The confused role of the modern father

Some fathers cannot recognise their children other than as extensions of themselves
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The Independent Online

Claude Mubiangata killed his four children and himself on Saturday by setting fire to the parked car they were in. At his home, a friend found letters to his estranged wife, Chantalle, and to his younger brother. The letter to his wife asked her to "forgive me for everything I have done" and said that he was "giving you freedom to do your thing and look after your sister's kids because I am taking mine with me".

Claude Mubiangata killed his four children and himself on Saturday by setting fire to the parked car they were in. At his home, a friend found letters to his estranged wife, Chantalle, and to his younger brother. The letter to his wife asked her to "forgive me for everything I have done" and said that he was "giving you freedom to do your thing and look after your sister's kids because I am taking mine with me".

These five terrible deaths, early evidence suggests, came about six or seven months after the breakup of the couple's marriage, which itself appears to be linked to Mrs Mubiangata's sister's move from Africa to Britain. But whatever the particular details of this awful crime, the general pattern of this atrocity is no less familiar for its rarity.

A bleak little list has grown in recent years of men who have killed their children, themselves and sometimes their partners when faced with their family's breakdown. Almost a year ago, Police Constable Karl Bluestone killed his wife and two of his four children, then himself, during a catastrophic flashpoint in a disintegrating marriage. In 2000, Frank Fairless smothered his two children then hanged himself during a weekend custody visit.

The year before, after his marriage broke up, David Price killed himself and two children with carbon monoxide in a car. In the same year, Alexander Lumsden strangled his partner, smothered their two children, and committed suicide after he learned of her intention to leave him for another man.

In all of these cases, and in that of Claude Mubiangata, those who knew the perpetrators of these murder/suicides stress how deep the bond was between father and children. These men seem driven to their appalling deeds by above all else a frightening, pathological love for their children for which they have been unable to find a healthy and nurturing outlet.

Sometimes the perpetrators survive while their children do not. Leonard Hurst, who had recently broken up with his girlfriend, was found in the car where their daughter had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. He was jailed for five years for manslaughter. Some years before, Wayne Skerton, whose marriage had also broken up, was discovered alive in his car, alongside one dead son and one who lived. He was jailed for four years for manslaughter.

These are not punitive sentences, and they suggest that there is a great deal of understanding and sympathy for the men who cannot separate the fates of their children from their own thoughts of suicide. Certainly the men who commit such crimes must be considered to be suffering from mental illness.

Psychiatrists who deal with such cases talk of a toxic combination of high anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. The father becomes suicidal, but cannot bear to leave his children. His bleak world view leads him to believe the world too hostile a place for his children to thrive in. He may convince himself that by taking their lives he is in fact behaving altruistically, and that in his situation he has no alternative.

Yet at the same time suicide is generally looked upon as, ultimately, a selfish act, which is part of the reason it has so many religious and cultural taboos around it. The idea that, as Mr Mubiangata put it, "I am taking mine with me" seems to suggest a truly monstrous selfishness, an inability to see his children as people rather than possessions.

There is a real sense in these crimes that the fathers cannot recognise their children as anything more than extensions of themselves. A suicidal mother might deny herself the luxury of ending her life because she cannot bear to leave her children. In child murder-parental suicide cases, almost always involving fathers, the solution to the same conundrum is to end the lives of the children as well. These rare but regular instances of filicide/suicide by men should also be looked at in a context in which suicide is widely prevalent, and rising, among men. Women, generally, are far less likely to resort to suicide, just as they are far less likely to resort to murder/suicide.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that there is a deeply nasty and vengeful aspect to such actions too. Mr Mubiangata's baleful suggestion that his wife can now have "freedom to do your thing and look after your sister's kids" is a cruel piece of reproachful irony.

His suggestion is surely that Mrs Mubiangata is somehow the architect of her children's loss, and that at some level he is doing what she wants. Above all, while he asks for forgiveness for himself, it is clear that he wants his wife to bear all the guilt and to suffer as much as is possible. This awful ambition he has certainly achieved.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it is in the cases where the children – but not the mother – is killed, that the vengefulness is most apparent. But sometimes the desire for vengeance plays no part in a family man's desire to obliterate that family. Robert Mochrie killed his wife and his four children, then hanged himself after his Welsh hotel business had failed. Peter Stafford, a window cleaner, faced with mounting debt and the loss of a vital contract, behaved in an almost identical fashion the year before. The terrible decisions made by these men are clearly born of an inverted wish to protect. Their madness is driven by their desire to be old-fashioned breadwinners. Because these crimes are free of other motives such as sexual jealously, it is easier to see these men and their families as victims of their own exacting expectations of what a father should do for his family.

It is perhaps worth noting that these ghastly expressions of male attachment to family and home are a nightmarish mirror-image of the widely held view in today's society of men as feckless husbands and fathers, insufficiently attached to their partners or their children.

For these men the attachment is too insufferably great, to the point where they don't understand where their own identities end and their family's identities begin. Their predicaments suggest that there is huge insecurity and confusion among fathers in the late-capitalist, post-feminist West about what it is to be a man.

There was a spate of similar killings in the Netherlands during the 1990s, which prompted much soul-searching in the Dutch media. Some commentators suggested that part of the problem was that in Holland, as in this country, fathers in relationship breakdowns were treated in the eyes of the law as being of far smaller relevance than mothers. This was not argued as a causal factor. The point was simply that if mothers were denied access to their children in the way that fathers were, the gender divide for such crimes would be different.

I don't think that is necessarily the case, especially since childless young men are disproportionately suicidal in Britain anyway. But I do think it is a result of the dreadful imbalance in the message of expectation that men receive. On the one hand, the lack of role models for boys is bemoaned as a reason for failure at school and early criminality. But on the other, it is constantly suggested in family courts that men are of marginal importance to a child's development in most aspects beyond the financial.

What we desperately need to do is decide how important we really think fathers are. It is a further tragedy of the Mubiangata case that the actions of this man will further demonise fatherhood and fathers, when what is desperately needed is a far more positive reassessment of this vital parenting role.