maximum-security hospital in Carstairs, who had suffered a "pathological sense of altruism". He killed his family after developing an acute sense of the danger that they faced in the world. He perceived killing them as an act of kindness.

The man eventually recovered, and then had to deal with the horror of what he had done.

"A man might see himself as the lone protector of his children against a powerful and evil threat," explains Avi Shmueli, a marital psychotherapist at London's Tavistock Marital Studies Institute. A deranged mind may well identify the loss of a mother and wife, or the break-up of a family, as just such a threat, he says.

"The father may feel that he could in some way immortalise himself and his children - put them beyond harm and hurt - by dying himself, after taking their lives."

It may come as a surprise to some people that a man can become so intensely involved with his children as this, especially given the conventional wisdom that fathers tend to be marginal figures in families. But Avi Shmueli is unsurprised : "A father can feel just as much as a mother about his children. Those feelings may not be as accessible but they can be just as intense."

However, you cannot escape the truth that killing a child is also a highly aggressive act, in particular towards the mother.

"It can be an act of huge anger. The father has taken away her power, leaving her with nothing she can do," explains Shmueli. So why, you wonder, don't men in these circumstances kill their wives instead of their children?

"There may be a very good reason," he says. "It could be that the man realises that if he kills his wife he will end up in jail for life and he will lose his children. So that is no solution if he is trying to protect them. There is something about killing them and himself which means that he both hurts the person he thinks can damage them, and places all of them beyond being hurt ever again."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

photography
Arts and Entertainment
Adolf Hitler's 1914 watercolour 'Altes Rathaus' and the original invoice from 1916

art
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

    Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

    Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
    The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

    The young are the new poor

    Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
    Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

    Greens on the march

    ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

    Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

    Through the stories of his accusers
    Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

    The Meaning of Mongol

    Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible