“Family Annihilators”: Understanding What Drives Fathers to Kill

A new paper analyzing "family annihilators" in Britain breaks down these murderers into four basic types

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It’s among the most heartbreaking of crimes — a father, often struggling with psychological problems, kills his family and himself. Now researchers have created a detailed taxonomy of such “family annihilators” that they hope will lead to a better comprehension of how dangerous family situations might be identified before they become deadly.

On Nov. 1, 2006, Mohammed Riaz set fire to a house in Lancashire, England. Five people were inside: his wife, whom he had left Pakistan to wed in an arranged marriage, and his four daughters, who had become increasingly Westernized. The only family member not at home at the time was his son, who died of cancer six weeks later. Riaz was pulled from the fire but soon succumbed to his injuries; the post-mortem investigation revealed he was a secret alcoholic, which was against his Muslim religion.

In their paper published in the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, British criminologists investigated cases like the Riaz killing in order to analyze what drives fathers who murder their families — so-called “family annihilators”– and to develop a classification system for these men. “As criminologists we were aware of individual cases of family annihilation,” Birmingham City University sociologist Elizabeth Yardley says in an email discussing the study. “So we wanted to explore a sample of cases to try and develop a better understanding of this phenomenon, to look at the bigger picture.” Though such men have been considered among mass murderers in previous studies, the researchers say their motives haven’t been examined closely enough.

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The picture that emerged shows that men who kill their families were most likely to commit their crimes on Sundays and in August, times when children are typically out of school. The most common method was stabbing; the second was carbon monoxide poisoning. More than half of the men were in their 30s and more than 80% committed or tried to commit suicide after killing their children. While previous research found that “annihilators” are often characterized by failure, most of the men in the current sample were employed — and had jobs ranging from surgeon to librarian to taxi driver.

Yardley and her team deduced a primary motive for each father’s actions; among the immediate answers to why they did what they did, family breakup was the most common, ahead of financial difficulties and “honor killings,” in which “the father was reported to have felt shamed by the actions of his family.” The most unifying feature among the 59 killers was a perceived threat to their masculinity and a desire to exert power or control.  “The family is in a very precarious position,” Yardley says. “Should ‘the family’ as he knows it change due to internal or external factors, this has serious implications for his sense of self.”

The researchers identified their subjects through Nexis archives, using British newspaper articles published between 1980 and 2012. To qualify as a subject, a man had to deliberately set out to kill his children; he did not have to kill his partner or himself, though that was often the case. “The most important finding from our research is that male ‘family annihilators’ are a distinct type of murderer,” Yardley says. “These are the small number of fathers for whom the family has become dangerously pivotal to their identities as men.” While conceding that newspaper articles might paint an incomplete picture of family dynamics, the researchers argue that media accounts contain an abundance of telling interviews with survivors, while coverage among multiple newspapers helps solidify the available data.

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The newspaper accounts of 59 cases contained enough information for the researchers to classify family annihilators into four types of men: what they called self-righteous, anomic, paranoid and disappointed.

The “self-righteous” men were those who defined themselves as breadwinners and were devastated by losing that identity, often after breaking up with their spouse. After a family split, the researchers believe some decide to exact revenge through murder, blaming their actions on ex-partners who they see as responsible for the change. “The self righteous family annihilator … engages in a dramatic performance of his domineering, masculine identity,” they write, providing the example of a man who picked up his kids on Father’s Day, filled the car with deadly amounts carbon monoxide and tried to trick his wife into setting off an explosive device.

“Disappointed” fathers like Riaz felt that the family had let them down, dashing their expectations and destroying whatever he desired from the familial relationships. The word anomic describes a state in which social norms are absent; those subjects viewed their families as economic indicators or a means of displaying economic success. And if the father failed financially, the researchers say, “the family becomes obsolete,” as in the case of a millionaire who killed his family after falling millions of dollars into debt. The “paranoid” father likely has mental health issues and believes that there is some external threat to the family; he might, for instance, be willing to kill his children because he so feared losing them in a custody battle with his ex-wife.

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What’s troubling, says Yardley, is that the trend of family annihilation in Britain is becoming more visible and may be on the rise. But better understanding of this crime and the factors that contribute to it may eventually help prevent such cases. In the meantime, she and her team are turning their attention to 12 other post-1980 cases of family annihilation in Britain they did not include in this study–those perpetrated by the mother.