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
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture